Amid the geeky cascade of trivia, facts and figures that always follows they unveiling of the Oscar nominations, one stat — courtesy of our friend Chad Hartigan — stood out to me: the average age of this year’s Best Director nominees, at 61, is the highest it’s been in the history of the awards. Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick and Alexander Payne — a quartet of well-seasoned American auteurs who, by the time of the awards, will all be over the age of 50 — have all been to this particular dance before. The lone foreigner and first-time nominee, Michel Hazanavicius, may be the upstart of the pack, but at 44, he’s hardly wet behind the ears.
So, the movies the Academy liked most this year happened to be directed by a bunch of middle-to-three-quarter aged men. Big deal. That says more about industry hierarchy than the preferences of the Academy, right? In any case, last year saw a thirtysomething man win the prize; the year before, a woman. If “The King’s Speech” had been successfully helmed by Selena Gomez, they’d probably have handed her the Oscar too.
Even allowing for a certain degree of coincidence, however, it’s hard to deny that this is a year when the Academy put age before beauty — or, to put it more politely, acknowledged that they’re not exactly separate qualities. Take a look at the acting categories, where only two under-30 actors, Rooney Mara and Jonah Hill, find themselves nominated — the same as the number of 82 year-olds in the Best Supporting Actor lineup, where Christopher Plummer and Max von Sydow find themselves vying for the title of Oscar’s oldest ever winner, with that 70 year-old stripling Nick Nolte looking on from the sidelines.
Those who regularly complain that Hollywood pays no respect to women over 40 should be pleased with a Best Actress lineup that features two sexagenerians and 46 year-old Viola Davis. Over in Best Actor, faced with a choice between two dangerous British thesps, voters opted to pay their debt to 53 year-old Gary Oldman (for a film, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” that itself stoically mourns the passing of a generation), rather than consolidate the Next Big Thing buzz for 34 year-old Michael Fassbender; his day, yesterday’s omission rather pointedly stated, will come.
A good year for the older guard, then, and nowt wrong with that. But as handy as it is to juggle such figures, the impression of a brandy-and-slippers year for the Academy has less to do with the collective age of the nominees than the movies they’ve made. If any theme can be gleaned from this year’s motley crew of Best Picture nominees, it’s that, after returning last year to the brand of period prestige winner that dominated the awards in the 1990s, they’re happy remaining in the past, in spirit if not in letter — but preferably both.
Much has been made of the fact that the two films leading the nomination tally by a sizeable margin, “The Artist” and “Hugo,” are both lushly gilded paeans to the history of their own medium, explicitly referencing past forms of cinema to raise our awareness of the distance we have travelled. One does so by denying itself modern conveniences such as color and sound; the other, conversely, does so by embracing the most cutting-edge tools of the present. To call either simply nostalgic would be to miss their celebration of artistic progress, but both films make a case for the kind of unjaded, open-hearted storytelling that has grown less fashionable of late; both point to a newer, gentler, irony-free strain of postmodernism that doesn’t make too many demands of the present.
“The Artist” and “Hugo” may be the most neatly retro of the nominees, but they’re hardly alone in fixing their gaze on the rear-view mirror. “Midnight in Paris” is a literal time-travel exercise in which several characters find success and self-realization in the past; one chooses to remain, another to return, but even the present day in Woody Allen’s City of Lights is a woozy, blinkered playland, a veteran director’s own cosseted, wistful adaptation of reality. “The Help” cosily aims for social currency by tackling history that has unimpeachably been put to bed, casting past sociological victories in a warm summer glow to congratulate its audience on the political progress they’ve made, tacitly ignoring still-burning fires. “War Horse” uses similarly sanitised styling to ennoble past atrocities and reinscribe safe, inarguable moral truths. War is hell, but windmills are pretty.
Even one of the contemporary contenders, the tellingly titled “The Descendants,” is in thrall to the physical, psychological and geographical inheritances of our past; if anything, it’s a more nostalgically stasis-bound ode to preservation than “Hugo.” And even the most avant-garde nominee of the lot, Terrence Malick’s brazen, beautiful “The Tree of Life,” is an ecstatic celebration of our origins, as well as a lament for the elusive wholeness of the past, real or imagined. It’s a film that opens by quoting the book of Job — “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” — as if childing humanity for its inexperience and impermanence.
None of these films entirely fails to look forward — even “The Artist,” as besotted as it is with the old, ultimately advocates growth and adaptation, both cultural and personal. Whether the French silent wonder is currently the toast of the town because of that message — or because industry types, insecure in a medium that’s currently in economic and technological flux, feel safe with its romantically retroactive trappings — is another question altogether.
From “Shame” to “We Need to Need to Talk About Kevin” to “Young Adult” to “Melancholia,” voters shied away this year from many films that address ugly, unsettlingly intangible social maladies of the world we live in right now. On a different but surely not unrelated tangent, they also punished certain films (even the comfortably old-fashioned whiz-bang charms of “The Adventures of Tintin,” rejected by the animators for its technical precociousness) for exposing the uncertainties of their own professional futures. Perhaps all the nominations teach us is that a lot of people really like Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and old movies — what cinephile doesn’t? — but even some of the Academy’s most courageous decisions this year are reflective of a Hollywood running to stand still.
For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.
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