Thursday, February 3, 2011

Crouching 'Fighter,’ Hidden 'Speech’?

In the 2001 Oscar race for Best Picture, it came down to four. “Traffic,” the edgy, surreal and excellent Steven Soderbergh film exploring the drug trade through a weave of multiple storylines, was thought to be a lock. Its ripped-from-headlines topicality and the originality of Soderbergh’s direction of Stephen Gaghan’s fierce, muscular script were thought to give it an edge over contenders like Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator,” the tale of betrayal and vengeance set in ancient Rome and starring the indelible Russell Crowe.

Soderbergh seemed to double his chances for Best Picture with his directing “Erin Brockovich,” the Julia Roberts vehicle about one determined environmental crusader going up the system (based on a true story). And then there was “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Ang Lee’s lush, visionary story of four warriors in the Qing dynasty, was the other top contender, one that had already won a raft of international awards.

In his wisdom, Oscar has a way of splitting the difference, of dividing the golden spoils between several worthies; the big technical awards go one way while the Golden Dudes for acting, directing and the purely creative work go another. It was much the same that year, but with a twist that confirms just how important demographics can be.

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"Crouching Tiger" won for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Art Direction, Best Original Score and Best Cinematography; it was dissed for the other Oscars on the basis of a thin story (and correspondingly thin dialogue), and on the strength of Soderbergh’s double-barrel directorial triumphs, which pretty much included Ang Lee out of a Best Director nod. Still, and clearly, Lee wouldn’t walk away from Oscar night empty-handed.

Partly for that reason, the three left were easier to decide: Roberts would win Best Actress for “Erin Brockovich”. That took the heat off Oscar as far as giving Soderbergh his just due. He wouldn’t walk away from Oscar night empty-handed, either.

So it came down to “Gladiator” and “Traffic” for Best Picture, and here’s where demographics may have played a hand.

In his 2003 book “All About Oscar,” author Emanuel Levy writes: “There is at least one generation between Academy members and active filmmakers (those nominated for awards) and two generations between Academy members and average filmgoers … Age differences and generations gaps inevitably make the Academy vote more conservative, lagging behind the industry’s aesthetic and technical innovations. This built-in conservative bias in the Academy vote, which is reflected in the kinds of movies that won Best Picture, is almost inescapable.”

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This, to some extent, is why “Traffic” was a longer shot than people may have thought, despite its critical acclaim and box-office success (more than $100 million in box office).

The fact that “Traffic” and “Erin Brockovich” were both nominated for Best Picture automatically meant one of them wouldn’t make it. But look at it demographically:
 Academy voters tend to be older and more conservative — more of the era in which vast, big-canvas historical epics like “Ben-Hur” and “Lawrence of Arabia” were held up as the ne plus ultra of movie entertainment. This gave “Gladiator” a decided edge.

Now consider: Soderbergh’s two Oscar hopefuls were essentially pulled from modern-day life and the evening news; for those older voters, who had (and still have) a strong presence in the Academy, Soderbergh’s films shackled them to the world’s real-life everyday agonies.

For these voters, the Best Picture choice was really pretty clear: “Gladiator” was a movie whose subject matter was what you went to the movies for. “Traffic” was a movie whose subject matter was what you went to the movies to get away from.

“Gladiator” wins.

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The 2011 Oscar derby may not come down to slicing and dicing voters’ age-related rationales that finely, but you never know. “The King’s Speech” and “The Fighter” are classic stories of overcoming obstacles, and the low expectations of others, in order to succeed.

Academy voters might say: “Never mind “The Social Network”; the saga of that Facebook contraption is a little too bloodless, too hermetic to get our hearts around.” Academy voters have proven they love a tale of the Comeback Kid, the little guy who claws his way to victory against all odds ... the outsider on the rails who beats the smart-money favorite, by a little or a lot.

This year, could that scrapper be King George VI or a determined kid from Boston looking for a title shot? It ain’t over til the envelope opens, on Feb. 27.

Image credits: Oscar: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) Gladiator poster: © 2000 DreamWorks/Universal. The King's Speech poster: © 2010 The Weinstein Company. This piece was first published in Culcha.

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