The most important piece you’re going to read on the awards season right now is Sasha Stone’s “The Oscars in an Election Year” over at Awards Daily. Even if you chafe against her politics (with which I am personally aligned), you can’t argue against the fact that she nails a certain truth: socio-political environment will impact reaction to art.
That’s what’s so great about movies, books, paintings, songs, etc. They are as much a direct reflection of the times as they are a nebulous Rorschach for them. Involuntary extrapolation can be as significant as clear-eyed reaction to a straight-forward treatise. And in an environment as heated, tense and divided as this, the art that escapes the cauldron is bound to be, if not willfully profound, then a fascinating looking glass, at the very least.
I hopped on iChat with Stone last week to chew on this idea a bit and do something I’ve been meaning to do for a while: really dig through the history of election years and the Oscars. Much of what follows is owed to that conversation and the ideas that came out of it. It’s a fool’s errand to try and tie any given election year down to the Best Picture winner, of course, but it certainly makes for intriguing considerations.
The Oscars actually began on an election year, interestingly enough. In 1928, as Herbert Hoover continued a period of Republicanism by beating out Al Davis, the country was at the end of a booming economic period. The Academy Awards, meanwhile, were initially created as a financial boost to the film industry. It made sense, then, that something as extravagant as William A. Wellman’s “Wings,” the epitome of everything that was possible on the big screen at the time, would be duly rewarded.
After that it was headlong into one of the country’s darkest hours: The Great Depression, with a granite leader to see us through not only that, but eventually, war. Beginning in 1932, it was 16 years of Franklin Roosevelt (who took down the likes of Hoover, Alf Landon, Wendell Willkie and Thomas Dewey along the way). That year, Edmund Goulding’s “Grand Hotel” — a cross-section of characters and the human condition — took the prize.
Robert Z. Leonard’s “The Great Ziegfeld” in 1936 was a portrait of a successful show-businessman, winning amid times of hardship, when dreaming big was even more of a luxury than normal. In 1940, it was Alfred Hitchock’s “Rebecca,” as Roosevelt broke from tradition and ran for a third term; isolationism ran rampant in the shadow of World War II overseas, and the Academy championed a dark film about keeping up appearances, living up to perceived greatness and, of all things, the inescapable. And in 1944, with America embroiled in all-out war on multiple fronts, it was Leo McCarey’s “Going My Way,” a story of conflicting ideologies giving way to understanding and progress. But that was a head-in-the-sand vote in some ways, a pattern that would pop up again when the country faced hardship.
Stone thinks she can make an intriguing case for the lasting impact of World War II informing, in some way, the choice of Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet” in 1948 (the year that saw Harry Truman surprise Dewey at the polls). “It’s a film about deep, dark betrayal,” she told me. “So was World War II. Hamlet had a difficult time making a decision, much like the US did in joining the war.” An interesting thought.
The 1950s were all about the Red Scare, conventional “values,” the wholesomeness of post-war America. Two elections — 1952 and 1956 — saw the same two contenders: Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson. And nothing daring or provocative was tapped by the Academy. We got Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth” and Michael Anderson’s “Around the World in 80 Days.” But the approaching decade, a time of experimentation and shocking change that would eventually fuel a silent majority, was a different story.
Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment” is a fascinating Best Picture winner for 1960 when you look at what won just before and just after. It’s a film about human complexity nominated alongside a John Wayne-directed historical epic, a depiction of religious hucksterism in small town America, a Freudian love story and an outback-set yarn of family discord. All of them could be drawn as thematically relevant to the times, but there was something very current about “The Apartment,” much like John Kennedy, who in November out-charmed Richard Nixon in the first televised debates and won the tightest election in history.
But times were going to get dark, and the country was going to develop a rift. The Best Picture winners of the 1960s, for the most part, reflect the aforementioned desire to look away and just be entertained. Musicals won the day, and for 1964, with Kennedy assassinated and Lyndon Johnson defeating the extreme right-winger Barry Goldwater at the polls, it was George Cukor’s “My Fair Lady.”
