Accepting the Cinema Audio Society’s Filmmaker Award last week, helmer Taylor Hackford mused, “When I watch the Academy Awards, the Oscar for Best Sound always goes to the ‘boom!’ movies. Boom! Boom! The sound effects that win always have the loudest explosions.”
He went on to acknowledge that it might not be a popular opinion, and reassured the assembled sound specialists, “I don’t think it shows the subtleties of what you do. The problem is, subtlety doesn’t win.”
Hackford has a point, especially considering most recent winners in those categories: “The Hurt Locker” last year; “The Dark Knight,” “Letters From Iwo Jima,” and “Slumdog Millionaire” before it.
You can go all the way back to the very first sound winner, MGM’s 1930 “The Big House,” which ends in a 20-minute prison riot finally quelled by tear gas and machine guns. Boom! Boom!
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But why stop there? Any hardcore Oscar watcher knows that the adjective “Best” might just as well be replaced by “Most.” The awards’ open secret is that nine times out of 10, it’s the amount of craft, rather than its precision or innovation, that runs off with the gold.
This was made pretty clear when a long overdue makeup Oscar was finally instituted in 1981. From the first winner “An American Werewolf in London,” Best Makeup defined itself as Most Makeup (or Most Latex), reliably handing out kudos to the aging process (“Amadeus”; “La Vie En Rose”) or to horror F/X. The nothing wrong with honoring special effects magic, of course, but it’s an oddly particular way of defining “best.”
The reason sheer effort tends to be rewarded is that when you come right down to it, Academy voters aren’t that different from you and me. They get impressed by the same things we all do. An actor may not know a lot about the intricacies of editing, but he can imagine how difficult it must be to link up so many shots in fast cuts. A screenwriter unfamiliar with costume design will certainly recognize a lot of research and sewing when she sees them.
If nothing else, you win Oscar pools by Going For the Most. Want to predict best editing? It often does match up with Best Picture when the winner is edited within an inch of its life (“Hurt Locker”; “Chicago”; “Slumdog”), but not when another pic has even More Editing going on: “The Bourne Ultimatum” out-cut “No Country For Old Men,” and “The Aviator” won the dogfight with “Million Dollar Baby.”
Bottom line, whichever movie seems to have generated the most sweat in the editing room invariably wins the prize.
The Most also tends to triumph in the category Hackford knows best of all. When it comes to honoring direction, voters tend to define “best” as whatever seems to have involved the greatest amount of work, leading to statuettes for such ambitious helmers as Bigelow, Scorsese, the Coens, Boyle — the list winds back decades.
There’s always a certain amount of consternation, if not downright outrage, when the Picture and Directing Oscars go to different films: “How can the best picture not have the best directing?!” someone invariably huffs. (Usually the Best Picture’s stiffed helmer.)
Easy. If you remember that Best Directing generally equals Most Directing, you can hardly be surprised when lovable, leisurely “Driving Miss Daisy” or “Shakespeare in Love” cops Best Picture while losing Direction to jagged, energetic “Born on the Fourth of July” or “Saving Private Ryan.” Boom! Boom!
(Which is why David Fincher, helmer of jagged, energetic “The Social Network,” is wise to prepare his speech even in the face of the lovable, leisurely “King’s Speech.”)
In other categories the “Most” is even more precisely defined, worth keeping in mind when weighing in on those office pools:
ACTING Sentiment can enter into it, but usually the Most Conspicuous acting walks off with the big prizes. Not that the thesping is bad (usually it’s terrific); it’s just so visible: Jamie Foxx and Philip Seymour Hoffman channeling idiosyncratic, larger-than-real-life figures; Kate Winslet and Charlize Theron pushing past the extremest emotional boundaries. It’s no wonder this year’s front-runners are all coping with speech impediments, or slicing at themselves with mirror shards or just bouncing off the walls. That’s what gets a performance noticed.
ART DIRECTION/COSTUME DESIGN Always bet on Most Lavish. Last four Costume winners: “Marie Antoinette”; “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”; “The Duchess”; “The Young Victoria.” Something of a theme there. For Art Direction: “Pan’s Labyrinth”; “Sweeney Todd”; “Benjamin Button”; “Avatar.” Bigger is better in these categories.
MUSIC Put your money on Most Catchy. Did “Love Story” or “Chariots of Fire” or “Summer of ’42” truly represent “the best substantial body of music in the form of dramatic underscoring,” to quote the rule? Wasn’t it more likely those ubiquitous hit themes that won each composer his trophy?
True, those awards came decades ago, and latter day winners do seem to demonstrate prodigious musicianship from first frame to last. But is it coincidental that besides their other values, “Up,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Brokeback Mountain” and “Il Postino” (to name only a few) all happened to feature memorable, hummable themes?
WRITING Whether Adapted or Original, the screenplays boasting either the Most Intricate Structure (“Crash”; “Milk”; “Slumdog Millionaire”; “Brokeback Mountain”) or Most Quotable Lines (“Juno”; “Little Miss Sunshine”; “The Departed”) usually come out on top whether Adapted or Original. (If, as expected, David Seidler and Aaron Sorkin leave the Kodak Center with statuettes in tow, they can pat themselves on the back for having given Prince Bertie and Lionel Logue such snappy retorts, and shaping the Mark Zuckerberg saga through such audacious flashbacks and flash-forwards.) When the scribe shows his hand, the hand tends to get handed an Oscar.