Oscar outcome proves comedy is not king

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Oscar outcome: In the end, Academy voters had the last laugh, proving that comedies really don't stand a chance in the Best Picture race even if they've already won SAG and PGA awards as "Little Miss Sunshine" had done.

In what looked like a conscious effort to depart wherever there was a reasonable opportunity from how other groups voted earlier in the awards season, Oscar voters put a premium on their independence. They made it clear that comedy is not king by snubbing "Sunshine," the dark comedy that many Hollywood handicappers insisted had a lock on best picture after winning kudos from both the actors and producers guilds. And they also stiffed superstar comedian Eddie Murphy, who'd been busy mopping up supporting actor wins for "Dreamgirls" throughout the awards season.

Moreover, they also passed over all three of the best original song nominees from the unloved "Dreamgirls." By voting as they did, Academy members demonstrated their independence from other awards givers and also sent a message to television viewers that while the Oscars follow a long line of other awards telecasts where the same people win the same awards each time, you can't count on Oscar voters to rubberstamp those wins.

This thinking was apparent in the success of "The Departed." Although Martin Scorsese won best director for "The Departed" just as everyone had expected going back not only to his Golden Globes victory in January but to his early December National Board of Review win, Academy members made the unexpected decision to also vote it best picture. Insiders had anticipated a split decision that would give Scorsese his long overdue best directing Oscar but also enable Academy members to bestow best picture on another nominee like "Letters from Iwo Jima" or "Babel." This scenario would have spread more Oscar gold around town, but in the end Academy members opted for a surprise mini-sweep that gave "Departed" four nods (also including best film editing and best adapted screenplay).

It was only on the acting front that the Academy followed in the footsteps of other awards givers. As expected, Helen Mirren took home the best actress Oscar for "The Queen" to go with her wins in the Globes, Critics Choice Awards, SAG Awards, BAFTAs, National Society of Film Critics Awards and various critics groups' contests. Forest Whitaker, to no one's surprise, received the best actor Oscar for "The Last King of Scotland" to accompany his wins in the Globes, Critics Choice Awards, SAG Awards, BAFTAs, National Society of Film Critics Awards and various critics groups' contests. And Jennifer Hudson, again as anticipated, walked off with the best supporting actress Oscar for "Dreamgirls" to match her wins in the Globes, Critics Choice Awards, SAG Awards, BAFTAs and various critics groups' contests.

Only Murphy failed to echo on Oscar night his earlier best supporting actor success for "Dreamgirls" with the Globes, Critics Choice Awards and SAG. Murphy either fell victim to the Academy's "Dreamgirls" backlash or shot himself in the foot by not seeming to care much about having been Oscar nominated. As the Oscars drew closer, Murphy became the target of some awards bloggers who focused repeatedly on what they claimed was his apparent lack of passion about being an Oscar nominee. Whatever the reason, the Academy decided to make a sentimental vote in favor of Alan Arkin, recognizing his long years of performing. That managed to provide some recognition of "Sunshine" that didn't involve giving it the best picture Oscar. Murphy's losing gave the Academy a 75% copycat percentage on the acting awards front rather than the 100% score it would otherwise have achieved.

In honoring "Departed" with twin Oscars for best picture and directing, Academy members applauded the only one of the five best picture nominees that actually had been widely seen. With nearly $132 million in domestic grosses and an average national ticket price of about $6.60, "Departed" was seen by approximately 20 million people. That's certainly respectable, but it's not a huge audience when you consider that Oscar has been attracting an audience of about 40 million people in recent years. This year's telecast averaged 39.9 million viewers, which was up about 1 million viewers from last year and good enough to make the Oscars the most-watched entertainment program this season. But, at the same time, it was several million viewers less than the Academy pulled in for its 2004 and 2005 shows. Although Oscar's ratings didn't plunge, they didn't grow enough to take the pressure off for next year's 80th anniversary telecast.

Television critics have already thrown plenty of brickbats at the 79th annual Oscars. I'll just add briefly that I agree with the consensus that the show was boring and way too long at 3 hours 51 minutes. What the Academy doesn't get when it plans its numerous extended Oscar night tributes is that no one in the TV audience really understands what they're talking about and, therefore, people out there don't care. The only awards that matter to the viewers are those for best picture and for lead and supporting actors and actresses. By pushing those awards even later in the program than has been the case in recent years, the Academy certainly didn't heighten interest in the telecast.

While Ellen DeGeneres didn't ruffle any feathers the way previous hosts have done, she also didn't deliver the kind of big laughs that Oscar audiences got once upon a time from hosts like Bob Hope, Johnny Carson and Billy Crystal. Those guys knew exactly how to skewer the stars sitting before them and how to get away with it. They understood how far they could push the envelope to get a laugh, but not to draw blood.

In case you've forgotten, spend 20 minutes on YouTube playing some of the Billy Crystal Oscar show clips available there and you'll see what I mean.

DeGeneres just didn't deliver the kind of topical references that would have drawn big laughs. Mostly everyone I talked to about the show the morning after made a point of saying how they were waiting for a few timely barbs about Britney Spears that never materialized.

Although "Dreamgirls" wasn't a best picture nominee, its eight noms were more than any other film had this year. And with three songs from the film nominated and performed on the show -- all of which lost for best original song -- it had a major presence on the telecast. With its domestic gross through Sunday at $101.2 million, "Dreamgirls" has reached an audience of about 15.3 million, making it the only film besides "Departed" to have attracted an audience large enough to really contribute viewers to the telecast.

