Movie Reviews

Published on January 20th, 2015 | by Val Farrelly


Oscars Backlash

The night of a 1,000 stars… so many bright white stars

<> on October 19, 2009 in Santa Clarita, California.

First, let me begin by stating that the Oscars are essentially an industry, and a rigged industry at that. There is an entire cottage industry of PR teams, awards consultants, lobbyists and marketing men devoted to Oscar campaigns.   The average “Best Picture” winning campaign costs $10 million – that’s almost half the budget of this year’s front runner, Grand Budapest Hotel.

Once upon a time, the Oscars went to the best movies of the year, those that were both critically-acclaimed and commercially successful.   Then the studios realized that they could game the system.   As blockbusters came to dominate the summer box office in the late seventies and early eighties, the film industry began to shift more serious movies to the end of the year.   The movies that battle it out for Oscars became a niche segment, in many cases unwatched by most Americans unless they lived near an art house cinema.   They’ve become Oscar-bait: movies made for no other reason than to compete for awards.


If you divide its gross take at the box office ($59,000,000) by the average adult ticket price ($12), it can be assumed that Oscar front runner Grand Budapest Hotel was seen by around 5 million people – which is a tiny fraction of the US movie going audience. As recently as 15 or 20 years ago, the movies competing for the Oscars attracted audiences 10 and 20 times the size of Grand Budapest Hotel’s.

Since the late 80’s the Academy Awards have increasingly been fought over and won largely by the studios’ art house divisions , largely using the Weinstein Brothers’ playbook (perfected during their years running Miramax Pictures and later The Weinstein Company) to take a movie from Oscar-bait to Oscar winner:

* Find a script based on the story of a tortured artist / someone dying of a disease or afflicted with a crippling handicap / or a historical character (bonus points if it was on last year’s Black List)

* Add an old white guy directing (bonus points if he is an A-list actor)

* Add some classically trained British actors

* Add classically trained British actresses (or Meryl Streep if budget allows)

* Choose anyone other than Roger Deakins to be your cinematographer

* Multiply all of the above with an expensive promo campaign buying “FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION” ads in the trades (or every single bus shelter in LA – I’m looking at you American Hustle)

* Finish with an insidious campaign of PR people and hired hacks badmouthing any movie that looks like it might be in competition with you

The end result should at the very least get your movie a nomination.

Snubs and Surprises
When the 2015 Academy Award nominations were announced, some snubs and surprises were expected. However, this year there seems to be more shocks, snubs, surprise omissions and bigger social media backlash than many Oscar watchers can remember.

The backlash has been loudest for Selma which the Academy somehow managed to nominate for Best Picture while ignoring all of the component parts for nominations (with the exception of Best Song).

The biopic of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. fell victim to an insidious campaign by representatives of President Lyndon B. Johnson who penned a series of op-eds and gave interviews condemning the movie’s portrayal of the former president.

Questions of historical accuracy were also raised about many of the other biopics that were in the running (The Imitation Game, Theory of Everything and most notably Foxcatcher – the subject of which threatened to kill the director on Twitter), but none suffered as much as Selma did.


In addition to its late release (a limited release on Christmas Day), Selma lost out on significant buzz because Paramount Pictures only sent screeners to members of the Academy and not to members of the various guilds. Each guild (SAG, DGA, WGA, PGA etc.) holds their own awards ceremony and announces the nominees before the Oscars. This can considerably strengthen the chance of an Oscar nom, as there is significant crossover between the memberships of the guilds and the Academy. Not sending screeners is a major mistake, which could be a result of budget issues, Paramount’s lack of faith in Selma or possibly just incompetent or inexperienced Paramount executives running the campaign.

The most obvious omissions seem to be a Best Director nomination for Ava Du Vernay, a Best Costume Design nom for Ruth E. Carter, and a Best Actor nod for David Oyelowo (who, as well as playing Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, also appeared in Default, Nightingale, A Most Violent Year and Interstellar this year).

Bradford Young, the cinematographer who shot Selma, as well as A Most Violent Year, was snubbed twice. A Most Violent Year, which picked up a number of major awards, including Best Film, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress from the National Board of Review, didn’t get a single Oscar nomination.

