As the awards season totters towards a conclusion, only the BAFTAs and Oscars now remain, it seems ever more likely that the Artist will go down as this year’s outstanding film. Recent weeks have seen triumphs for director Michael Hazanavicius and leading man Jean Dujardin in the annual Directors Guild of America (DGA) and Screen Actors Guild (SAG) awards respectively. The Help also prospered at the SAG ceremony, winning in the best actress, supporting actress and ensemble cast categories. Christopher Plummer rounded out the awards with a nod for his supporting role in Beginners.
The DGA hands out only one prize for feature films, and victory is a near certainty of Oscar success. Indeed, in the ceremony’s 64-year history, only six victors have failed to follow up with the Academy award. In taking home the prize Hazanavicius secured his 17th award of the year, he must be heavy favourite to be on the podium come Sunday 26th.
Dujardin’s victory was another in a successful season so far, and he will likely be vying with George Clooney for the biggest prize of them all. Despite having a role with only two spoken words, he has already scooped 9 awards and looks to be a strong contender for the Academy’s leading male gong.
Nonetheless, the biggest winner at the SAG awards was the Help, the civil rights drama taking 3 of the 5 acting prizes despite a mixed response from critics. Viola Davis was named best leading lady, while Octavia Spence was honoured for her supporting role. The Help’s cast has been widely acclaimed, even by those who have derided the film’s message. It would, however, still be a minor miracle were Tate Taylor’s adaptation to win best film come Oscar night; a successful £1 bet on the Artist would win you 20p compared to £35 for the Help.
Plummer’s reward was his first SAG success at the fourth attempt, and came for his performance playing a septuagenarian who finally comes out as gay after his wife’s death. The 80 year old, who debuted on screen in 1953, has acted in nearly 200 film or TV productions, but this has been arguably his most acclaimed role.
While the SAG and DGA awards are respected in their own right, they are arguably better known as barometers for the Academy awards. While the Help’s success may have been surprising, the Artist looks well placed to prosper at the Oscars.
Well no, since you asked. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t deeply flawed.
The Oscars are the high watermark of film recognition. The red carpet trampling, lovvie love-a-thon that is the motion picture awards season starts in earnest with the Golden Globes in early January and extravagantly culminates every year in late February with the Academy Awards in which apparently “everyone is just thrilled to be nominated!” but in actuality hopes are realised, dreams are shattered and the presenters are almost constantly underwhelming. When it comes to the big night though it can all seem like a bit of game. A cynical, industry driven game in which awards are doled out by the sensibility load and Martin Scorsese can win an Oscar through sheer bloody minded persistence (and a superlative body of work of course).
The awards themselves essentially boil down to the artistic whims of a group of voters who are predominantly older, whiter and male-er than your typical movie audience, and your typical movie audience they most definitely aren’t. The 6000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are a venerable bunch of industry professionals who once inducted are placed into their various pigeonholes of expertise. Actors, directors, cinematographers and writers all have their place to name a but a few with the experts in each category having more sway when it comes to the tricky business of voting. In the first round directors nominate the work of directors, writers of writers and so on with each member providing a list of their top five choices. These feed the candidates for the second round of voting to the Academy as a whole who then all submit their top fives in most categories. The exception is of course the be-all and end-all award of Best Picture which everyone votes for.
Oscar voters are people sustained and venerated by their own artistic endeavours and as such they won’t be voting for any hack produced hokum any time soon. Added to this we don’t get many surprises either. We get them plumping for the worthy over the cinematic (think the choice of The Help over Tinker Tailor), the traditional over the innovative (War Horse over Drive), the heroic underdog over the perverted sex-addict (Brad Pitt’s average display in Moneyball over Michael Fassbender’s powerhouse performance in Shame). Way back when in 1989 we got the starkest manifestation of this we could ever wish for with the triumph of the comfortably middle class over the radical and intelligent with Driving Miss Daisy winning best picture over Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing – a film that set the tone of black-centric cinema for a decade to come and wasn’t even nominated. A case like that more clearly than anything shows how the mass appeal of the facile and one-dimensional can almost always triumph over the confrontational and original. This may seem like I am throwing The Help and Driving Miss Daisy together into some sort of race rights for dummies cadre and it kind of seems like I am. But Driving Miss Daisy cleaned up at the Oscars so of course it’s brilliant. Of course it is! Anyone who says otherwise is stupid, or a Hollywood Foreign Press member. So both.