"Departed" and "Dreamgirls" may be at the low end of the blockbuster scale, but they're both huge compared to how few people have actually seen the other films that were nominated for best picture or in the acting categories. "Letters" had grossed $12.8 million domestically through Sunday, which translates to about 1.9 million people. "Last King of Scotland" had a domestic gross of $14 million, which equals around 2.1 million people. "The Queen's" domestic gross of $52.9 million converts to some 8 million people. "Babel" had taken in $33.8 million domestically, which works out to about 5.1 million people. And "Little Miss Sunshine's" domestic gross of $58.8 million prior to its DVD release equates to some 9.1 million people.

None of these statistics is good news for the Academy, which in recent years has wound up letting critics groups and other awards givers define the field of films for Oscar consideration. That's why in so many cases Oscar winners have already been giving essentially the same acceptance speeches on other telecasts for months. There's no good solution to this problem now that it's been ongoing for several years and has taken hold within the industry. Essentially what happens is that critics groups celebrate what they consider to be the year's best movies by making highly publicized awards presentations to them in early to mid-December.

Because these awards are voted on by movie critics they reflect the critics' point of view and their own criteria for determining what's "best." Generally, critics -- especially print critics -- tend to prefer small dramas made by filmmakers from around the world and released by independent distributors or by the studios' specialty arms. These are films that typically focus on the bleak world in which we live today but find in that despair a ray of hope for the future or, at least, a path to some degree of redemption. They're typically troubled movies for troubled times and the critics love them.

Once these films have been applauded by the critics they take on a luster they didn't start out with. Now they're critically acclaimed, award winning movies that people are writing about in newspapers and on Internet blogs and talking about on television. Their stars and filmmakers are making the media rounds, strolling the red carpets and winding up on the syndicated TV shows that live off of covering Hollywood and celebrities. That typically propels them into the next round of awards contests hosted by key groups like the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., the Broadcast Film Critics Assn., the Screen Actors Guild, the Directors Guild of America, the Producers Guild of America, the Writers Guild of America and the British Academy. Once these films start generating nominations in these prestigious races, many of which are considered bellwethers for the Oscars, they become must-see movies for Academy voters.

The problem is that Academy members don't have enough time to see all the movies they should consider because during the year when the critics are out watching movies Academy members are out making movies. It's just not possible for many of them to get to screenings throughout the year or visit megaplexes with their kids on weekends. At year's end, the Academy mails out nominations ballots that arrive while they're probably vacationing with their families in Aspen or Maui or on a yacht in the Caribbean or some other far flung resort. When they come home after New Year's to get their kids back in school they find themselves only having about two weeks to fill out and return their ballots.

At the same time, they find themselves facing a stack of DVD screeners for their consideration that arrived while they were away from every distributor in the business. Every newspaper they open is crammed with ads proclaiming the virtues of movies they may not even have heard of until now, but which are suddenly asking for consideration. What to do? Well, what would you do? You'd look at that stack of DVDs and you'd recognize the handful of titles that had already gotten lots of nominations and awards from other groups and you'd figure that these are probably the ones you'd better find time to look at. You'd add to that list any films you or your best friends had a hand in making and you'd watch them, too. Yes, I'm oversimplifying all this, but that's pretty much what happens.

Is there a solution? Yes, there are some possible ways out of this mess -- but not today. That's the subject of Friday's column. Check back here then and I'll share some thoughts with you about how the Academy might be able to deal successfully with these problems.

Filmmaker flashbacks: From March 2, 1989's column: "The youth appeal film genre, which Hollywood has been all too ready to write off lately, is back in action at the boxoffice thanks to Orion's excellent results with 'Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure,' a Nelson Entertainment presentation of an InterScope Communications production.

"The film, directed by Stephen Herek and starring Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, Bernie Casey and George Carlin, opened over the four-day Presidents Day Weekend to an impressive $6.2 million at 1,196 screens ($5,157 per screen)...

"'I think 'Bill & Ted' has worked because it's warm and it's funny and the kids found it hip,' observes Barry Spikings, president and chief operating officer of Nelson Holdings, which owns Nelson Entertainment Group. 'If you put together a combination like that you can find an audience. So to say the youth audience is gone, I think it's there if the picture's there.'

"Spikings notes that the film, which was made for DEG, 'was truly an orphan. DEG was in the process of winding down and had no resources left to do very much for the picture. Rick Finkelstein, who's head of production here, had been a fan of the picture when he was at DeLaurentiis. We saw it together with Reg Childs, who runs our video operation. What we saw was a warm and funny picture -- one that needed quite a considerable amount of work.

"'What we did was to get together with the producers, InterScope, and get back the director, Stephen Herek -- the poor old director had been a bit beaten up by events. We sat down and had a look at what we needed to do and agreed on the editing that was required. In respect of that, we went to the expense of bringing in Duane Dunham, who had just come from (editing) 'Throw Momma From the Train.' He worked very closely with us, InterScope and Steve Herek. We signed some checks for some special effects, which we needed, and we also got together with A&M Records and created a really hot soundtrack...' 'Excellent' was the first film under a long-term distribution arrangement between Nelson and Orion."

Update: "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" was a success story for Nelson and Orion, grossing $40.5 million domestically. It spawned a sequel, "Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey," which opened via Orion on July 19, 1991 to $10.2 million and ended up grossing $38 million domestically.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.updatehollywood.com.
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