Among the other surprises:
How can a movie as exciting, innovative and successful (so successful that it has a sequel AND a spin-off in development) as The Lego Movie miss out on a Best Animated Feature nomination. That it was beaten by Ireland’s own Song of the Sea (which hasn’t been released in the US yet), is all the more surprising.

Lego Movie co-Director Phil Lord made his own Oscar after being snubbed

Lego Movie co-Director Phil Lord made his own Oscar after being snubbed

In the Documentary section, the omission of both Jorodowsky’s Dune, and the Roger Ebert documentary, Life Itself, is particularly surprising as they were easily the two most talked about documentaries of the year.

Despite getting a nomination for American Sniper in the DGA awards, the Academy did not make Clint Eastwood’s day as he missed out on a Best Director nomination even though Sniper got a Best Picture nomination. It’s very strange that two of the directors of the Best Picture nominees didn’t make the cut for Best Director.

Unbroken and Interstellar faded from view after their opening weekends, and both have to make do with a few technical nominations each.   Unbroken is the kind of film that Oscar voters would have been expected to vote for in droves – a tale of triumph over extreme adversity. For some reason, it and Interstellar were ignored in all the major categories, including the Best Picture field with up to 10 spots, 2 of which were left unfilled. Another movie that could have been expected to fill 1 of those 2 slots was Foxcatcher. After picking up Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor nods for Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo and Best Director for Bennett Miller, it’s surprising that there was no Best Picture love for the wrestling biopic.

Snowpiercer’s Production Design also seemed worthy of a nomination, even if all you saw of the movie was the trailer.


The omission of Gillian Flynn’s adaption of her own novel Gone Girl in the Best Adapted Screenplay category is one of the most baffling, especially since she was nominated in the same category for the Writers Guild Awards.   Also surprisingly omitted from the Best Adapted Screenplay category was Nick Hornby’s adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s novel Wild.

How did the Best Editing category not include a nomination for Birdman?  The entire movie was crafted in the edit suite by Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione to look like it was shot in one very long take.


Amongst the surprises in the Acting categories:
* Jennifer Aniston’s widely touted turn in Cake went unnoticed by the Oscar voters
* Amy Adams win at the Golden Globes last weekend wasn’t followed by an Oscar nom for Big Eyes.
* Tilda Swinton gave three performances worthy of a nomination in Snowpiercer, Only Lovers Left Alive and Grand Budapest Hotel, but it seems this may have split her votes
* Jessica Chastain’s acting in A Most Violent Year was overlooked along with everything else in that movie, but her roles in Interstellar, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby and Miss Julie could have split her votes
* Jake Gyllenhaal’s crop of Indie Spirit, SAG Awards and BAFTA nominations, and numerous Travis Bickle comparisons for his Nightcrawler performance weren’t enough to earn a Best Actor nod
* Timothy Spall’s performance as the eponymous Mr. Turner, was widely touted in the run up to the announcement of the nominations and many observers were surprised by the fact that the British movie got four nominations, but not in the one category were it had been most expected, Best Actor.   The other Turner-related surprise was when the head of the Academy mispronounced cinematographer, Dick Pope’s, name as Dick “Poop” when he was nominated. Oops!
* Probably the most surprising acting omission, given its haul of nine Oscar nominations, was Grand Budapest Hotel’s star, Ralph Fiennes, being overlooked in the Best Actor category

There were also some surprising inclusions among the nominees:

The nearly universally panned sound in Interstellar got not one, but two nominations. In its most egregious example, the audience could hear the score over a massive rocket launch, yet somehow it picked up nods for both Sound Mixing and Sound Editing.

Meryl Streep received a nomination for in Into The Woods. Seriously? It’s getting to the stage that Meryl Streep could do a cameo in the next Adam Sandler movie or Transformers sequel and the Academy would still give her a nomination.

Another surprising inclusion was the black-and-white Polish movie, Ida. While typically foreign language films will only be nominated for the Foreign Language category, Ida surprised by also picking up a nomination for Cinematography.

oscar actors

The night of a 1,000 stars… so many bright white stars
On the subject of black and white, the Academy had ramped up efforts to include more minorities and women among its membership over the past few years, but it still appears to have a mountain to climb, having come face to face with its own diversity issues this Oscar season. The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite has now been trending on Twitter and Facebook for almost 48 hours. This week’s nominations show that there is obviously still a lot of work to do. Only 1 of the 25 Best Actress, Actor, Supporting Actress, Supporting Actor and Director nominees is not white – Alejandro G. Inarritu, the Latino director of Birdman.   The last time the nominees were this pale, Titanic was steaming towards its 11 Oscar wins in 1998. Several commentators also pointed out that 100% of the Writing and Directing nominees are male, and the subjects of the nominated movies in all the major categories are all told from a male point of view.

