With the critics’ awards largely played out and the industry awards beginning to idly rev their engines, we’re at that point in the season — a point prematurely frazzled Oscar pundits might call the halfway mark, surprising sane laymen who think the race hasn’t even started yet — when certain terms start flying around the blogosphere with all-too-casual abandon. “Overrated” (translation: “I don’t personally think it deserves as many awards as it’s getting”) is one. “Underrated” (translation: “Forget critical reception, it’s not winning enough awards for my liking”) is another. And somewhere in between lies the Oscar-watcher’s favorite alarm word for loosening semi-cemented races, if only in their own imaginations: yes, the trusty old “backlash.”
A “backlash,” you understand, can describe anything from perceptible public resistance to a once-favored film or artist (the post-“sugar tits” Mel Gibson, say) to a strategized protest from a concentrated political or cultural faction with a sizable audience (the conservative anti-“Brokeback Mountain” bloc, say) to bored journalists and bloggers talking about how too many people are talking about a certain popular phenomenon — and it’s this last, most tenuous and tail-eating, form that “backlashes” in the realm of awards analysis usually take.
Never mind that a film hasn’t yet been seen by enough audiences for a real-world diminishment of standing to take place. Never mind that those responsible for dishing out awards show no sign of tempering their enthusiasm. If enough voices in the media have grown either weary or nervous of a contender’s success — usually, of course, because it’s “overrated” — a supposed backlash, however contained or specialized in its visibility, can take root. The backlash need not have a direct effect on the awards race to be deemed permanent: milquetoast favorite “The King’s Speech” may have won last year’s Best Picture Oscar, and may still be treasured by a great many viewers, but for the comparatively small number of blogosphere agnostics, it is forever tarnished by its own success, by the lasting appeal of certain sexier films it beat.
With no retractions on the cards from the Academy, their ultimate reward is to fudge the historical record: I’m frequently amazed by the number of casual Oscar flashbacks I read that describe “Dances With Wolves” as having unaccountably “upset” “GoodFellas” 21 years ago, as if the result had been anything but a foregone conclusion at the time. Whether such a widely held perception is the work of a backlash or simply the films’ own variable wear-and-tear is entirely debatable. Rather like greatness, some films are born forgettable, some achieve forgettability and others have forgettability thrust upon them.
Leading the backlash game in this year’s race, if only because it currently leads this year’s race overall, is “The Artist,” a film whose spirited novelty was destined to attract detractors from the day of its Cannes premiere — and immediately did, even if their protests were drowned out, then as now, by the dominant chorus of critical approval. If the film’s awards-season potential was evident to some of us as long ago as May, some effortfully independent-minded critics seem to feel blindsided, betrayed even, by its progression from surprise Competition entry to oddball European discovery to Weinstein-steered crossover arthouse monster: a none-too-gradual shifting of goalposts that they might allow to alter their own relationship to the film, setting an individual backlash in motion.
The other end of the backlash, perceived or otherwise, is held up by those who didn’t see it at Cannes, those who skipped the surprise stage and met it as a half-grown phenomenon, and found it somehow less revelatory than the discovery they’d been promised — a test endured by all festival-grown hits, particularly ones with fewer brand names involved to which viewers can attach and adjust expectations. The punchline in “The Artist”‘s case has been the fact that less clued-in observers now refer to it as “Oscar bait” — as if the film is defined by its adoptive (and notoriously publicity-savvy) American distributor, as if independent French silent black-and-white cinema rules the Oscar roost year after year.
Ironically, it’s a backlash maneuver that serves both the film and its detractors. The latter can hold awards-season success as proof positive that the film was always too middlebrow to be regarded seriously, while the former can bask in the obvious benefits of an Oscar-bait disguise: not just winning stuff, which is always nice too, but securing more eyeballs and interest in its participants’ futures than it would have on its own eccentric terms. The “backlash” may be fabricated — the raft of reviews that greeted its release was as glowing as the initial Cannes reception, after all — but then so, to some extent, is the film’s public identity as a feel-good prestige Goliath, so nobody’s really getting hurt.
Of course, nearly two months remain for the race to grow and shift and potentially switch track entirely, and plenty of films are ready and waiting to cultivate backlashes of their own. Following the film’s unexpected degree of precursor success, there’s already a faction willing to cut down “Bridesmaids” if it gets a little too big for its boots (cries of “overrated” are currently circling it like vultures), while “The Descendants” has already weathered some online pushback from critics (myself included, admittedly) and looks little the worse for it. Even “The Help,” which hardly had a pristine critical record to begin with, can expect to hear a wealth of resurrected political and aesthetic arguments against it as its Oscar berth looks ever more certain; the more months a film has been exposed, after all, the more times the cycle can rinse and repeat.
Whatever film takes home the gold at the end of the day — probably “The Artist,” possibly “Hugo” or “War Horse,” and certainly nothing that somebody, somewhere doesn’t think is overrated — they’d do well to remember that a film’s real-world standing hinges as little on tunnel-vision backlashes as on the Oscar itself.
The Contenders section has been updated throughout by Kris and myself. Meanwhile, my own prediction update can be found here.
For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.
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