Dilemmas are nothing new in Oscar country
Now that the pre-Oscar season has drawn to a close, and even the winners have grown bored with the rituals of self-congratulation, it’s time to confront a nagging reality: There is no “best picture” for 2013.We’ve got a dilemma, Hawk. But you’re a second-generation Academy president so you realize that dilemmas are nothing new in Oscar country. And there’s a perfectly sound solution at hand — albeit one that would make some of your change-averse colleagues distinctly uncomfortable. First, about the pictures: I’m not arguing that this was a disappointing year in film — far from it. It’s just that the movies were wildly disparate in style and subject matter. Hence, the messages sent forth by voters of the various guilds and critics groups have been downright confusing. Talk to Academy voters, Hawk, and you realize that there were a lot of bests this year. “Lincoln” was surely the best historical drama, “Silver Linings Playbook” the best psychodrama, “Zero Dark Thirty” the best political thriller, “Argo” the best suspense film (and satire), “Amour” the best geriatric love story, “Les Miserables” the best musical and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” the best bayou fantasy drama. The same for “Life of Pi” and “Django Unchained.” As a longstanding Academy voter, I find it downright absurd to vote that one “best” was “bester” than another, since they were all brilliantly successful given their artistic objectives. This situation has surely existed in previous years, Hawk, but this year it seems particularly extreme and the solution is not that complex: The Academy should announce the voting tallies. Academy hierarchs in the past have argued furiously against revealing vote totals on the grounds that the data would undermine the impact of the vote. On the other hand, Hawk, is President Obama any less presidential because we know his vote totals? If we knew the numbers this year, we would understand what percentage of Academy voters believe that an achievement in historical drama like “Lincoln” should be valued more than a film dealing with emotional turmoil, like “Silver Linings.” That would help us admire the entire field of entries while, at the same time, understanding the valuations of the professionals in the Academy. On a personal level, Hawk, all of us can remember ulcerating over that final choice in past years as we filled out our ballots. The films of Steven Spielberg, oddly enough, have figured into many of those trials of indecision. In 1998 I cast an impulsive vote for “Shakespeare in Love” over “Saving Private Ryan” — it seemed somehow exhilarating to vote for an underdog that clearly couldn’t win. It won. There was even an earlier Spielberg nailbiter in 1982, when Oscar voters rallied behind “Gandhi” over “ET” — I cast my vote for Spielberg. And here we go again. Spielberg’s erudite, superbly acted, “Lincoln” clearly had Oscar written all over it. So why are so many of us pondering this year’s dark horses? Maybe this is why the early returns have been baffling. Kathryn Bigelow or Ben Affleck may win an Oscar for producing but not for directing; (Directors Guild members disagreed with the Academy directors branch and nominated both). “Lincoln” won the most Oscar nominations this year but the Producers Guild liked “Argo” as best picture and SAG picked it for best ensemble, its top prize. So tell us the numbers, Hawk. Then we can all have the satisfaction of knowing how many voters favored music or laughs or history or just cinematic art. We will all dutifully admire the winner and pay proper homage. Filmgoers around the world will reward the winner by dutifully buying tickets. The thank-you speeches will be just as tearful (and excessive). But we can all have the satisfaction of saying, “I get it.” Give it a thought, Hawk. It’s time for change. ‘Zero’ sum game The most jarring intrusion into the Oscar process this year stemmed from the decision of three senators to demand changes in “Zero Dark Thirty.” Sources at Sony are dubious whether the imbroglio resulting from this demand is having any impact on box office (the film seems headed for a $100 million domestic gross) but arguably it has become a factor in the Oscar dialogue. According to sources, Sony executives never even remotely considered changing the film to meet the senators’ criticisms, but many in the creative community were appalled that three high-ranking senators would make implied threats (Sony distributed the film in the U.S. but did not finance its production.) After an initial period of silence, the company has started to put out statements reminding Oscar voters that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta considers “Zero” “a great movie” and that Martin Sheen has disavowed reports quoting him as advising Oscar voters to “shun” the movie. At issue, of course, is the efficacy and morality of torture in pursuing the war on terror. Kathryn Bigelow, the director, and Mark Boal, the writer and producer, have made it clear that they personally condemn the use of torture under any circumstances. In their view, the film performs a service in bringing the issue to the fore. Nonetheless, Sens. McCain, Feinstein and Levin attacked the film because it suggested that “advanced interrogation” techniques might have been effective in eliciting intelligence on the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden. (Ironically, the Israeli documentary, “The Gatekeepers,” also deals with the issue of torture, which technically is illegal in Israel.) While the Intelligence Committee failed to alter the content of the film, its members implied that there would be an ongoing investigation relative to information that may or may not have been supplied the filmmakers by the CIA. Should the film have been more aggressive in persuading audiences that torture is both immoral and ineffective? The filmmakers defend their insistence on ambiguity — nothing is black and white in real life, so why should it seem that way in movies? Whether any of this matters to Oscar voters remains to be seen.