Thursday, July 10, 2008

Keep Oscar in His Place

There is a big brouhaha all over the Internet, most recently over at David Poland's blog,, about Heath Ledger's performance in The Dark Knight in the wake of Poland seeing the film and posting a non-spoiler review. (For the record, he liked a great deal, but says it's not quite the masterwork some are insisting it is.) But unfortunately it's largely about one thing: is Ledger's performance destined to be nominated come this winter for an Academy Award, or is all of the buzz for the last several months been "goofy," as Poland says. There are some commenters there--a couple of whom seem so Batman-obsessed that they know every single thing there is to know about the character Ledger embodies in The Dark Knight, cool for them, I guess--who are discussing the intricacies of Ledger's performance (though sadly most of them, like the rest of us out here in the world, have yet to see it).

What troubles me about films and/or performances that receive significant hype is that I fear many a person, professional critic and otherwise, look at these films and performances through the lens of Oscah, Oscah, Oscah--who'll be nominated? who will win? what politics are involved? (in this case, how much of a factor is Ledger's death back in January?)--and though I'm sure there are plenty of folks who can separate the actual film and/or performance from the hype while viewing it, I do fear that sometimes it works the opposite way.

One particular example? Well, I would say Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls was one of the biggest beneficiaries of this "preordained" business. It was as if her bellowing and singing, which I thought was okay, was made out to be something tremendously iconic (stemming from the Broadway production from decades ago, evidently), before it was even screened for critics on November 14, 2006. Once she became the Frontrunner, it always stayed that way despite what I thought were significant weaknesses (which, in my opinion, were mostly present whenever she wasn't singing, and sometimes even when she was).

Sometimes I think the Oscars are just great and dandy, in that they do often reward people for a solid body of work, or, for legitimately sentimental reasons, ought to just be given the darned thing to make everyone feel good. Occasionally a steamroller of a film comes along and makes everything plainly apparent (say, a Schindler's List) but often it's almost a roll of the dice, about which films you were up against (The Departed's victory isn't tarnished by the fact that none of the other four films really "fit," but it was certainly a contributing factor to its eventual coronation).

I like the Oscars, even if I rarely agree with them about what really are the best films, and at least regularly differ in my appraisal of acting performances and other categories. Yet I do think overanalysis in July is a scary thing--let's at least wait for Ledger's performance, which I'm sure is amazing on its own terms no matter what (see, I'm biased, too, but we all are and we'll never be completely able to escape that), to percolate, and cool, and dispassionately assess it. I do not write these words to contemn Oscar. I just want him kept in his place.


Craig Kennedy said...

I have a love/hate relationship with the Oscars. I enjoy the couple of months before and I enjoy talking about it afterward, but really until the nomimations are announced, I can't be bothered too much.

There is WAY too much significance put on them. I want to enjoy (hopefully) Ledger's performance for what it is, and not what awards it might win.

One of the reasons I first started blogging was because I think there is too much emphasis on awards, yet last year I fell into the trap of keeping an eye on it.

Alexander Coleman said...

"I have a love/hate relationship with the Oscars."

Ditto, Craig. Every year I fall right back into the trap of speculating and being interested and hoping for (what I think are) the best films and actors to win, but I don't really take much stock in the ceremony, ultimately. We are talking about an awards body that never awarded Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles the Best Director Oscar (along with plenty of others, like the late Robert Altman, who was given an honorary one, and the old Sidney Lumet, who likewise received an honorary Oscar) while giving Ron friggin' Howard one, so you can't become too obsessed with them, as I reason.

I'll be blocking all of this extraneous Oscar nonsense when I see The Dark Knight. Maybe Best Supporting Actor will be so shallow this year, that the Ledger-must-win sentiment will take over, and maybe he won't be nominated at all, but what matters is what's on the screen. That's what lives forever, a point made all the more poignantly clear by Ledger's very (extremely untimely) death.

lightbird777 said...

Interesting post, Alexander.

