The Screen Actors Guild will this evening chart the course of awards season with its 20th set of award winners. With three films leading an awards discussion without definitive direction, the SAG has the power to shift the tide in favor of one.
While a small nominating committee (of around 2,000) tosses contenders into the ring, the entire SAG base of 120,000 (the largest of any industry guild) votes on winners. This means that the film/performances with the most general appeal will win. This
means that tonight there are three possible outcomes:
1) The SAG can go with the tide of the season, choose American Hustle for ensemble and Supporting Actress, placing the film essentially on a platter for the pundits to pick apart, allowing Gravity or 12 Years a Slave to swoop into the lead
2) The SAG can go with the tide of the season, choose American Hustle for ensemble and Supporting Actress, making the film indestructible, allowing it to plow through the DGA and PGA on to the Oscars
3) The SAG can shift momentum toward 12 Years a Slave with ensemble, Actor, Supporting Actor, and Supporting Actress wins
If American Hustle–undoubtedly the film with the most general appeal–sweeps with the SAG, the momentum will likely continue with the DGA and PGA, all the way to the Oscars. It’s already enduring an onslaught of backlash, not for the quality of the film, but because–yet again–in the minds of Oscar pundits, the general consensus gravitates more toward pure entertainment value than foreseeable longevity, cinematic value, and historical significance.
12 Years a Slave is an important film in an important year for diversity within the industry. The Academy welcomed its first black female president, and three black filmmakers all put forth massive efforts that won over audiences (Lee Daniels’ The Butler grossed nearly $150 million worldwide) and critics (Fruitvale Station brought Ryan Coogler recognition from the Film Independent Spirit Awards to the various critics circles around the country) alike.
When 12 Years a Slave was making the festival circuit, it seemed nearly unstoppable. I’m not sure “divisive” is even the proper word to use to describe its appeal, because there are people who completely refuse to watch it in the first place. It’s a disservice to the history of the country and to the brilliant filmmakers behind the film to shun it based on personal discomfort with the subject material, and the film would fit nicely within the shifting narrative of our nation’s political and social landscape. Art and society often compliment each other, and in a year that was so huge for the minority voice in the arts, 12 Years a Slave is a fitting film to represent the year.
It’s an unfortunate fact that the Academy is rarely on the side of history, and often overlooks films with the potential to embed themselves as historically significant.
Once a film becomes the Best Picture “frontrunner,” it’s dead in so many ways. It becomes the “it-girl” of awards season and, when it wins, becomes throwaway. It becomes the film everyone has seen and the film everyone is expected to love. It fails to carry significant dramatic weight, as its status as the golden film of the year precedes the content of the picture. It’s happened for the past three calendar years (The King’s Speech, The Artist, Argo, and now American Hustle) are all universally-appealing, adequate, entertaining slices of quality filmmaking that represent our quick-fix culture’s taste. They’re films that make us happy in the moment, but don’t ask much of us at all in terms of intellectual engagement.
The backlash is instant, or slowly seeps into the film’s identity over a slow period of time, and the very same hype machine that took 12 Years a Slave from end-all frontrunner to the underdog is now already heating up to take American Hustle down.
Some have labeled American Hustle’s female characters as throwaway, forgettable, and poorly fleshed-out. They might pale in comparison to the women Russell’s earlier work, but these characters (and the women playing them) are some of the most buzzed about topics about the current awards race. They’re sexualized and flaunted, but they’re also charismatic and appealing because of the enormous talent bringing them to life. Jennifer Lawrence is arguably the biggest star on the planet. She helmed the first female-driven film (Catching Fire) to top the domestic box-office since 1997 earlier last year, and has earned Oscar recognition three times in the past four years (two nominations, one win). To reduce her work in American Hustle (and the recognition she’s getting for it) to the appeal of her sexuality is demeaning to Lawrence’s star as a whole. It’s just a shame that her performance pales in comparison to her fellow nominess (both with the SAG and the Oscars).
The whole detractor “old white male Academy members are voting with their dicks” theory surrounding American Hustle‘s popularity holds up to a certain extent, but it can’t be cast over the entirety of the film. Porn is now more accessible than ever. It’s free and only a few mouse clicks away. I hardly think that you can attribute an old white male’s sexual attraction to the idea of Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams to the film’s scope of appeal. Academy members aren’t using American Hustle as a source of sexual pleasure. It’s an exciting, showy period picture that’s sleek, flashy, and allows them to leave the theater with no weight on their shoulders. It’s not particularly challenging, and doesn’t exactly say a whole lot, nor is it about much at all. At its core, the film is pure escapist porn, and that’s what a general audience is going to gravitate toward.
The only Oscar frontrunner at a complete disadvantage here is Gravity, as the SAG obviously focuses solely on actors. Though Sandra Bullock does appear in the Lead Actress category here, the film never had a shot in any other category, as the only other actor physically present in the film (George Clooney), is a miniscule part of the overall product.
What Gravity loses here is pure visibility, and that’s a shame because this is a film that’s relied largely on its spectacular presence. Though Bullock last week snagged an award for the film at the People’s Choice Awards, she’s had little traction with awards season voters at any other major Oscar precursor. Her appeal, too, is largely based on her endearing persona and ability to captivate a crowd. The SAG nominated her, which is huge, though the award is Cate Blanchett’s to lose.
In terms of the big picture, however, lets not forget that the SAG can deviate largely from the Best Picture narrative. Just two years ago, they awarded The Help’s ensemble with top honors, and Inglourious Basterds took the same award just two years prior. The SAGs voters are inclined to vote for, again, the films, performances, and stars from the most general appeal, and that’s something 12 Years a Slave simply doesn’t have. It’s great for the impending Best Picture Oscar winner when its cast lines up with the ideals of the SAG’s 120,000-strong voting base, but it doesn’t always mean that an ensemble award here indicates Oscar glory further down the road.
Oscar voters still have time to mull their decision, though the 2013 awards season map needs an X, and it’s on the SAG to plot its coordinates.
Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture: American Hustle
Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role: Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club
Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role: Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine
Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role: Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club
Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role: Jennifer Lawrence – American Hustle
Outstanding Performance by a Stunt Ensemble in a Motion Picture: Lone Survivor