What Makes an Oscar Movie

Every article has its roots in Twitter unless it’s plagiarized from Reddit, and I guess this one is no different. A few days ago Elijah Wood took to Twitter to express a sentiment that was common not just among fans of Uncut Gems, but fans of Uncut Gems in high places: “truly baffled that Sandler wasn’t nominated and Uncut Gems wasn’t acknowledged at all.” Ben Stiller, who has successfully executed the “dumb comedy to dramatic leading man” turn that Sandler executed in Uncut Gems, lamented Sandler’s exclusion from the Academy Awards. Rian Johnson and Seth Meyers agreed that Uncut Gems is the kind of movie that will stick with its viewers into the distant future. I don’t know that I would say that Uncut Gems has been a true cause célèbre for the Internet, precisely, since the Academy will not change its rules to accommodate its descendants the way they did for The Dark Knight after 2008. (Uncut Gems has a fraction of the reach of The Dark Knight, for one thing, although one wonders if the Internet has segmented itself more successfully in the intervening decade. I think that must be true for my feed. Surely there must be some number of fanboys yelping for the inclusion of Avengers: Endgame in the Best Picture field, but I haven’t seen any.)

All the same, it has received a great deal of attention after the fact, and there are half a dozen awards where one can imagine Uncut Gems would have been a very respectable nominee. Adam Sandler’s role as jeweler, gambler, and beta psycho Howard Ratner may genuinely have been one of the five best leading performances by a man in an English-language movie. Aside from the transformational stuff or narrative garbage that typically drives these awards, Sandler is just flat out good. In a movie which I find overstuffed with artifice, and which could only be a really great movie in a world where Surge is recognized as a really great drink, Sandler’s work makes the silliness of Uncut Gems intriguing; there are very few actors who I think could hold up to the close-ups, lean into the character’s repeated humiliations, and come out with a performance that is occasionally electrifying. But on Monday morning, nothing of Uncut Gems made it into the presentation of the nominees, and Uncut Gems joined the thousand lists of snubs. It slotted alongside the choices that everyone noted, like Us, The Farewell, and Hustlers, and the indie faves like Midsommar and Wild Rose which have their number called but rarely. Thus the tweets from Wood and Stiller and Johnson and Meyers, which I’ve been bouncing around in my head since. On an obvious level, Uncut Gems is not an Oscar movie for the simple fact that it was not nominated. All the same I can’t shake the feeling that it is an Oscar movie! Is the direction so different in style from The Hurt Locker? Is Sandler’s performance so different from Dustin Hoffman’s in Midnight Cowboy? Is this gritty New York drama somehow outgrittying The French Connection? Did it make too little at the box office compared to Birdman? Is it too lurid compared to, well, anything that’s won in the past twenty-five years? However you judge this movie, something comparable has won at the Oscars sometime in the past nine decades. While a very cool corner of the Internet laments that Uncut Gems is too good for the Oscars anyway, it certainly seems like Uncut Gems belongs with that group anyway.

In 2028, the 100th Academy Awards will air. Probably. I can’t imagine the TV ratings will be doing them any favors. Maybe they’ll be streaming on their website or something. At any rate, by then they may have added awards for worthwhile things like Newcomer or Casting or Stunts, or maybe they’ll have panicked and instituted that Popular Film Oscar that must have birthed that “absolutely no one:” meme. (Even though we probably don’t need a few of the awards we have, like Best Original Song or Best Animated Short, dollars to doughnuts we won’t pare the number of awards down.) It seems unlikely, though, that the way the awards are nominated and then chosen will have changed all that much. It’s too much to believe that they’ll start awarding the “best” acting as opposed to the “most” acting, or to think that they’ll be brave enough to choose a Best Picture winner that doesn’t pat you on the shoulder and hand you a tissue at the end. Or, from a prospective perspective, my guess is that the nominees for Best Editing will continue to outstrip the nominees for Best Director as the really serious Best Picture contenders. (And they’ll continue to just totally ignore documentaries when they give that award out!)

What will happen, I hope, is that the 100th Academy Awards will lean all the way into its historic birthday. Retrospectives, a documentary for TCM, articles, a ceremony that looks to the past and which incorporates as many old farts as will still be out there. Is there a way to put money on a deathless Jon Voight/Jane Fonda Best Picture presentation, in honor of partisan unity and the fiftieth anniversary of Coming Home? It will light us up inside about the magic of the movies and the dream factory, what Mark Cousins slyly called the bauble, the pure rush of emotional history that is not simply recognizing Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, but in the rush of seeing those planes flying from inside a bombed-out church, or Liam Neeson breaking down in tears while Ben Kingsley tries to hold him. It’s not hard to imagine a sweeping, gorgeous Fitzgerald energy around the proceedings. Then the Donald Trump biopic starring Kenneth Branagh will win Best Picture, and the good feelings will go whoosh. Seriously, though, the Oscars will almost certainly award the same kinds of movies they have awarded for all these years.

