LOS ANGELES — One of the most intriguing aspects of the Oscars is their instant coronation of a film as an all-time classic. Decade after decade, people continue to discover “Gone With the Wind,” “From Here to Eternity,” “Gandhi” and other flicks that were filmed years before they were born. And it’s all for one simple reason: Those movies took home a ton of Oscars.
Unquestionably, such interest will continue for decades to come, as your kids and grandkids rent flicks like “Titanic,” “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” and “Shakespeare in Love,” eager to see if these big Oscar winners are as good as Grandma and Grandpa’s generation believed. But what will you say when they ask you about “Monster,” “The Last King of Scotland” or “American Gangster”?
“I think that ‘Last King of Scotland’ is a pretty mediocre movie, with one good performance,” insisted Todd Gilchrist, senior editor for movies site IGN.com. “But [Forest Whitaker's] performance was so strong that it overcame any of the shortcomings of the other parts of the movie.”
Over the past few years, Hollywood has witnessed the rise of a potentially troubling trend: Movies nominated for only one of the big six awards (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director and Best Picture). This year, twelve different films, ranging from “Gangster” to “Into the Wild,” received only one major nomination.
In the eyes of some, the implication is clear: Feel free to fast-forward through the scenes that don’t feature Cate Blanchett.
Halle Berry became an awards-season juggernaut with 2001′s “Monster’s Ball.” Still, there was no serious discussion of director Marc Forster, co-stars Heath Ledger and Billy Bob Thornton, or even the film itself being worthy of a little gold guy.
“Remember ‘Monster’s Ball,’ when Halle Berry got all the attention?” asked Staci Wilson, a reporter for several movie sites, including SciFi.com. “It was great, because she raised the bar for the Academy to look outside the box a bit. But personally, I thought Billy Bob Thornton’s performance had such an emotional impact, and I was surprised when he wasn’t nominated — and neither was Heath Ledger.”
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History repeated itself again last year with “Scotland,” as Whitaker took home award after award while the film’s star (James McAvoy), female lead (Kerry Washington) and director (Kevin McDonald) watched the ceremonies at home in their jammies.
“Surprisingly, [Whitaker] was in the film for very little, when I actually saw it; it was much more about James McAvoy’s character,” Wilson remembered. “And I think that was a misconception of the public at large, when they were paying to see the movie. They thought it was starring Forest Whitaker, because of all the attention generated on his award nominations.”
“It is a very average film,” Gilchrist agreed. “But it had one great performance.”
On Sunday, Oscar viewers might be wondering the same as they hear the nominated names of Viggo Mortensen, Ruby Dee, Casey Affleck, Julie Christie, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Ryan, Tommy Lee Jones, Marion Cotillard, Johnny Depp, Hal Holbrook and Cate Blanchett (twice!), each attending for a film that received no other major nods. But if it takes a great director to orchestrate a performance, and it takes great actors to help create a star’s performance, then what gives?
” ‘Monster’ was sort of a mediocre film,” Wilson recalled. “It was stunt casting, casting this gorgeous woman as a serial killer. And that’s what got [Oscar's] attention.”
Name one time you’ve ever heard someone say that Christina Ricci’s performance deserved a statuette. Even better: Name the director of “Monster.”
“It’s a popularity contest,” Gilchrist insisted, claiming that the Academy has far more to gain with a triumphant veteran (Christie, Holbrook) or household name (Depp) than they do with the likes of “Monster” director Patty Jenkins or forgotten “Queen” co-star Michael Sheen. “They want to give the most popular kid the award. They’re worried enough about being considered credible; they also want to be considered popular, cool and worthwhile. When ‘Monster’s Ball’ came out, Heath Ledger hadn’t broken into the level of credibility he’d later achieve with ‘Brokeback Mountain.’ ”
In some cases, maybe you would be better off watching an Oscar clip than sitting through the entire movie. After all, if Charlize Theron, Susan Sarandon, Paul Haggis and the film itself didn’t earn any serious Oscar talk, how good can “In the Valley of Elah” really be?
“I think Tommy Lee Jones, in ‘In the Valley of Elah,’ was incredible, and he absolutely deserves that nomination,” Wilson said. “However, I thought the film was extremely heavy-handed; Paul Haggis directed that, and I found it a very tedious story that was nothing new. It was a very bland movie.”
“But Josh Brolin was excellent in ‘American Gangster,’ ” Gilchrist added, saying that the Denzel Washington/ Russell Crowe movie should be remembered by future generations for a lot more than just Ruby Dee. “You talk about a movie that was overlooked in a lot of ways!”
“Julie Christie got nominated, and that’s the only nomination for the film,” Wilson said of the Alzheimers-theme drama “Away From Her.”
“That’s because there wasn’t a huge budget to gain it some visibility,” Gilchrist said of the flick, insisting that mediocrity would be the wrong assumption in this case. “Like we said before, there is that popularity-contest aspect of the Oscars, and familiarity is essential for them to nominate something.”
“Other actors, like Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, are becoming like Wonder Bread,” Wilson said of the reasons why “Charlie Wilson’s War” is indeed mired in mediocrity, saved only by its sole Oscar-nominated performer. “[Their work] is opposed to real, gritty, true substance like Philip Seymour Hoffman. … Maybe they’re just too complacent because they’re ‘names.’ ”
” ‘Assassination of Jesse James’ is a really interesting, highly contested case,” Gilchrist said of the flick, which only received a nomination for Affleck. “I would say as many people love it as hate it, and I’m somehow in the middle. It’s too long, and it has a lot of problems — but his performance is undeniably brilliant.”
And then there’s the odd case of “Eastern Promises,” which only received one nomination — after months of being hyped as an Oscar heavyweight along the lines of those old-school classics.
“Naomi Watts is always excellent … but Viggo Mortensen was recognized over her, probably because he has so many more things to do in the film,” Wilson said. “But maybe if she’d had that naked knife fight , she would have been nominated.”
“Yeah,” Gilchrist grinned. “I would’ve definitely nominated her for that.”
If you don’t agree with Todd and Staci’s opinions on mediocrity vs. timelessness, perhaps you’ll find a new Hollywood conspiracy theory more to your liking: Rather than pouring all the love on four or five Oscar nominees that everyone will then run out to see, the Academy would rather give single nominations to three times that many films.
These days, if you want to be an educated Oscar viewer, it isn’t enough to see “No Country for Old Men” and “Juno”; you need to also pay for “Away From Her,” “The Savages,” “Sweeney Todd” and a dozen others. And that means a lot more money for Hollywood.
“Yeah, Harvey Weinstein is on the grassy knoll,” Wilson joked. “It’s all a conspiracy. … But I think it’s actually a good thing, that more movies are being nominated for little things.”
“Look, in the last few years, the case has been, ‘What can we get Will Smith to be in?’ ‘What can we get George Clooney to be in?’ ‘We have an idea for a movie, let’s figure out how to make it after we get the person,’ ” Gilchrist said. “That’s probably why we’re getting more nominations for films that aren’t getting nominated in other categories.”
“But great movies will continue to be great movies,” Wilson insisted, “whether or not they have a golden statuette to go with them.”
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