screen actors guild awards

Oscar Season Diary #9: ’12 Years a Slave,’ the PGA Awards, and the Dangers of Expectation

PGA-tie-618x400So much of the film industry is driven by expectation.

Studios expect box-office returns. Audiences expect to be entertained. Critics expect to be impressed.

Most Oscar bloggers and awards season pundits place themselves outside of these categories. Most of us have no interest in the business side of the industry, nor do we elect to be as willingly passive as those who think going to the multiplex on a Saturday night is an excuse to switch your brain into idle mode.

We chug along on the perimeter of the industry, poking and prodding at the seams of awards season, championing our favorite films of the year and (sometimes) throwing the others under the bus, because we expect the Academy’s taste to coincide with quality, not whichever film happens to press the least amount of buttons to fall in line with a safe consensus.

The most dangerous thing about awards season, however, is the baggage that expectations can place on prognostication. It’s not a particularly important part of the actual awards, but predictions and expectations are often the push that gets the ball rolling.

Usually, by mid-January, all of the guilds and critics circles have announced their annual set of winners, and the consensus generally tends to funnel into a single lane. By this time last year, Argo was set firmly ahead of the pack, and a year before that The Artist was sitting pretty in a similar position.

If this weekend’s Screen Actors Guild and Producers Guild ceremonies proved anything, it’s that the immense quality of the films released in the calendar year have interfered with the industry’s ability to come to that dreaded (but necessary) consensus.

The SAG (the largest voting base of any industry guild, with about 120,000 eligible voters) often aligns with the film with the broadest appeal (in essence, the film that’s easiest for its members to come to a consensus on), which, for 2013, is unmistakably American Hustle (Lupita Nyong’o, however, was able to notch a win over Jennifer Lawrence, plunging the predictability of that race further into oblivion once again).

As all prepared to stick a fork in 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, the seemingly-impossible happened: the PGA announced its first-ever tie, awarding top honors to both films at its awards ceremony last night. Not only were Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuaron’s respective films kept alive in a race they’d otherwise fallen behind in, they were actually catapulted ahead of American Hustle just as it was gaining the upper hand.

We’ve got the Directors Guild of America left, and their top honor will likely go to Alfonso Cuaron for his work on Gravity. That would, effectively, place Sandra Bullock’s one-woman show in prime position.

Alas, what have we learned? Expectations are limiting and evil, especially in such an unpredictable Oscar year. Just take a look at the likes of Inside Llewyn Davis and Saving Mr. Banks, two films largely expected to dominate this year’s race, but only mustered a paltry three Oscar nominations between the two of them–not a single one in a major category. Again, this goes against what our expectations would tell us. Both Emma Thompson and the Coen brothers have excellent Oscar track records–both are winners–and worked on films that were immense critical successes. 2013 taught us not to listen to history, generally a fail-safe way to predict the Oscar mentality.

The tide could very easily shift toward 12 Years a Slave, bringing the narrative of the season back full-circle onto itself. When you think about it, the path is always uncharted, it’s just the critics, guilds, audience wallets, and pundits that determine who lives and who dies in the race. After all, the hype machine is to blame for building up most of our expectations and then violently shooting them down. It happened with Silver Linings Playbook last year, nearly happened to 12 Years a Slave this year, and is (most likely) currently unraveling American Hustle‘s late-race dash for Best Picture.

rs_560x415-140118172006-1024.Lupita-Nyongo-SAG-011814_copyIt’s a constant circle of self-made praise. Each publication–from Variety to Entertainment Weekly to Awards Daily–wants to be there at the start of glory. They want to champion the buzzy film-that-could that comes out of Toronto, Venice, and Telluride. They want to advance the narrative, and gain traction for pin-pointing excellence.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but this essentially kills any genuine reaction from general critics (the “legitimate” ones are usually already at these festivals, and are doing their fair share of feeding the hype monster) and audiences, as they’re either over-hyped to the point where it’s impossible to be impressed, or they’re unable to think for themselves and merely pile on the praise to fit in with the tide that’s been crafted around them. It’s a self-starting, self-destructive bubble.

12 Years a Slave is, on paper, a film that seems a fitting Best Picture for the 2013 calendar year. The Academy appointed its first female black president and made numerous efforts to diversify its voting base by inviting more women and people of color than ever before.

It only makes sense, then, that a film like 12 Years a Slave would be championed as a harbinger of change, as the perfect vessel to carry us through this monumental year for change.

As evidenced yesterday on Twitter as the film was announced as one of two PGA winners, many champion the film because they say it’s a symbol of hope for minorities in the United States. I’ve always had a problem with this, seeing as the film is a triumph in its mere existence, and doesn’t need what is essentially a majority award to justify its presence.

According to the LA Times, the Oscar voting base is overwhelmingly white and male (90% white, 75% male). If 12 Years a Slave were to win with these voters, the only thing it proves is that the film is playing into the majority’s taste, and isn’t really triumphing over the majority, then, anyway. Do not let the film be a symbol of “hope,” as that is a false appropriation of credit. All this means is that the film received the white majority’s approval, and played to their tastes. If it wins, the film will win as a great film, and should not be used as a tool for validation of race or presence. If hope lies in the hands of playing to the majority’s fancy, freedom for the minority voice is a missing part of the equation, as objectification then becomes the issue.

Again, people’s expectations for the film are that it must be the harbinger of hope simply because it was crafted by black hands, stars black actors, and is adapted from a book written by a prominent figure in African-American history. It is a marvelous film that should be championed because it does represent the minority voice, and represents it extremely well.

12 Years a Slave is a moving, powerful work of art that both challenges the majority stylistically and thematically, but to demean its value by validating its greatness at the hands of a white male-dominated is an insult to what it stands for.

The seething, lurking, ever-present tentacles of expectation have no right to impede 12 Years a Slave‘s existence as a cinematic landmark.

Advertisements

Charting the Course: SAG Awards Predictions

12-years-a-slaveTonight, the island is within sight, and the anchor begins its descent.

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

or

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).

jennifer-lawrence-first-american-hustleThe 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.

Full Predictions:

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