Oscar Movies

Oscar Season Diary #12: How Soon Is Too Soon? Don’t Take “Big Eyes” Reactions To Heart

Stars On The Set Of "Big Eyes"

So often does Oscar season turn into a public war of tastes that we lose sight of the race that’s happening right in front of us.

The Oscar race is an ever-evolving beast. With the influence of the online community, the court of social media, and the guilds and critics circles all jockeying to push films into the race before anyone else, Oscar Season now stretches across the better part of a year where it used to fit comfortably within the confines of a few months’ time.

As early as May, just a little over two months since the Oscar telecast, we find the discussion revolving around the traditionally un-Oscary Cannes Film Festival. We can try to talk about it in an Oscar context all we want, but that festival will never be a legitimate stepping stone across the Academy pond. The ideologies of both the Oscars and Cannes force an undeniable divide; one is there for the satisfaction of studios and English-speaking audiences (namely the United States, of course), while the other is a celebration of the congregation of art, cinema, and culture along the shores of France’s finest coastline.

Still, the Oscar pundits want to do their shoving, their squeezing, their hammering of the season’s potential players into the respective boxes they’ve cut out for them–whether they fit or not. Of course, aside from Cannes, the reality is that we’ve barely scratched the surface of the festivals that matter in an Oscar context. Telluride, Toronto, and Venice are all still some time away, with slates that have yet to be announced.

And here we find ourselves squabbling about Oscar potential from all ends of the arena. Just last week, a focus group screening was held for Tim Burton’s much buzzed-about Big Eyes, a live-action biopic about the life of artist Walter Keane and his wife, Margaret. In attendence were general audience members and Oscar bloggers alike (apparently the Awards Watch crew attended).

Granted, even before we saw pictures from the set, the film’s cards were presumably aligned for awards season greatness: Tim Burton, a beloved and iconic filmmaker, has yet to win (or be nominated , for that matter) for an Oscar for a live-action film, and Big Eyes boasts a cast that features Oscar-charged talent like Christoph Waltz (two-time winner),  Danny Elfman (four-time nominee), and Bruno Delbonnel (four-time nominee).

Burton has assembled a gaggle of overdue players that, in an ideal world, sets the stage quite nicely for Oscar legacy/career awards for himself, Elfman, and Delbonnel. It’s Amy Adams’ turn in the other lead role, however, that has Oscar pundits’ hearts aflutter.

Since 2005, Adams has gone five Oscar nominations deep without a win. Her rabid online fan base is keen on 2014 being her year to finally win; whether it’s just another bout with wishful thinking (that her fans should have long grown tired of by now, as this seems to be the same story heading into every Oscar year after her second nomination in 2008 for Doubt) or a legitimate prophecy remains to be seen, but that doesn’t stop those with a voice–hidden behind the screen and typed word–from shouting praises from her end of the ring.

Awards Watch was quick to spout about guaranteed nominations for Waltz and Adams. Others chimed in with–what seemed to be–overwhelming approval for Adams’ performance. She’s been “overdue” in the eyes of her fanbase for quite some time, and while it can absolutely work in your favor when final ballots go out (and your name is on them, as happened with Kate Winslet in 2008), the art of being “overdue” has little relevance this early in the race, especially when applied to the awards season trajectories of Julianne Moore (who won Best Actress at Cannes for Maps to the Stars) and Amy Adams here.

Still, that doesn’t stop the internet age from fostering a community where self-importance breeds a necessity for anyone from an Oscar blogger to a nobody to push something–anything–into the race, but it’s simply unwise to make guarantees this early in the game.

It’s completely safe for people who’ve seen Big Eyes to speculate on nominations and gauge a film’s potential, but prophesizing a win at this point? It’s ridiculous, and it’s an increasing trend in the digital age. I’m all for using an informed perspective to gauge how well something will do at the Oscars, but with major performances by actresses who are–quite frankly–better than Amy Adams in general that haven’t been seen yet (along with the fact that we don’t even know if these buzzed-about performances will be campaigned in lead or supporting), it’s very unwise (and potentially detrimental to Adams’ awards trajectory this year) to peg her as a winner this early.

Remember how the eye of the target immediately became 12 Years a Slave when Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan in September declared it the Best Picture winner? Early praise (and such definitive statements) make the film in question both the sexiest dish for a minute, and immediately fodder for the online court to push it to the background as the “obvious” choice. Early praise is essentially helping a film on its way to front-running to instant death. This early, it’s nothing more than loudness for loudness’ sake.

Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 8.03.21 PMThe guys over at Awards Watch are borderline obsessed with their red-headed divas, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but giving them early access to an already-hyped potential vehicle for Adams’ long-awaited Oscar only runs the risk of inflating their reaction, which I guess is good press from the studio’s marketing standpoint. The problem with taking these types of early Twitter reactions seriously in the grand scheme of the race, though, is that they’re immediate, unfiltered, and squished into 140 characters, where you’re forced to talk bigger instead of talking better, and inflated again by the fanboys on forums and blogs that seek them out after the screening. Audiences and pundits are waiting for an excuse to explode with praise for a film that’s already charged with Oscar conversation, especially this early in the year. This seems to happen every time an Oscar movie is screened early. They’ll freak out and heap praise immediately because:

A) They’re excited that they’ve seen it before everyone else
B) It fills the egos of those who’ve seen it because they were able to see it before anyone else, so of course they’re going to capitalize on that esteem by inflating their reaction as a means to validate the fact that, well, they’ve seen it before anyone else

I’m not doubting Adams’ performance at all. I actually have high hopes for it, though it’s just really tough for me to take seriously the opinion of an Adams’ fanboys who were given early access to one of her films, but the excitement (and the thirst) of those who’ve seen the film already is far too real and pre-established to amount to a serious reaction or gauging of her placement in the race thus far, and preview screenings without embargoes on audience reaction are only tools to aid in the film’s publicity machine.

It’s important to pay attention to people’s reactions to these screenings as a whole, and not take the word of a few loud individuals who want to make their opinion on the film matter more than the collective. As a whole, it seems like people liked Adams’ performance. If you dig deeper, you’ll find that a good number of people actually feel that Waltz outshines her (see Oh No They Didn’t!’s review by clicking here).

The opinions of these chosen few don’t mean anything more or less than that, and a single day of screenings should, by no means, be used to say that an actress is going to win the Oscar when the landscape she’ll be competing in hasn’t even been laid out yet. It’s just irresponsible and false amplification of an untested, tiny sliver of a much larger race with fixings that have yet to fall entirely into place.

It all amount to little more than jockeying for the pole position, to being able to shout one’s own stance at Ground Zero, and our obsession with “being there” at the beginning instead of being in the moment when everything’s unfolding is turning the Oscar race into a dull screaming match between voices that don’t really matter.

As much as we’d like to gain control, to wrangle our favorites from the grasp of the studios who fuel their Oscar campaigns and steer them along the path to greatness, we lose sight of one thing: it’s all in the hands of the Academy, and we must surrender control until the time to intervene is just right. Keep the shouting to a minimum until all the pieces are in play, no?

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Oscar Season Diary #4: When Will the Fantasy End? “Captain Phillips” and the New American Dream

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For the better half of the last decade, The Academy has gone soft.

Argo ends as we gaze upon the quintessential American family embracing amidst the backdrop of a glistening sun and oversized American flag. The Artist concludes with a pair of beaming smiles, aimed like saccharine arrows poised to pierce our helpless hearts with undying hope.

Both films are fantasies, and both reaffirm what only cinema can; that painful reality is pitifully easy to forget, even when it surrounds us each and every day.

Zero Dark Thirty’s final shot shows a dead-tired woman unraveling before our very eyes, crushed by the lack of relief she feels after pouring years of her life into finding and killing the most-wanted man in the world. In its final moments, Captain Phillips dares to toy with the idea that American heroism is a mirage bolstered only by ignorance and virus-like corporate domination of the international economy. While the former’s chance at Oscar’s top prize were dashed thanks to the irresponsibly harsh political campaign against it, the latter seems similarly destined to find itself among Oscar’s forgotten contenders when envelopes are opened early next year. Both films challenge us in places where Best Picture winners like The Artist and Argo dared not to tread.

With hard-hitting dramas like 12 Years a Slave garnering the overwhelming majority of Oscar buzz, it’s clear that The Academy might finally (for the first time since 2009) be obligated to choose a film that represents a relevant sense of reality versus the abnormally glossy one they’ve favored for years, and the conclusion can’t be drawn merely at the Best Picture line.

Where Argo celebrates American triumph, Zero Dark Thirty and Captain Phillips embody a much darker, tangible pessimism in their refusal to herald classical American heroism. Zero Dark Thirty failed to receive its deserved share of Oscar attention. Will the story be different for Captain Phillips? Perhaps, though it is a far more challenging film that reflects a mentality the Oscars will have to deal with at one point or another.

