The Ghost Writer, or The Riddle of “How Many Best Picture Nominees Does it Take..?” Part One

25 Jul

In 1939 Vivien Leigh (l) won Best Actress for Gone with the Wind while her future husband Laurence Olivier (r) was a nominee for Wuthering Heights; both films were up for Best Picture though GWTW was the big winner.

Part I – Quick: how many Best Picture nominees does it take to please the members of the Academy, the moviegoing public, the at-home viewing audience, and the ABC network executroids (who, don’t forget, are essentially employees of the Disney empire)?

Hmmmm…..back in 1939, the year that many film enthusiasts often swear is Hollywood’s greatest ever, the answer was ten: Gone with the Wind (natch),  and The Wizard of Oz (of course), but also Dark Victory, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Love Affair, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, and Wuthering Heights. Actually a slate of ten nominees was not unheard of during the 1930s, but there were some years in which there were only three or four. The roster of five Best Picture nominees became the standard for 60+ years beginning in 1944, and for most of that time the Hollywood dream factories, moviegoers, and the Academy were quite often in sync, but by the mid-eighties a disconnect had begun to set in such that  the mindset of the big studios was to appeal to young people while the Academy gravitated toward prestigious literary fare with limited mass appeal. For example, in 1984, the five  Best Picture nominees, Amadeus (the big winner), The Killing Fields, A Passage to India, Places in the Heart, and A Soldier’s Story, were all famously only middling hits whereas only two years earlier, the Academy saw fit to nominate such blockbusters as E.T. and Tootsie. (The two biggest hits of 1984, btw, were Beverly Hills Cop and Ghostbusters, both of which were all but neglected by the Academy.) From that point, the Oscars developed something akin to a split personality and were no longer the surefire TV draw they had once been though the numbers were impressive for the 1997/98 Titanic sweep.

Fast-forward a few more years when a funny thing happened on the way to the 2007/2008 Oscars, and that funny thing was that The Dark Knight and Wall-E, two well reviewed wildly commercial summertime films with excellent Best Picture potential, failed to make the cut. In light of slipping ratings for the annual Oscar telecast, and a decade of tinkering with the format as a result, the cries of outrage  over these omissions were loud enough for the Academy to implement drastic changes. The idea seemed to be that if the Academy returned to a menu of ten nominees, there would be room at the table for not only the likes of specialized indie fare but also escapist “popcorn” fare that wows the masses.  As such, so called teen fanboys–who have no need for the Oscars in the digital age–would be more likely to tune in, thereby ensuring high ratings and increased ad revenue.

Even knowing that ten Best Picture nominees was once customary, enacting such a change always seemed like a bad idea to me because it was too transparently a ploy to entice viewers rather than a serious artistic consideration. I mean, no one really believes that movies are actually getting better. Do they?  Seriously. Worse, such a move only seemed to dilute the power and meaning of the award. Furthermore, since the Academy elected to not increase the slate of Best Director nominees from five to ten, the contest seemed somehow rigged. After all, wouldn’t the five movies with nominated directors seem more assured of winning than those without a nominated director? Really?

Two-fisted victory: Kathryn Bigelow made Oscar history when she became the first woman to win Best Director; she also won for co-producing the 2009 Best Picture winner, The Hurt Locker.

In 2009/2010, the Academy saw a spike in the ratings thanks to a Best Picture lineup that included smash hits such as Avatar, Up, and The Blind Side (starring Best Actress winner Sandra Bullock); meanwhile, the winning entry was the powerful–if barely seen–The Hurt Locker.  So far, so good.  It’s also likely that the Coens’  A Serious Man, which seemed to barely make a dent in the public’s conscious, might not have scored a Best Picture nomination without an expanded field. (To clarify, A Serious Man should not be confused with the same year’s A Single Man, directed by Tom Ford and starring Best Actor nominee Colin Firth.)

The ratings for the most recent Oscar telecast did not meet the expectations set by the previous year’s ceremony even though the Best Picture lineup included a pair of behemoth hits, Inception and Toy Story 3, not to mention unlikely smashes like The King’s Speech, True Grit, and The Black Swan, all of which is why the Academy has now re-reconsidered what it just reconsidered a few years ago. As such, beginning with the awards for the current year, the slate of nominees will be no less than five and no more than ten. This means we should just as easily expect  six-seven nominees as either five or ten, depending on how many movies appear as #1 picks on members’ ballots and whether those films secure a minimum number of votes altogether. Something like that.  The Academy’s voting process has always been a tad convoluted, and now it is likely more so, but I’m actually excited about this change though I have a feeling we’ll be seeing the return of the standard regular five nominees sooner rather than later.

Entertainment Weekly

Meanwhile, in a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly (pictured to the left), Dave Karger actually blamed the whole rejuggling on The Blind Side, arguing that while a box office “phenom,” the movie was “lukewarmly reviewed” and a potential embarrassment to the Academy. Karger added A Serious Man, The Kids are All Right, and The Winter’s Bone to the list of Best Picture nominees that have possibly brought shame to the Academy over the past two years, but he should have added District 9 if he was in a name calling mood.  Karger is entitled to his opinion, but I happen to love The Blind Side. It was my third favorite film of 2009, right behind A Single Man and Invictus, so whatev, Dave.


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