I don’t want to make it seem like the Oscars are aggressively vain, ludicrously reactionary, or aggressively middlebrow. There are individual cases where the Oscars have made the right choice not just among their nominees, but the right choice given all the movies in front of them in a calendar year. (That’s difficult to do! Lawrence of Arabia had competition in 1962!) Certainly they have been all of those things, as I think ought to be expected of any institution that was founded in the 1920s and has continued to the present day. No one needs another list about the ways that the Oscars have screwed up over time, nor do the Oscars deserve a list of times they got it absolutely right. Better to view them like a series of coin flips. They choose Moonlight as the best picture of 2016, and then they find a way to give Green Book the same prize two years later. They gave John Ford Best Director for The Grapes of Wrath, rightly placing his work on that movie about Alfred Hitchcock’s for Rebecca. Then gave it to him again the next year for How Green Was My Valley, a picture which pales out of existence next to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. With this group, unless you have the stomach to reject them entirely (a stomach that very few people in Movieland have), one has to take the good with the bad. To do otherwise is cynicism for the sake of it, protesting too much. The Oscars have us in a bind, I think. Criticize them too much and it’s too obvious you care about them, and once you care about them you’ve punted on your dignity.

Too often commentators treat the Academy like it’s made up of fifteen people who all meet in the same smoke-filled room, and while they’re there the eleven old white guys outvote the two women, the one person under forty, and the one person of color. As future Oscar winner Rachel McAdams once said, it’s not that simple. This is a group of 8,000 people which has expanded enormously in the last few years. It is a group which is increasingly international, which I think is great (presumably the reason Pawel Pawlikowski snagged a nod for Cold War, or why Parasite looks like a genuine contender this year), and which makes me a little anxious (because the Oscars have proven that they aren’t even equipped to adequately judge the stuff in English on a regular basis). They’ve dropped first-past-the-post voting and replaced it with the preferential ballot, which is to Oscar prognosticators what the contested convention is to political analysts. The Academy is a group which feels increasingly reactionary in the years since Moonlight won Best Picture, the most important Oscar victory since The French Connection signaled the approval of the New Hollywood within the Old one. It is still by and large loath to nominate women outside the realms where women have been in Hollywood since the early days (e.g., editing, design, and acting). Back people are still nominated for and occasionally win awards, but they also seem to be getting awards buzz for slavery or the Civil Rights Movement, where white Academy members seem most comfortable viewing them. Cynthia Erivo for Harriet this year, Mahershala Ali in Green Book last year, 12 Years a Slave going all in a few years back. I think it’s as easy to imagine Jennifer Lopez getting an acting nomination as it is to imagine Lady Gaga picking one up, or to imagine Greta Gerwig with a directing nomination rather than Sam Mendes, or to visualize The Farewell getting that tenth Best Picture spot even if it has no chance to win the whole caboodle. Since Moonlight, it’s been harder to imagine those things happening, and they simply have not come to pass.

No, short of narrative fiction, there is no “Oscar movie.” There is such a thing as Oscarbait, but there is no Oscar movie. There is not some similar quality in all of them which makes them attractive to the faceless voters. It means that the Oscars, as certain wags remind us every time The Artist or something of its execrable ilk comes to the Dolby Theatre, aren’t about the movies. It’s about the people. This is where I diverge from popular opinion and research, because I don’t know any Academy members. I don’t know what they get up to in their spare time, I don’t know how many times they look at their phones while they go through their screener pile, and I don’t know how long they pore over the ballots before they send them in. But the one clue is that they do an awards show every year in which all those tabulated votes turn into a television program, and the fact that you can watch it on television means that they want you to pay attention to them. They want you to get your conventional wisdom from their store. What makes an Oscar movie an Oscar movie is that it is a bet on the future. They know and we know that the fastest way to become relevant years down the line is to be on that august, awful list of Oscar winners. (It is slightly harder, I think, to wind up on TNT fifty times a year, although if the popular movie discourse is any indicator, that’s probably the best way to become relevant years down the line.) And so they make their choices, and we listen to their choices, and we applaud or retch accordingly. They have it all already. They have the power to make movies, to be in movies, to contribute to movies, and we positively slaver over that power. But if Uncut Gems isn’t at the 92nd Academy Awards, it’s because they believe that it will be consigned to time and memory. If they don’t build a statue of it outside the stadium, no one will recall it. The Academy is not unlike John Huston, eyes in shadow as he tells Jack Nicholson what he’s after: “The future, Mr. Gittes! The future!” If the members believe that including a movie will help them secure the future, then they’ll nominate it and vote for it to win when the time comes. We’ll see about it.

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