At the Independent Spirit Awards Saturday afternoon, John Cassavetes Award winner (and former In Contention contributor) Chad Hartigan told me something I didn't know: He wouldn't have made “This is Martin Bonner” if it weren't for Steve McQueen's “Hunger.” He copped a few of the film's lines in his film, some of the camerawork, too. He was inspired, he said, by a filmmaker who could pull something that powerful off with such modest means, both financially and artistically.
That, to me, is McQueen's legend. That, to me, is the kind of thing that will endure. These nickel-plated notions of “importance” that people throw around during the Oscar season, straining to associate some arbitrary level meaning to the thing, they can frankly diminish the very fine achievement on display. “I fear all the talk about the historical importance of '12 Years a Slave' almost completely obscures its extraordinary artistic merit,” Black List founder and CEO Franklin Leonard Tweeted after the Oscars Sunday night, and that's sort of what I was getting at with my piece last week titled “On Oscars and the personal gravity of art.” The worst thing you can do is allow the Oscars to smother the movies.
So my hope in “12 Years a Slave” winning Best Picture at the 86th annual Academy Awards is that it is able to shrug off this whiff of politics, this notion of the Academy doing what they felt they probably should do rather than what they wanted to do. Because that's so demeaning, in a way, of what McQueen has accomplished in his short but powerful career in feature filmmaking. What lurks in the film is what endures, in the hearts of viewers, in the passion of those filmmakers like Chad who are inspired by the work. Not the Oscars.
All of that said, I'm very happy for Brad Pitt and Dede Gardner this morning. “12 Years a Slave” represents everything they care about as a production company, everything they want to put out into the world. It's interesting to see George Clooney winning Best Picture one year and Brad Pitt the next, and to see Leonardo DiCaprio also in the Best Picture mix as producer of “The Wolf of Wall Street.” These are celebrities who have used their movie star status to influence the status quo in Hollywood, to make great films that they're passionate about and aren't necessarily safe bets. So bravo to them, and congratulations to Pitt and his team for getting into business with McQueen.
I'm elated for “Gravity” and its seven wins. It seemed early on that the Best Film Editing victory was a tell-tale sign, but that didn't pan out. It's obvious the Academy was just as mesmerized by Alfonso Cuarón's epic, universal tale, and to see him with an Oscar in his hand – the first Latino director to win the award – was a real treat. He earned it. And he shares in the editing prize, too, joining James Cameron on the list of filmmakers to win Best Director and Best Film Editing for the same film.
Speaking of which, the last film to win Best Director and Best Film Editing but not Best Picture? “Traffic,” another film the Academy obviously wanted to award. The last film to win at least seven Oscars but not Best Picture? “Cabaret,” which like “Gravity,” lost to a film – “The Godfather” – that received just three Oscars, including Best Adapted Screenplay and an acting prize. In these terms, between these two films, it's fair to say the wealth was properly spread, despite a 7-3 split.
I'm happy for Fox Searchlight, which stuck to its classy campaign, never reached – even in that “It's Time” moment – and maintained an even keel. It's a team that deserves to be rewarded, frankly, and five years after “Slumdog Millionaire,” they're bringing another one home.
I'm happy, too, for Lupita Nyong'o, and I'm proud to say the first place her name appeared all season was in the predictions sidebar of In Contention way back in June of 2013. Once the film arrived at Telluride, her place in the season was a foregone conclusion. And when she arrived on the precursor circuit, a star was born.