Speaking of which when you compare the Oscars to the Golden Globes our gold plated, statuesque friend comes out smelling of roses. The Golden Globes are the sort of unashamed silly affair that keeps re-hiring a presenter to hilariously lampoon their inadequacies in some sort of devil’s pact for viewers. It’s like someone building a house on a cliff using stone from the cliff face. At some point the Golden Globes, I mean house, ahem, will collapse and all of the viewers will leave and Ricky Gervais will have to find somewhere else to live out the creative death of his career.
What the Golden Globes do have over their more respected counterparts however is timing. If something wins at the Globes it’s often a good indicator for things to come. By the time the Oscars swing round films like The Artist will have won so many awards that they’ll we struggling for something to say other than “OMG OMG OMG OMG the Oscars are the best it’s been my dream blah blah blah” that we’ve heard all before. There’s none of the surprise that there should be for indie flicks like The Artist when they win a huge award as their expectations are already so high come February that a Best Picture victory will seem more like a relief than anything.
So why will I be staying up into the wee hours of the morning waiting to get my Oscar fix for yet another year? Well it’s because they are just so bloody important and despite everything that I’ve said up until this point they still hold the requisite amount of artistic integrity.
More often than not the Oscars get it vaguely right and if they don’t it’s not usually that bad (apart from the Academy’s complete disregard for Senna this year which is ridiculous beyond parody). Yes, last year The Social Network should have walked off with Best Picture never to be refuted but that on the night it went to The King’s Speech wasn’t terrible. The Social Network would’ve been (and had been) a success irrespective of awards attention but The King’s Speech, high on the Oscar buzz it was getting – and Colin Firth’s repeated walk-ons at every awards show imaginable – carried the film through its January and February release period to a humongous (and thoroughly deserved) box-office. That an artfully inclined arthouse flick about a king with a speech impediment made $400 million worldwide is testament to the power of Oscar buzz. Without the Oscars such deserving films would get much less mainstream attention and I think cinema would be poorer for it.
Recently this also proved true for Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker, 127 Hours, Juno, Little Miss Sunshine, Brokeback Mountain and the masterful Sideways to name but a few. Oscar buzz is the real force behind the Oscars. What happens on the night happens and will be raked over in movie posters for eons to come but the real relevance of the Academy Awards is in the bridge they build between the artistic medium of film and the mainstream engine of the film industry.
If you love films and hate to see the wrong things getting top recognition come awards night then yes it may seem like the Oscars are losing their relevance, but as an industry force they are nevertheless a force for good. Even if we do have to put up with the occasional give me a bloody Oscar already! film like I Am Sam (featuring the now famous Sean Penn going ‘full retard’ performance) or Seven Pounds (in which Will Smith begs for an Oscar so hard that I’m surprised he didn’t actually grab his nearest box jellyfish and jump into a bathtub for attention come nominations), ultimately they bring (albeit a small selection of) lesser known gems to the masses.
So come February the 26th 2012 I’ll be sitting down to watch 4 hours worth of film industry back patting, self indulgent montage and lots and lots of hysterical speeches. But I don’t think I’d have it any other way. Oh and Billy Crystal’s back. Which is nice.
With the Golden Globes officially over, the focus of awards season shifts, temporarily, to our side of the Atlantic. The nominations for the British Academy of Film and Television Awards 2012 have been announced, and the ceremony itself will take place on February 12th. As if this wasn’t enough, the winners of the London Critics’ Circle Film Awards were announced on Thursday 19th January. As the Oscar speculation builds, let’s take a look these recent developments.
Having walked away with an impressive collection of accolades from last week’s Golden Globes, the team behind The Artist are likely to leave the Baftas with similar booty. A tale of dignity and fragility with all the 1920s Americana of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, The Artist looks set to make a storm on February 12th. Having collected 12 nominations as well as Director and Actor of the Year awards from the Critics’ Circle, I wouldn’t be surprised.