Times would get even darker. In 1968, we would see the assassinations of civil rights leaders (Martin Luther King), rays of political hope (Robert Kennedy) and US ambassadors (John Gordon Mein). Racial tension was still dominant (independent George Wallace even won a handful of states in the south) and a war was tearing the country apart. Nixon, finally taking the spot he coveted, would beat out Hubert Humphrey for the presidency. And the Academy would award… Carol Reed’s “Oliver!,” a frothy musical that even took some of the bite out of Dickens.
As for 1972, it would bring a landslide re-election for Nixon (which the country would eventually regret) as he ate George McGovern’s lunch. The 1970s was an exhilarating decade for the medium, producing some of the greatest Best Picture line-ups we’ll likely ever see. And a dark tale of the American dream, capitalism and family would take the honor this year: Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather.” It’s almost as if the soon-to-be-revealed underbelly could be sensed.
Four years later, with the country embarrassed by its fallen leader, a tight race between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford (sullied by his affiliation with and pardon of Nixon) would put a Democrat in office. Concurrently, a story of an underdog, about winning without winning (Ford carried more states than Carter), would take Best Picture: John G. Avildsen’s “Rocky.”
The 1980s would be all about greed and not feeling bad about it. But Robert Redford’s “Ordinary People” at the start of the decade seemed to say more about the outgoing Carter (“touchy, feely, therapy-ee,” as Stone put it to me, “a man in touch with his feelings — then it was on to winners about ego”) than it did the movie star Ronald Reagan. And Reagan would go on to destroy Walter Mondale (who took only one state) for re-election in 1984. Milos Forman’s “Amadeus” would take the Best Picture prize that year, a film about ego, yes, but also about jealousy in the face of true genius and, in the end, delusion.
Barry Levinson’s “Rain Man” in 1988 is the perfect last-gasp movie for the decade, in some sense. George Bush (the father) would beat out Michael Dukakis handily on the promise of carrying on Reagan’s myth, but Levinson’s Best Picture winner is intriguing. It’s a perfect fit with its depiction of a yuppy bent out of shape by unforeseen complications, looking for a way to manipulate them to his benefit. And it was the highest-grossing film of the year, to boot. But there’s a growth there, an introspection. It’s a film about learning to take responsibility. That’s fascinating at the end of a decade of decadence.
Bill Clinton would come calling four years later, a fresh face, a “hip” candidate, blasting his sax on Arsenio Hall, appealing to the youth. It was a revisionism of the American presidential candidate, and if you’ll forgive the stretch, a revisionism of the American art form — the western — took the gold at the Oscars. Money still mattered in a Best Picture race then, and the $100 million “Unforgiven” brought home at the box office was nothing to sneeze at. But it was a fresh take on a national treasure, an apparent swan song in the genre for an actor/filmmaker defined by it, just as the election represented a realignment after 12 years of Republican presence in the White House.
I don’t really know how you square Anthony Minghella’s “The English Patient.” It’s the one that really stumps me. Stability was somewhat afoot, though the elections of 1994 brought a slew of Republicans into Congress who were out to get the liberal at the top. 1996 was the year of independent cinema at the Oscars, with only “Jerry Maguire” representing the major studios. I don’t know. Maybe there’s something to be said about the inevitability of it. After all, Minghella’s film was the clear winner from the outset, just as Clinton was sure to oust Bob Dole at the polls. (Though he had conceded a little bit of ground from his 1992 victory: he picked up Arizona but lost Montana and Colorado).
Stone dug in to 2000 quite a bit in her piece because it was the first year she covered the Oscars online. It was also the first year I followed them online. And it was a tight, divided race between “Gladiator” (the eventual winner), “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (the DGA winner) and “Traffic” (which seemed to win everything BUT Best Picture that night). Meanwhile, there was a very close, extremely contentious election at the polls between George Bush (the son) and Al Gore.
“It wasn’t surprising, then, that ‘Gladiator’ would be the America fuck-yeah movie to win Best Picture that year,” Stone wrote. “Of course, 9/11 hadn’t happened yet. But it feels somehow fitting that ‘Gladiator’ would be the movie that ushered in the Bush era.” It was also, of course, very much about the money, but a division was nevertheless apparent, both at the Oscars and at the polls.