These films—Captain Phillips, in particular—usher in the New American Dream, one that’s wrangled itself free from the grasp of US hands and into those whose existence lingers far outside the casual American’s radar. Somali pirates (like the ones in Captain Phillips) are a prime example of this.

We’re introduced to Muse, Bilal, and Najee, a trio of fishermen living in poverty on the beaches of Somalia. The waters before them teem with international trade routes, largely controlled by the United States’ almost tyrannical presence. These fishermen don’t let this domination keep them down, however, as they set out to overtake US ships and reap the bounties of their cargo.

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These men see America as not only an intrusive presence, but as something to be conquered. Filtered through this foreign perspective, the New American Dream evolves beyond merely being a goal-oriented journey to better opportunity. For Bilal, Muse, and Najee, it is a challenge; a plague; a virus; something that can be contained and conquered, as Muse reminds us that he “can handle America,” speaking of it as a single entity, brushing off a gargantuan presence as if it were a pesky housefly.

Once aboard Phillips’ ship, these men demand two things: money and honesty. “No games,” Muse, a stern-faced and determined leader with little inclination to cause bodily harm, consistently reminds Phillips. These men are here to do business, to bring back a portion of wealth that traverses their home waters on a daily basis, and to assert themselves as a minority of the world population that refuse to disappear under the boot of America.

While the three pirates come to represent various aspects of the anti-American worldview (rage, yearning for national prosperity, and those lost in the struggle between the two positions) the film as a whole represents the underlying fear Americans have but rarely have to confront in their everyday lives: that those we deem “weak,” that we fancy ourselves “untouchable” to, harness a primal power which threatens the footing upon which we stand. In contrast, we see that Americans are willing to do less work for more, as Phillips’ men refuse to defend the ship because they’re “in the union” and “didn’t sign up for this,” as poor Somali men scale their vessel–without shoes.

It’s interesting that in such a short amount of time, now nearly a year after Kathryn Bigelow’s sophomore effort opened to #1 at the box-office (well on its way to nearly $100 million domestically), that the American public seems to be embracing challenging alternatives to the male-dominated, male-marketed norm. Despite typical hits like Iron Man 3 and Despicable Me 2, American audiences have proven that a yearning for alternative films is ever-present. We saw success stories for women (The Heat, Gravity, The Conjuring—nearly every “original” title to open to over $34 million in weekend receipts was female-oriented or driven by a female star [or stars]) and watched adult-oriented dramas climb their way to box-office success (Prisoners peaked at $60 million, Now You See Me quietly made over $100 million).

Captain Phillips seems poised to break $100 million within the next few weeks, and 12 Years a Slave has enough awards push behind it to cross into healthy $50 or $60 million territory by the time the Oscars roll around.

My only problem continues to be audience reception of these films. I can remember audiences clapping at the end of Zero Dark Thirty and, again, at my screening of Captain Phillips. I continue to be disturbed by this behavior, as both films position America as an almost evil entity that’s to be feared for its ruthless manipulation of so many outlets and people.

The Americans in Captain Phillips ignore the pirates’ willingness to cooperate by playing games and manipulating, which directly opposes Muse’s only condition for complying in the first place. After heading the operation to successfully kill Osama bin Laden, Maya sits on an airplane, alone, and weeps to herself after the pilot asks her where she’d like to go. Her tears stand for the anxieties about America’s position in the world. Where do we go from here? How do we face life when the evils of America’s reach become personal? We see the effects of America’s domination in Captain Phillips. “There’s got to be some other way to solve this,” Phillips says to Muse. “Maybe in America,” he responds, for once acknowledging the fantasyland that the nation has become.

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The Academy rarely plays with challenge. Their voting base seems, to me, like the kind of people who would clap at the end of Captain Phillips because an American “hero” survives. I’m the kind of person who sees the last shots of the film for what they are. I can’t watch as a close-up on the tiny lifeboat where the pirates lost their lives becomes an extreme long shot that positions three large American vessels on all sides, cementing US domination as an unrelenting, soulless presence on the world stage.

It’s scary and unnerving. I hope The Academy will learn to see through the veil of American entitlement if it chooses to award Captain Phillips with anything.

Awards for heroism it does not deserve; recognition for lifting the wool Argo seeks to pull down, however, would be most appropriate.