Awards season brings out the worst in everyone
With ballots streaming out this week, it’s already clear that the awards season brings out the worst in everyone. The campaign circuit leaves stars feeling exploited, reporters feeling compromised and studios feeling manipulated.While stars and filmmakers compete for kudos, I feel some recognition should also be accorded to those critics whose exuberant quotes contribute most to the process. Thanks to new Academy rules, the season’s cordiality quotient has been eliminated. Gone are the parties where prospective nominees are saluted while the wine and hors d’oevres flow (only the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. still lives like bon vivants). Instead that dubious institution known as the Q&A has gone viral with stars and filmmakers summoned to pitch their wares at SAG “conversations” or Academy gatherings or random screenings. The entertainment value of the typical Q&A is doomed from the start because respondents have no intention of answering questions. They are there to recite their talking points and then shove off to the next meeting. The process is bogus anyway, giving undue advantage to the skilled talkers. Last year, for example, pitted George Clooney (“The Descendants”) against Demian Bichir (“A Better Life”) — talk about a rigged matchup. This year may find Tom Hooper (“Les Miserables”), who can come across as wooden, against Tarantino or Spielberg, who are world-class spinmeisters. Also in the contest will be Kathryn Bigelow, who has the proverbial advantage of being the only female contender and whose film (“Zero Dark Thirty”) is focused on a woman. Still, the attractive but inaccessible Bigelow tends to regard every question as a potential intrusion into national security, which makes for short answers and dull Q&As. None of the contests this year shapes up as easy to call. Voters will surely disagree on “Flight” vs. “Lincoln,” but if Denzel Washington decides to rise to the challenge he could upset the oddsmakers with a vastly more compelling program of interviews than those of Daniel Day-Lewis. The one rule about Oscar campaigns is that anything can happen. Last year Michel Hazanavicius arrived in town with a silent movie as well as a language problem. He turned both to his advantage. Some celebrities, of course, prefer to abstain. Alfred Hitchcock used to relish personal appearances, but Anthony Hopkins, who played him this year (“Hitchcock”), wishes to remain above the fray. David Fincher two years ago declined to push “The Social Network” and Woody Allen, of course, is famous to abstaining. My own view of kudo campaigns is admittedly skewed because I experience them from three different points of view — as an Academy voter, a columnist and a TV interviewer. On all three levels this year seems more intense and less personally engaging. It’s as though the key players were instructed to “stand up and make a case for yourself.” All this tends to discourage the playful surprises of years past. Some of my most substantive and enjoyable on-camera interviews were with Jennifer Lawrence and Michelle Williams, from whom I expected little — both are very gifted free spirits. On the other hand, try chatting with Joaquin Phoenix, even when he’s not stunting it up. I cannot imagine what the awards circuit must seem like to a kid like Quvenzhane Wallis (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”) or an outsider like Emayatzy Corinealdi (“Middle of Nowhere”). Surely, Michel Hazanavicius should make himself available to deliver some coaching lessons. Heavy traffic in gush hour This season’s clear winner is Peter Travers, whose orgasmic quotes seem to adorn almost every Oscar campaign. I don’t think of Rolling Stone as a key player on the film scene, but Travers’ presence is ubiquitous. And the studios love him. Hence “The Life of Pi” is “magnificent and moving … You don’t just watch this movie, you live it.” “Lincoln” is “a great American movie. A brilliant epic.” As for “Skyfall”: “This is Bond like you’ve never seen him before. … Wow.” In “Hitchcock,” “Hopkins and Mirren are acting giants.” And “Flight” “soars.” “Denzel washington’s performance is a triumph.” I hope Travers has his blood pressure checked at season’s end.