Dear Dan and Troy,
I turn away from following this year’s Oscar race for a moment—OK, maybe it’s been a month—and suddenly the awards blogs are uniformly predicting, with the serene, number-crunching confidence of so many Nate Silvers, that Ben Affleck’s Argo is a lock for best picture? The L.A.-based industry oracle Gold Derby has every single one of its polled experts naming Argo as the likely winner, a distinction shared in this year’s field only by Daniel Day-Lewis and Anne Hathaway. What happened? Does the narrative about mass Affleck pity—that the whole Hollywood community came together as one to shore up the broken self-esteem of this young, powerful, handsome man when he was denied the Best Director nomination—really hold up? And even if the Job-like trials of Ben make up part of the story, surely there must be other determining factors, including widespread uneasiness about the torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty and, I don’t know, Lincoln fatigue? How did a pleasant, insubstantial, history-amending political thriller that was greeted upon its release with, at most, mild critical and popular enthusiasm, manage to barrel through awards season racking up one prize after another: the BAFTA, the Critics’ Choice award, the Golden Globe, and numerous critics’ group prizes?
I’m in the middle of a fascinating book about awards culture, one I’ve been recommending Ancient Mariner-style to anyone I can collar in the street. One of its key insights is that, in an age increasingly devoid of universally accepted markers of value (the gold watch at retirement), cultural prizes—ordered in a tacitly accepted hierarchy at which the Oscar sits near the top, overshadowed only, perhaps, by the Nobel—have become our chief means of distributing prestige. The Oscars are so symbolically powerful, in fact, that there’s no way of getting outside their gravitational field—even grumbling about the awards’ venality, snarking about them on Twitter, or declaring that you’re skipping them entirely is a way of staking out your position vis-à-vis this yearly rite and shoring up its presence in the collective imagination.
Reading this book (The Economy of Prestige by James F. English) has changed my attitude toward the upcoming ceremony and given me a fresh burst of energy for what tends to be a draining time of the year for film critics—there are a lot of people writing at once about the same, rarely surprising events, and the pressure to say or think anything new can be paralyzing. But if you approach the Academy Awards not as something to accept or reject, to snub or to live-tweet, but rather as a kind of annual public ritual where beliefs about art, money, power, sex, race, and justice collide in unexpected and complex ways (resulting in, for example, Argo somehow winning Best Picture), the idea of writing on the awards suddenly gets a lot more exciting.
Which will come in handy, because Sunday’s ceremony threatens to be one of the most actively assaultive on viewers’ sensibilities in years (since, perhaps, Rob Lowe danced with Snow White in an ill-starred 1989 production number whose incredible story was the best thing I read this week). Seth McFarlane—a man whose puerile smugness I find so intolerable I could barely endure that 15-minute announcement of the nominees back in January—will be our host for all 500 hours. Poor Russell Crowe, fresh from the laughingstock pillory after his lackluster vocal performance in Les Misérables (I didn’t think he was that bad!) is slated to sing in “a celebration of movie musicals” with Jennifer Hudson and Catherine Zeta-Jones. I’ve already written about a couple of the races I’m personally invested in. (A feeling I tend to be shy about confessing: Caring about who wins an Oscar race seems like kissing a celebrity photo taped up inside your locker—we may all have done it in our lifetime, but let’s not brag about it.) I’d love to see my favorite Hollywood composer Alexandre Desplat win Best Score (even if he did get nominated for the bound-to-be-over-recognized Argo rather than the unlikely-to-be-recognized-at-all Zero Dark Thirty). And it would be the highlight of my night if Emmanuelle Riva upset Jennifer Lawrence for Best Actress—of course, of course, J-Law 4eva, but she’ll have an infinity of other chances. And Emmanuelle Riva, in addition to having given a towering performance in Amour, is a cinema legend and a passionate, committed artist (qualities that come through in the wonderful interview she gave the Daily Beast) and the oldest-ever nominee in the category and the night of the show is her 86th birthday. For the love of God! To deny her the gift of a simple golden statue, and us of the gracious speech she would give through an interpreter, would essentially be to rob one’s own grandmother on Christmas morning.
So, I’ll be over here rooting for the French people. You?