For better or for worse (usually the latter), the Oscars matter. Nominees and winners gain wider recognition, legacies are secured and history is written. Citizen Kane will never be a Best Picture winner, and Crash will always be one.
So when we complain about the Oscars, it's because we care and want them to get better. In that spirit, here are some go-to talking points for Oscar night:
Impress your friends early with a bit of history about this tech category: It's the home of one of the Oscars’ unluckiest nominees, Kevin O’Connell, who’s been up for the award a record 20 times without ever winning. He isn’t nominated this time around and thus can’t leave the Dolby Theatre disappointed yet again.
Even more of a downer is the story of composer Victor Young, who was nominated 21 times in the original score/song categories before finally winning for Around the World in 80 Days. Problem is, he died before the ceremony and went to his grave without knowing he was finally going to be honored.
Many were puzzled and upset when The Lego Movie failed to secure a nomination, not least because many assumed it would win outright. Use this category as an opportunity to argue against the Oscars’ continued misalignment with popular taste (The Lego Movie made more than $250 million in the United States alone), or rile up any partisans in the room with the counterintuitive argument that few seem ready to make: The Lego Movie isn’t actually that good.
This has come to be regarded as a vital bellwether for larger success. The last movie to win Best Picture without at least being nominated in this field was 1980’s Ordinary People; only eight others have done so since the editing award was introduced in 1934. This may well be correlation rather than causation, but if not, then non-nominee Birdman is in trouble in the Best Picture race — even though it has ascended to Best Picture frontrunner status due to its wins of top awards from the Producers Guild, Directors Guild and Screen Actors Guild..
Think of this as a consolation prize for an innovative movie that’s too weird or, well, original to actually win Best Picture. (In especially dire years, they just give it to the uninspired Best PIcture anyway, as they did with The King’s Speech.) Past awardees include Melvin and Howard, Pulp Fiction and, most recently, Her — all of which are far superior to the corresponding Best Picture. Wes Anderson looks primed to finally take this one home, and The Grand Budapest Hotel is, you guessed it, better than Birdman.
Yet another opportunity to bemoan the Academy’s byzantine rules. Whiplash counts as adapted because it's the feature-length expansion of a short film? OK.
A good, cynical rule of thumb for the tech categories is to replace the word “best” with “most.” The more rarefied the craft, the truer the rule — do you think a sizable percentage of Oscar voters know the difference between sound mixing and sound editing? So it is with cinematography, which means the award will be given to the great Emanuel “Chivo” Lubezki of Birdman, which is presented as having been filmed in a single shot. That's not to say Lubezki doesn't deserve to win his second consecutive prize. (He finally took home the prize for Gravity after being denied for his work in films including Children of Men and The Tree of Life.) This is also a great time to lambast AMPAS for never having given the prize to 12-time nominee Roger Deakins, who's best known for working with the Coen brothers.
If you go out of your way to watch movies made outside the United States, this is probably the most dispiriting category. No love for Palme d’Or winner Winter Sleep, and nothing for Manakamana. The same middlebrow fare that takes home Best Picture trophies is often rewarded here, hence the love for Estonian mediocrity Tangerines and Argentina’s would-be-zany Wild Tales. Get party bonus points for mentioning the political controversies the award is constantly provoking.
Luckily for Citizenfour, there’s no feel-good doc about a previously unheralded musician nominated this year. Nor is there one about a widely beloved film critic, despite Life Itself being much more acclaimed than some of the inevitable also-rans. Chalk up the refusal to recognize a moving tribute to Roger Ebert to AMPAS’ pettiness — how many of their movies had he trashed over the years? — or just the latest in their saga of denying Steve James, whose Hoop Dreams was famously snubbed 20 years ago. That led to a revised nomination process, which doesn't seem to have done much good.
You may hear fellow partygoers repeating the talking point that this was a “weak year” in this field. If so, shut them down immediately, because it's literally never true. Really, it's a reflection of awards prognosticators' (and, more importantly, the Academy's) usual inability to look past the most obvious options. They broke from that trend by nominating Marion Cotillard for her performance in Two Days, One Night this year, but could have gone even further. It isn’t a knock against Julianne Moore (whose likely win for Still Alice is a long time coming) to say that Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle) or Paulina García (Gloria) would have been equally deserving of a nomination.
Whoever wins (read: Patricia Arquette) will almost certainly deliver a longer speech than 1963’s winner, Patty Duke. She set a still-unbroken record when accepting a statuette for her performance in The Miracle Worker, simply saying, “Thank you.”
It’s still true that AMPAS loves when actors play real people, as four of the five members of this field can attest (and Michael Keaton plays a sort-of version of himself). It’s also exceedingly bizarre that Bradley Cooper is the only one here who’s been nominated before — Steve Carell, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Keaton and Eddie Redmayne are all first-timers.
If you really want to impress your friends, tell them that J.K. Simmons winning for Whiplash may be the only certainty of the entire overlong ceremony. Say this with utmost confidence, because it's true: Simmons has cleaned up with every other awards-giving body and probably will be the calmest nominee in the room come Sunday.
Best Director and Picture have gone to different films in just 22 of the 85 ceremonies to date, including the last two years. When that occurs, the movie awarded Best Director tends to be better: Ang Lee won for Brokeback Mountain before losing the big one to Crash, Steven Soderbergh was honored for his work on Traffic the year that Gladiator won Best Picture, and so on and so forth. If Richard Linklater wins for Boyhood and Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman takes Best Picture, it’ll be yet another instance of this strange legacy.
Typically, the easiest way to win your Oscar pool is by aligning your choices with those of the major guilds. The Producers Guild of America drastically altered the race when it gave its top prize to Birdman rather than Boyhood, which had more or less swept the precursor awards up to that point. Many still think the humble coming-of-age story shot intermittently over 12 years is walking home with the big one, and though this humble writer would like to be one of them, it seems a case of voting with their hearts rather than their minds. Fool me once, shame on you. Give Best Picture to Crash, I’m never trusting you again.
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