Oscars 2012: 'The Artist' and Triumph of External Narrative


Do Hollywood's biggest studios not make good movies anymore or does the Oscars electorate just no longer care? That was the big-picture question posed quite clearly after The Artist's mammoth night at the 84th Academy Awards on Sunday. Jean Dujardin accepted his Best Actor award at 2012 OscarsThe little-French-silent-film-that-could took home five Oscars, including Best Picture. It lost in only two of the major categories which it was nominated, and it feels like the zenith of, well, something -- the ultimate moment in a seismic shift that's taken over Academy Award voting in the past 20 years or so.

I'll get back to The Artist in a second, but consider that much of what I'm about to write would have also applied to The Descendants -- the other front-runner in this year's Best Picture race -- had it taken home the award. Like The Artist, The Descendants hails from a semi-independent studio (FOX Searchlight). It is the very opposite of the sweeping, big-budget epic films that are peppered throughout the Best Picture winners list. George Clooney, technicolor and stereo-quality dialogue are the only basic technical/behind-the-scenes elements that separate this pair of movies.

Anyway, this seems to be the direction we're headed now with the Best Picture. The last five Oscar winners in that category have been won by films that were not released by a major studio (at least initially) -- The Weinstein Company was behind The Artist (2011) and The King's Speech (2010), Summit put out The Hurt Locker (2009), Miramax and Paramount Vantage released No Country for Old Men (2007) and FOX Searchlight initially put out Slumdog Millionaire (2008) before Warner Brothers gave it a wider release.

Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo in Oscar Best Picture winner The ArtistIt's not that any of these in particular aren't worthy of Best Picture honors -- though No Country for Old Men is the only of the five that I would have voted for if I had had a ballot -- it's more about them being the culmination of a trend that's crept to the fore over the last two decades; in short, big-budget, major-studio releases now seem to be at a disadvantage, all things being equal, when stacked up against nominees with less of a traditional Best Picture pedigree.

Go back 20 years and you'll see a very different picture vis a vis the winners and the studios that released them -- Orion put out Silence of the Lambs (1991), Warner Brothers put out Unforgiven (1992), Universal put out Schindler's List (1993) and Paramount put out Forrest Gump (1994) and Braveheart (1995). Were those films nominated nowadays, I'm not sure they'd be favored (for better or worse) simply because they weren't underdog production stories -- there weren't peopl scraping together every penny and going from studio to studio to get Forrest Gump on screen.

I'll leave it to Hollywood insiders to analyze the industry forces at play here after putting two amateur thoughts/theories out there:

  • First, it has to mean more to an independent studio to win an Oscar than to Paramount, so the campaign work done behind the scenes has to be more intense for a film like The Artist than, say, Columbia's Moneyball;
  • And second, and conversely to the first point, there just isn't a lot of money in it for the major studios anymore -- not when they can franchise and merchandise every gift-wrapped adaptation of a comic book created by DC, Marvel and so on.

I won't even begin to argue that the movie world isn't a better place when independent films are both able to reach larger audiences and given equal consideration to blockbusters during awards season.

Uggie the Dog and Jean Dujardin celebrate winning the Best Picture at the OscarsInstead, I want to focus on what seems to me to be a massive overcorrection in the voting habits of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. To be more specific, they seem to be fixated on a film's external narrative -- how the proverbial sausage was made in Hollywood -- rather than the final product that moviegoers end up seeing in the theater.

In short, the voters have turned into suckers for an underdog story only the underdogs never appear on screen anymore. They struggle to get the film made for years because it has an unconventional cast or shooting style. The Artist, with its Frenchness and its black-and-white dialoguelessness, represents some sort of apex with regard to this phenomenon, but it's really not much different than most of the other nominees for Best Picture this year or The King's Speech or The Hurt Locker or Slumdog Millionaire.

Again, it's not that these films aren't deserving winners per se, it's just that the rationale for getting there seems awfully twisted. It doesn't seem unreasonable to ask that the voters at least pick a Best Picture for the right reasons even if you don't quite agree with their exact collective assessment of the year in cinema.

You get the feeling with their recent selections that they've lost touch with not just the average moviegoer but even the hardcore film fans out there and forgotten about the actual meaning of the award that still has so much cachet. If I may speak for those of us who don't get screener copies of all the nominees, let me just say that we don't really give a crap about how hard it was for Michel Hazanavicius to get The Artist made at least far as the Best Picture category at the Oscars goes.

That stuff is interesting, but it's ultimately secondary to the designation of Best Picture, which, it seems to me at least, reveals the criteria that should be used for selection with its name alone. The Best Picture should be the best film of the last year -- what a wild concept.

I've defended the Oscars recently, and its awards hegemony seems virtually unthreatened no matter how good the ratings for the Grammys were this year. It's unfair to expect that the voters will get everything right all the time, but we should at least expect them to use the right selection criteria when they are casting their ballots. If they've ceased doing so, then I don't think it's alarmist to say that the Academy Award voters are toying with their relevancy as a Hollywood institution.