The LA Times illustrated just how lacking in racial diversity the nominees were with a graphic:

The Academy’s demographics – it is 77% male and 92% white – do not reflect the entertainment industry, nor does it represent US moviegoers, 46% of whom are people of color, and a majority of whom (52%) are female.   If the Oscars are to stay relevant, it has to appeal to a young and diverse audience After Thursday’s nominations it’s doubtful if the most diverse generation in US history will tune into to watch a bunch of 60+ year old white dudes pat each other on the back.

Even before this year’s whitewashed nominations, it’s amazing that we give the Oscars as much credibility as we do, when some of the biggest stars of today and yesteryear, as well as the directors behind some of the most iconic movies in cinema history have all been blanked (in many cases- repeatedly) by the Academy.

Ava Du Vernay is in some pretty spectacular company when you look at some of the screen legends who never got an Oscar nomination for Best Director: Spike Lee, Tim Burton, Michael Mann, Brian De Palma, Satyajit Ray, Stanley Donen, D.W. Griffith, Roger Corman, Mack Sennett, Jean-Luc Godard, Buster Keaton, Fritz Lang, Sam Peckinpah, Terry Gilliam, Sergio Leone, and David Cronenberg are all still waiting for an Oscar Directing nomination.  On top of that, some of the greatest directors of all time were nominated for Best Director but never won: Altman, Bergman, Cassavetes, Chaplin, De Mille, Fellini, Fincher, Hawks, Hitchcock, Kubrick, Kurosawa, Lucas, Lumet, Lynch, Malick, Scott, Truffaut, and Welles.  Yeah, that’s right, the brains and eyes behind the lens for films like The Little Tramp, Blade Runner, Star Wars, The Wild Bunch, The Seventh Seal, La Dolce Vita, Citizen Kane, North by Northwest, and 2001 A Space Odyssey, amongst many others, never got the ultimate seal of approval from their peers in Hollywood.

Blade_Runner_poster Star-Wars-Poster DO_THE_RIGHT_THING 10 commandments Citizen-Kane-poster good bad and ugly
The acting nominations aren’t much better: Donald Sutherland, Peter Lorre, John Cusack, Edward G Robinson, Richard Gere, Marilyn Monroe, Mia Farrow, Raul Julia, Alan Rickman, Jeff Daniels, Steve Buscemi, Jim Carrey, and Joseph Cotton haven’t got a single Oscar nomination between them.

If the Oscars are the industry’s pinnacle for actors, actresses, writers, and directors, historically they have done a terrible job of identifying and rewarding the best in the industry, repeatedly overlooking many of the greats and rewarding others for some of their weakest work – Martin Scorsese winning for The Departed being a prime example.

Many of the movies that scooped Best Picture do not stand up to the test of time or to repeated viewing – when was the last time you sat through Chicago, Out of Africa, Crash, The Last Emperor or The English Patient?

The time is long overdue to accept that time and again the Oscars have gone for style over substance, rewarding mediocre art house films without regard to commercial success, and handing out awards after realizing that they are long overdue.   The Academy has painted itself into one exclusive, whitewashed corner, largely removed from the rest of the industry.  It will be interesting to watch what happens to the TV ratings for the ceremony now that the front runner is a movie only 1 in 60 Americans has seen.

The 85th Academy Awards® will air live on Oscar® Sunday, February 24, 2013.

About the Author

Val has worked in a variety of roles in TV & Film in Ireland and the US for over a decade. He has worked with companies ranging from start-ups to the Canadian equivalent of the BBC. Most recently he has been writing pilots for TV shows in Los Angeles. A long-time comic and movie geek, he is also the world’s worst living gamer, having been being afflicted with the eye-hand coordination of a stroke-afflicted sloth since the days of programming 8-bit games in BASIC on a Commodore VIC-20 as a child.

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