American nationalism and biopics dominate this year’s Academy Awards
For perspective on who might make it to the final envelope at the 86th Academy Awards on 2 March, you might consider the opinion of pundits. But an even better option is to turn your ears toward those who put their money where their mouths are—betting websites. And the odds seem to be leaning towards 12 Years a Slave walking away with Best Picture, the most watched-out-for award.
Not that it is a given. The history of the Academy Awards is littered with upsets. There are years of clear favourites and years when it is a multiple choice; 2014 is expected to be the latter. 12 Years a Slave has nine nominations altogether. The Wrap, a website that covers Hollywood, looked at different betting sites and zoned in on two—Sportsbook and Youwin. Both expected 12 Years a Slave to win. The report noted that the movie was rated ‘-350 at SportsBook, with American Hustle and Gravity next at +400 and +500, respectively. That means if you bet $20 that American Hustle will win, you stand to win $80.’
12 Years a Slave is the kind of movie that is made for an Oscar nomination. It is the story of Solomon Northup, a free Black man in 1841 USA, where slavery is still legal in the southern states, who is kidnapped from Washington DC and sold as a slave, ending up in a plantation in Louisiana. The movie has an all-American nationalist heart, as did the 2013 Best Picture winner Argo, based on the escape of US embassy personnel from Iran in 1979 during its Islamic revolution. Both are historical fare. 2012’s Best Picture winner The Artist was not based on a true story but was also historical, revolving around a silent movie star’s struggle to adapt as Hollywood transitioned to talkies.
If it wins, 12 Years a Slave will be part of a continuum where history is at a premium. It is a movie that screams self-importance, but is also slightly boring. Consider the plot: man gets kidnapped into slavery, lives as a slave, endures the degradation, finally finds someone who will send a letter for him to his friends back home, gets freed. Whither the drama? Just a litany of suffering.
American Hustle, its closest competitor for the award, with ten nominations, at least recognises the nuts and bolts necessary to keep an audience surprised and laughing. Based on the true story of a conman who is used by an FBI agent to go after the underworld, it has great moments, but stops short of being brilliant.
Gravity, the third favourite, is the antithesis of 12 Years a Slave. It is a grand sci-fi special-effects spectacle, a disaster movie set in outer space about an astronaut marooned with only her resilience to get her back to earth. Sandra Bullock is almost alone through the movie and you don’t even realise it—that is how gripping it is. If votes are cast for the movie that most awes the jury, then Gravity should win.
Other candidates for Best Picture are Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Her, Nebraska, Philomena, and The Wolf of Wall Street. The movie that should not win is The Wolf Of Wall Street, a disappointing, hyper pitched biopic from Martin Scorsese who makes his favourite actor Leonardo Di Caprio overact and underwhelm. It is a movie so consumed with making a statement about the excesses of Wall Street, it ends up being tiresome instead of shocking.
And if a movie should win by the sheer brilliance of its imagination, then Her is it. In a near future, Joaquin Phoenix plays a letter writer who falls in love with an operating system. A plot that seems completely ludicrous ends up as a magnificent statement on love and loneliness. If there should be an upset this year, then Her’s victory would be an especially gladdening one.
One of the biggest upsets for the Best Actor award happened in 2003. The nominees that year included two of the greatest actors ever born—Jack Nicholson and Daniel Day-Lewis. Then there was Nicholas Cage—and this was before he decided to become the Akshay Kumar of Hollywood—and Michael Caine. All of them had won before. But that year, the award went to the relatively unknown Adrien Brody for his role in The Painist. Does anyone expect such an upset this time? Possibly, but not really on the same scale.
The favourite is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Northup in 12 Years a Slave. Christian Bale, as the conman in American Hustle, and Di Caprio as The Wolf of Wall Street, were said to be the other significant contenders. But then Matthew McConaughey won a Golden Globe for his role in Dallas Buyers Club, in which he plays an HIV+ man who starts smuggling unapproved drugs into the US to sell them to other patients. It is a small budget movie made in $5 million and ended up making six times as much. Never known to be the most gifted of actors, McConaughey now seems like the dark horse who might just win. His co-star Jared Leto, who plays a transgender, is said to have an even better shot for the Best Supporting Actor award.
Two years ago when Meryl Streep collected the Best Actress award for her role as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, she said that she could hear half of America going, ‘Oh no, her again’. This year, she is nominated again for the movie August: Osage County. This is the 18th time she will be nominated for the award. She has won it three times. She may not hear ‘Oh no, her again’ this time, because the clear frontrunner with both bookies and critics is Cate Blanchett for her portrayal of Jasmine in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. A Time magazine article noted: ‘File this away as a minority report, for Blanchett has been the front-runner since the movie opened last July. In the critics groups’ voting, she earned six times as many wins as her nearest rival (Bullock). She took the Golden Globe (dramatic actress) and the Screen Actors Guild prizes…Blanchett’s main challenge through awards season has been to give a half-dozen variations on her acceptance speech.’
More often than not, a handful of movies walk away with most of the awards. The line up is evident this time. Besides the ten and nine nominations for American Hustle and 12 Years A Slave, Gravity has ten, Captain Phillips six, Dallas Buyers Club six, Nebraska six, Philomena four, The Wolf of Wall Street five. Captain Phillips is a Tom Hanks- starrer about the first US ship to become a target for Somalian pirates and how the Captain outwits them. It scratches the American nationalist gene enough to be a contender and is based on a true story to boot. Philomena’s got Judi Dench as a woman searching for her child who went missing 50 years ago, and is also based on a true story. 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Wolf of Wall Street, Dallas Buyers Club— all based on true stories. Can you spot the pattern? Biopics, as a genre, are the in thing. Any aspiring filmmaker who wants an Oscar knows the kind of movie he should be making.
To appreciate this stranglehold of reality, turn to a category like Best Visual Effects, which pits The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug against Gravity. Also note that The Hobbit has three nominations altogether but only in technical categories (it is also nominated for Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing). Contrast this with The Lord of the Rings trilogy by the same director getting 30 nominations in the early 2000s and winning 17 awards. A decade later, The Hobbit’s first two editions have got just six nominations.
What has not surprised anyone is the absence of Indian movies in the Best Foreign Film category. India’s entry sent for consideration was The Good Road, a Gujarati film. It was instantly derided by a clique of avant garde Bollywood directors. With countrymen like these, who needs enemies? Only three Indian movies have ever been nominated in this category: Lagaan, Salaam Bombay and Mother India. None has won. The only way a movie about India can win is if a Danny Boyle makes a Slumdog Millionaire; packaging the masala we take for granted for a foreign audience to make it appear wildly original. Slumdog swept the Oscars in 2009, winning eight awards. One wonders if it would even have been nominated if the same movie had been made by an Indian filmmaker.