Another Clint Eastwood movie would win in an election year in 2004, as the conservative filmmaker offered up the not-so-conservative “Million Dollar Baby,” which coasted in and stole Martin Scorsese’s thunder. It was a smart decision to bring it into the season, as no one really wanted to vote for “The Aviator” and there were precious few alternatives. Eastwood’s film was very much about being down but not out, about a scrappy fighter. And America, three years removed from 9/11, was in a similar boat. It’s a film about death, about mourning, ultimately. And perhaps most crucially, it’s about the elusiveness of closure.
In 2008, hope, change, Barack Obama. Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” is in many ways the perfect film to reflect that election year, which of course saw Obama defeat John McCain. It’s about all of that optimism in the face of misery. It’s about dark times and struggle, but about being changed forever by that struggle. I think that’s a perfect summation of where we were as a nation at that time.
And now, 2012. We’re more divided probably than ever. The lunatics are overrunning the asylum. Things like Citizens United and drastic shifts in ideology are ripping at the political fabric of the nation. Social media has taken hold like never before, giving voice to many who never thought they had it, allowing a megaphone for their thoughts, be them profound and insightful or ignorant and dangerous.
So, then — what’s on the horizon for the season?
Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” will be very much on the nose, clinical, perhaps. A procedural about the elimination of Osama Bin Laden couldn’t be more current. But that kind of intense realism in the moment rarely flies at the Oscars. Even “The Hurt Locker” was depicting events of a few years removed, but then, there was still a very current air around that movie. I’d nevertheless argue that its win had little to do with the zeitgeist and more to do with the narrative presented by inherent elements of the season.
Ben Affleck’s “Argo,” about which I’ve yet to hear a bad word, goes back to the Carter administration and the Iranian revolution to tell a story about courageously and creatively averting crisis. Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a modern fable about being forged from the flame of hardship, much like “Slumdog Millionaire” was. Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” is a film about taking control and being the master of one’s domain, while Gus Van Sant’s “Promised Land,” freshly added to the season, will tell a story of shifting American values against a backdrop of economy, corporatism and the environment.
Tom Hooper’s “Les Misérables,” taken from a novel full of ideas about religion, politics and society, will tell a tale about the ends justifying the means and, if well-wrought, could be quite formidable as a result. Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” offers a journey of spirituality and a story of finding direction, while Juan Antonio Bayona’s “The Impossible” is very much about people from all walks of life coming together in a time of disaster and ruin. And the aforementioned Franklin Roosevelt will even get a depiction as the US considers aiding the British in war in Roger Michell’s “Hyde Park on Hudson.”
But the de facto, sight-unseen frontrunner for most is Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” It’s a marriage of artist and material that couldn’t be packed with more potential, a portrait of another very divided time and the one man who could collect the strands and strengthen the ties that bind a nation. I’m not saying Obama is that man, that he or anyone ought to be seen as an Honest Abe surrogate, but at times like this, you long for the fantasy of that. And maybe Daniel Day-Lewis’s Abraham Lincoln will be the superhero we all wish we had.
It’s a tough spot for the film to be in, but that’s the nature of early Oscar speculation. What will be fascinating is watching how these and other films will be painted against the backdrop of a very contentious and unsettling election year. How will our art imitate our life? And, more to the point, how will our art be viewed in light of our life? We shall see.
The Contenders section has received its annual pre-Telluride tidying. This is the last update that only Guy and I will administrate. Greg Ellwood’s work at Awards Campaign will soon be folded into In Contention this season and, as a result, we’ve brought him into the predictions fold. So the sidebar will reflect all three of our contributions after the Toronto Film Festival as of the next update on September 17 and going forward.
Meanwhile, Anne and I will be launching the new season of Oscar Talk this Friday, August 31, from Telluride. Guy will be on the ground covering in Venice and Greg and Drew McWeeny will be filing from Toronto the following week.
So buckle up. It’s going to be an interesting season.