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Hating Oscar's Likability Problem

Andrew Garfield
Courtesy of Sony Pictures

If a certain stuttering king wins the Oscar, it will be because we like him -- we really like him. "Pundits are still predicting The Social Network to win Screenplay, Director, but not Picture," Sasha Stone intelligently kvetches in a recent blog. "Why? The characters aren’t likable enough."

Unlikeability also bedevils Barney's Version. New York Post critic Kyle Smith calls it a "lovable jerk story that forgot to put in the lovable." "Beautifully produced and acted, " writes Ira Deutchman, who blogs as nyindieguy, "but an unsympathetic main character makes a hole at the center of it. Oy."

An unsympathetic hero may also explain why Greenberg, starring Ben Stiller as "the year's most lovable unlikeable guy," according to GQ, was able to win a Golden Bear at Berlin, Spirit Awards for Stiller, producers Scott Rudin and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and ubiquitous cinematographer Harris Savides, but not so much predicted love from Oscars or Golden Globes. You could argue that costar Greta Gerwig owes her Gotham Breakthrough Award and Spirit Award best female lead nom to the fact that she's likeable -- but only compared to Ben Stiller's appalling Greenberg.

Sometimes being unlikeable is a good thing. Annette Bening insisted on making her character less likeable in The Kids Are All Right, a wise move, considering that she's so close to an Oscar her breath is fogging one side of the statuette (while Natalie Portman's rather faster panting fogs the other side). The big risk for her role was a bland too-niceness.

Is there any Globe or Oscar hope for unlikeable guys onscreen? Who could possibly save them? Critics! They tend to love the unlikeable and loathe the overlovable. Force-fed a diet of calculatedly sweet characters and scenarios, they tend to crave a dash of bitters. And if they rally behind a movie, they can sometimes nudge long shots into the winner's circle. As Stone sardonically points out, unlikeability "was the reason The Departed couldn’t win. It was the reason No Country for Old Men couldn’t win, and it was the reason, along with poor box office, that The Hurt Locker couldn’t win."

Actually, I thought The Hurt Locker was eminently likeable -- but then, I'm warped by years as a film critic. Alas, there may be some doubt as to how lasting an effect critics can exert in favor of the likeability-challenged. In an exclusive poll commissioned by The Hollywood Reporter, splashily explicated in the Dec. 15 issue, guess how many Oscar viewers have any memory whatsoever that The Hurt Locker won best picture nine months ago? Only four out of ten. And how many remember that Sandra Bullock won best actress in that niceness tsunami The Blind Side? Almost seven in ten.