Like everyone else I have yet to see Heath Ledger's performance. I'm sure it's great, but I agree that the hype is starting way too early. And it's unnecessary, in my opinion.

I haven't read Poland's blog at all. He's hit or miss for me. And speaking of hyping a performance before it's been seen, he stated that Johnny Depp would win the best actor Oscar for Sweeney Todd the day after the previous year's Oscars ended (and before it was even done filming). I don't think Daniel Day-Lewis was even on the radar at that point. That came after the first viewers saw the movie screened in Texas, if I'm not mistaken.

One never knows what performances will come out of nowhere and dazzle us. As Craig pointed out, there shouldn't be so much significance put on them and hopefully we can all enjoy Ledger's performance for what it is.

Alexander Coleman said...

"Interesting post, Alexander."


Poland has a bad history of that and more, Alison. In 2006, for months, he said that Will Smith was an "85% sure lock" to win for The Pursuit of Happyness. He refused to believe Forest Whitaker would go on to win for his portrayal of Idi Amin, and that was after seeing those two performances.

lightbird777 said...

Yeah, I notice that he's very obstinate about those things once his mind is made up. He refused to believe that Forest Whitaker would win in 2006 and he refused to believe that Daniel Day-Lewis would win last year. Even after he realized that Depp's chances weren't what he thought they were he insisted that George Clooney would win. It wasn't until after DDL won the SAG that he said, "Oh alright! I concede that Daniel Day-Lewis will win". Something like that. It was pretty funny.

Alexander Coleman said...

I honestly don't see why he does that stuff. And then when something monumental happens--like, say, Dreamgirls not being nominated for Best Picture after he's practically stolen the Best Picture Oscar from a vault on its behalf--he says something like, "Yeah, okay, this kind of thing happens from time to time," and almost instantly moves on.

Hate to pile on the guy, but his box office prognostications are pretty poor as well, as Iron Man and Speed Racer will attest to.

Daniel G. said...

Excellent insights here.

I don't know, I'm all over the place but in the end I come down on the side of loving the Oscars and dreaming about one day attending. For me it's as much a celebration of the past year in film as anything else (even the non award winners, since everybody attends). I like the songs, the tributes, and let's be honest, the glamour of it. Ugh, I just said that.

Anyway, I bag on Oscar when my favorites are snubbed and then defend other movies by mentioning their Oscar noms or wins. How does that make sense?

As far as the preordaining goes, well that's definitely true, probably more so than we even realize. Somebody puts early world, as with TDK, and it has to be kept in the conversation the rest of the year. It's usually a self-fulfilling prophecy, which is really unfortunate. In this case I think I'm going to have a hard time watching TDK without thinking about it, and that annoys me.

So yeah, we're getting to the point where every movie from now on will have some early Oscar buzz. Funny that The Visitor, like Zodiac last year, will probably be excluded from the conversation entirely.

Ramble ramble. I'm done.

Alexander Coleman said...

Love the rambling, Daniel. I love to indulge in it myself a great deal.

Certainly, in the grand scheme of things, the Oscars are a pretty darned innocuous event, and in their own way they're a ceremony of considerable avoirdupois. Thank you for the very candid points in their favor, Daniel.

The buzz/"preordaining" business is murky. Sometimes the backlash against what is perceived to be a certain truth is wrong, though. For instance, there are some out there who are saying that the Ledger Oscar talk is merely because he died, as though it came out of nowhere back in January with his tragic death. Yet I remember there being early rumblings from set reports of The Dark Knight last summer, so I'll be standing against those in the eventual (sad and unfortunate) war between those who think he's receiving the kudos primarily because of his death and those who say that was just the icing on the cake.

But, there we go. Just the fact that I can see the battle formations developing now just shows how it's all a bit of a vicious cycle, but in the end from a Hobbesian perspective that is just what life is. We trudge along, fight the good fight, taking in the small pleasures in the face of the strenuous and incommodious issues with which we deal.

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