The Long Shot: Acting important and playing nice

“It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.” If I were being accurate, I could attribute this quote to John Cassis. Since I’m being honest, I’ll admit that I’ve always attributed it to a poster on the wall of Mrs. Rindner’s first-grade classroom, where it was accompanied by an adorable image of a ginger kitten looking as morally conflicted as a file-photo ginger kitten can look. (Not very, then.) I read it many times, puzzling over its relative validity. Aged five, I think I admired the sentiment more than I believed it; aged 30, that’s still the case, though I do think of those words often during the Oscar season.

I’m pretty sure it wasn’t his intention, but in coining that catchy little aphorism, Cassis effectively described the quandary that the average Academy voter faces every year: the warring impulses to vote for the nice film versus the important one, and the holy grail of the Oscar-bait film that combines both qualities.

In most years, at least one key race comes down to some version of this essential choice. The Weinsteins cleverly spun it in their 2010 campaign for “The King’s Speech,” their ads for the gentle triumph-over-adversity drama baldly stating that while some movies make you think (none-too-subtly alluding to David Fincher’s chilly contemporary culture snapshot “The Social Network”), “this one makes you feel.” It was a strategy that had the (one presumes inadvertent) effect of making the royalty biopic seem a little simple by comparison, but the underlying message was clear enough: socially significant movies are well and good, but what’s the use if they don’t make you feel good? To the consternation of many a film critic, the Academy agreed.

Cynical awards-watchers will use the “King’s Speech” example – or indeed, many others, from the oft-derided “Driving Miss Daisy” victory to Jennifer Lawrence’s Best Actress triumph over Emmanuelle Riva this year – to argue that, at the Oscars, soft always trumps hard, upbeat is always preferable to down, that niceness always comes before importance. But that wouldn’t be true. You could hardly ask for a more nihilistic Best Picture winner than “The Silence of the Lambs,” or “No Country for Old Men”: the “importance” of both these bleak, seamy thrillers may be in the eye of the beholder, but the last thing you’d call either film is “nice.”

Just as often, meanwhile, Academy voters prize apparent “importance” above all other qualities, which largely explains their enduring biopic fascination – that’s how a “Gandhi” beats an “E.T.,” or how “A Beautiful Mind” beats “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.” Real-life figures doing noble deeds over fantastical ones performing movie magic? No-brainer, right? Works for actors, too: faced with two good actors giving good performances, one as a lofty historical figure and one as a fictional Joe Bloggs, voters will all too often side with the former. (Sure, other factors come into play, but the weight of capital-I Importance surely helped Sean Penn’s Harvey Milk versus Mickey Rourke’s good-for-nothing wrestler, or Meryl Streep’s Margaret Thatcher versus Viola Davis’ modest servant.)

The Academy’s ideal compromise, of course, is to find a film that is a likeable as it is laudable. While its campaign stressed its emotional appeal, “The King’s Speech” also won because it was about powerful people in high places, with a worthy disability angle to boot. “Argo” hit the jackpot because it tackled tricky Middle Eastern politics, but in the guise of an uplifting genre romp with an underdog hero and a helping hand from Hollywood. Indeed, for two years in a row, we’ve seen the Academy give their top prize to a film that, to some degree, celebrates their own industry: by providing mass entertainment to the world, industry folk get to see themselves as both powerful and benevolent. Sometimes it’s nicest of all to be self-important.

Does such a compromise exist for Academy members this year? The “important” option is pretty clear-cut, as it has been since Toronto: Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” is a formidable document on historical iniquities that can and should never be forgotten, but also vital, vivid cinema that is neither dusty nor hectoring in its rhetoric. (Surely even some Academy types must find “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” squarely dated by comparison.) But concerns have already been raised in the Oscar-focused media about its niceness, or lack thereof: even with its redemptive story arc, is it too violent, too confrontational, too comfort-free for some voters? I’m not sure how much of this talk is actually originating from Academy voters, and how much of it is fabricated simply by jaded pundits who expect little of them; my hunch, for now, is that McQueen’s film may prove too substantial to ignore.

If the Best Picture race comes down to “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity,” as many currently expect it will, it’d be forcing the narrative a bit to cast Alfonso Cuaron’s space spectacular as the “nice” half of the equation. “Gravity” may be more overtly entertaining than the slavery drama, but it’s still a profoundly unnerving film: distressing in the short term, disquieting in the long term, its condensed, claustrophobic survival tale is as physically and psychologically taxing in its own way as “Slave,” even if its payoff is more exhilarating.

I’ve been frustrated by colleagues who like to dismiss Cuaron’s film as little more than a flashy, all-systems-go entertainment – “Movie: The Ride” as Sam Adams somewhat snidely described it – with nothing on its mind, mainly because I was so deeply moved by its human drive and spiritual questioning, on-the-nose as it sometimes is. No two people see quite the same movie that everyone watches, but I thought “Gravity” was about some very big things indeed, even they’re so vast and eternal as to seem vague or vaporous; if it’s deemed less “important” than Steve McQueen’s supposed frontrunner, that’s because its human trials are less specific to a time and place.

Is it left to “Saving Mr. Banks” to play Mr. Nice Guy, then? The theory keeps being floated that it’s the upbeat, agreeable insider film that could come up through the middle, and seem (if only for a brief, well-timed while) more appealing to voters than the tougher tests of the more-hyped frontrunners. It’s about Hollywood, after all. And almost everyone who’s alive inside loves “Mary Poppins” – and Emma Thompson, for that matter. The film is certainly bright, and the campaign is sure to play up its themes of creative compromise and self-identification via art to beef up its importance quotient.

Still, I wonder if its essential arc – grumpy writer learns to become slightly less grumpy, and only under corporate duress – will be quite comforting or cathartic enough even for easily-swayed voters. (One might argue that even the performer’s insecurity tapped into by “The Artist” was a more resonant theme.) It’s one contender that won’t have to work too hard to play up its niceness over the next few months, but like all its rivals, heavy and light, it’ll practise the earnestness of being important. To quote another cute-kitten poster from the classrooms of my youth: Hang in there, everyone.

Check out my updated predictions here.