This is by no means a one-horse-race, however, contrary to what Steven Spielberg may have hoped. The Best Film category includes Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Nicolas Refn’s Drive which have been rewarded for their striking imagery and calculated performances with 11 and 4 nominations respectively.
By contrast, The Descendants sees George Clooney as head of a dysfunctional family, à la Little Miss Sunshine without the laughs. Despite resounding success at the Globes, this scrapes the barrel with only 3 nominations. The Help, our final contender for Best Film, is a warm-hearted glance into the world of civil rights through the microcosm of the American household, set to the tune of 5 nominations – on par with Spielberg’s War Horse.
The nostalgia of The Artist and The Help is a continuing theme, and My Week with Marilyn has received six nominations including one for leading actress Michelle Williams. Similarly, Woody Allen has received a nomination for Best Original Screenplay for the charmingly nostalgic Midnight in Paris which sees Owen Wilson clinking glasses with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Other somewhat older stars have also successfully established their place at this year’s ceremony. Meryl Streep is nominated in the best leading actress category for The Iron Lady, and Martin Scorsese will enter the Royal Opera House with ten nominations between two films, Hugo and George Harrison: Living in the Material World.
The 32nd Critics’ Circle Film Awards are testament to the abundance of British talent this year. Most notably, Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk about Kevin took British Film of the Year, and Olivia Coleman, not recognised with a Bafta nomination, was awarded British Actress of the Year for her work in The Iron Lady and Tyrannosaur. Michael Fassbender’s performances in A Dangerous Method and Shame earned him the British Actor of the Year spot, and Andrew Haigh won Break-through British Film-maker for his intimate romance, Weekend.
It seems that this has been a year of inventive sentimentalism, though this is truer of the Bafta than the Critics Circle, who have leant towards grittier stories. Regardless of speculation concerning trends and precedents, however, only time will tell as to whose nominations will materialise into Bafta success: the net has been cast widely, the decisions will not be easy.
By Francis Blagburn
Released almost two months ago in America, The Help quickly became something of a phenomenon. It grossed 7 times as much as it’s initial $25m budget, had praise lavished on it from critics and polled the highest feedback possible from moviegoers. I couldn’t help but be a little suspicious of it before seeing it, knowing Hollywood’s penchant for rewriting history, and certainly some of those fears were not unfounded. But The Help is not a bad film; it’s well made, it’s entertaining, it just lacks any real substance.
An adaptation of a novel by Kathryn Stockett, the film is set in Jackson, Mississippi, during the early 1960s. A news report declares Mississippi to be one of the most racially intolerant places in the country, and from the evidence we’re shown that is certainly true. The only job available for black women is to serve as maids for the white families – cooking their meals, cleaning their houses and raising their children – and for this they are treated with contempt. One of the homeowners, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), goes so far as to make it her mission to ensure that they have to use separate bathrooms, an action that nobody but Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) has a problem with. Skeeter is a young struggling writer, and from her unhappiness with the treatment of the black “help” she decides to write a book from their perspective. She gets off to a slow start due to everyone’s unwillingness to whistleblow, but as events progress she finds more and more people ready to expose the scandals going on.
The film is universally well acted. Emma Stone takes more of a supportive role than audiences might be used to seeing her in, connecting and grounding every aspect of the film without many attention-grabbing moments. Her role is vital in keeping the audience’s focus throughout the long runtime, and she allows other actresses to stand out. In particular, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer shine as two maids who have sacrificed their lives in servitude. The main issue though is the caricatures that all of these actresses have to inhabit. Many of the white homeowners are depicted as so cartoonishly evil that the film simply doesn’t feel remotely connected to reality. There is one brilliant scene late in the film when we find out what happened to Skeeter’s own maid. It works so well because the actions were carried out due to weakness and stupidity and not just because the characters are evil. The ultimate emotion from that scene is one of regret, and it adds layers of resonance to the film. Unfortunately this moment throws the rest of the film into sharp relief, showing how straightforward and flat the majority of it is. And without any depth, the story lacks any meaning.
It’s difficult to hold too much against The Help. I enjoyed seeing it, and the audience in the cinema were one of the most receptive of the year. I have little doubts that it will do well come awards season. But I have serious doubts that anyone will remember it in a few years time.