The one thing that almost all the movies nominated for the top statues at this year’s Academy Awards share is that they need the attendant shot of publicity and marketing that the nominations bring to be considered a popular success.
Out of the nine pictures nominated for the “Best Picture” Oscar, only one of them, the populist feel-good race relations picture “The Help,” has grossed more that $100 million, generally considered the threshold for a hit in Hollywood (though for many big-budget flicks, that’s not even close). It’s also among the least likely to win, but you can probably relegate pretty much everything but “The Artist” and “Hugo” to also-ran status for Best Picture (yet, maybe, “The Descendants” has an outside shot).
But “The Artist” and “Hugo” are -- at least fresh out of the gate and with equine-metaphor apologies to Steven Spielberg’s treacly “War Horse” – saddled with “horses to beat” status, and not only because they’re the two most nominated films and won key awards at last week’s Golden Globes. Both movies are about the movies and the movie business itself, which in the narcissism-fueled world of Hollywood is, like, The Best Thing Ever; and both movies have narrative and stylistic gimmicks that set them apart from any of the other contenders – “The Artist” is literally a black and white silent movie; “Hugo” is a 3D film.
These gimmicks, however, may well be why neither one has done all that well at the box office, and “The Artist” is on the verge of being considered an outright failure (though “Hugo,” which cost at least $150 million to make before marketing costs and has only made about one-third of that back could be the far bigger money loser if Oscar doesn’t provide a kick at the multiplex).
Several people in my office have told me their parents went to see “The Artist” and walked out once they realized it’s a silent movie. Another got up to complain there was a problem with the sound. And, as I’ve written in this space before, filmgoers have been burned by spending the extra bucks on 3D so often, they’re likely leery to double down on dollars for a non-franchise or Disney family movie by Martin Scorsese.
Which is a shame for both movies, though I lament “Hugo”’s failure to reach the masses far more than “The Artist.” For one thing, I’m not exactly hungering for more silent movies; but more than that, I don’t believe “The Artist” ever much rises above its gimmick until its final, exhilarating 10 minutes and revelatory dénouement (that’s not meant as a slam; it’s amazing they sustain the gimmick as long as they do). With “Hugo,” however, I’d totally support more 3D movies that use the technology as adeptly as Scorsese does, and, more importantly, the film actually transcends the gimmick by using 3D to supplement the underlying themes about narrative film that “Hugo” is trying to express.
I’m guesstimating, though, we’ll see a split between Best Picture and Best Director for “The Artist” and “Hugo,” respectively, just like we saw at the Golden Globes. People in Hollywood apparently have totally embraced “The Artist,” and the fact it’s got the powerful Harvey Weinstein behind it is another plus. Love to know that guy’s secret (or maybe not). But a French director vs. Martin Scorsese is no contest.
For the other major awards, my guess at this point is that Meryl Streep has waited long enough since her last Oscar, and “The Iron Lady” is her tipping point. It’s a weird dichotomy – the movie itself isn’t very good and a mis-focused soap opera biography about one of the 20th Century’s greatest political forces -- but it would be virtually unwatchable without Streep as Margaret Thatcher. She literally saves the movie, makes it pretty good, in fact. So either she’ll get punished for the film’s mediocrity, or she’ll be rewarded for salvaging it. I’m leaning towards the latter.
Actor will probably go to George Clooney, not only because he’s fantastic in “The Descendants,” but because he’s the closest thing to Hollywood Royalty, the Town appears to like his career moves, and he’s not yet won Best Actor. Brad Pitt’s royalty, too, but the fact that Angelina Jolie’s film got shut out from the Foreign Film Oscar noms for her “Land of Blood and Honey” suggests they’re just not as beloved as they’d like to be. Plus, “Moneyball” is probably a bore for most people in the town.
Finally, it’s always as interesting to see who and what gets snubbed by the Academy as what makes the cut. Steven Spielberg did not have a good year – “War Horse” got the Best Picture nomination, yeah, but he was overlooked for Best Director, and the disappointing “Adventures of Tintin” didn’t earn a Best Animated Feature nomination despite winning the Golden Globe. Two terrific films perhaps too close to reality, the critically acclaimed Wall Street meltdown melodrama “Margin Call” and the sexual compulsion character study “Shame,” got a sum total of one nomination between them despite making a ton of critical 10 Best Lists at year’s end. And it’s worth mentioning that Lars Von Trier is so toxic – after proclaiming himself “a Nazi” at Cannes last summer – that even Kirsten Dunst couldn’t avoid a shutout for “Melancholia.”