The Race: The 82-Year Drought

Focus Features
Ponijao, who lives in Namibia with her family, is one of four babies followed from birth to first steps in Thomas Balmès' 'Babies'

A documentary has never been nominated for best picture, but this year might change that.

In the 82-year history of the Academy Awards, no documentary has been nominated for best picture. Instead, since 1942, documentary features have been recognized in their own category, separate from the balloons and confetti showered on the best picture contenders. Technically, any doc that completes a one-week qualifying run in a Los Angeles County theater also is eligible to compete for the big prize, but somehow, when it comes to best picture, Oscar voters have consistently tuned docs out.

This year, though, several docs — among them Inside Job, Charles Ferguson’s autopsy of the 2008 financial crisis, and Waiting for Superman, Davis Guggenheim’s failing report card on the nation’s school system — are positioning themselves to make a run at the big prize. Their camps are preparing to send out screeners, arguing that their respective films are worthy best picture contenders.

Good luck. Any doc hoping to score a best picture nom still faces a daunting, uphill battle.
Six years ago, Michael Moore decided to challenge the odds. Having already won a feature doc Oscar for his anti-gun diatribe Bowling for Columbine, he was riding high on the firestorm surrounding Fahrenheit 9/11, his blistering attack on George W. Bush’s post-9/11 march toward the invasion of Iraq.

The movie had won the Palme d’Or, the Festival de Cannes’ highest prize — the first doc to take home that honor in 48 years. It was on its way to grossing $119.2 million domestically, making it the top-grossing documentary of all time.

So Moore decided not to submit in the documentary category — he was eager to air the film on TV in hope of influencing the 2006 election, and the proposed broadcast ran up against doc-category rules. But while Moore claimed, “For me, the real Oscar would be Bush’s defeat on Nov. 2,” he also reminded Academy voters that they still could nominate his movie for best picture.

Moore struck out on both counts: Bush was re-elected, and Fahrenheit didn’t turn up among that year’s best picture nominees.

This year, though, the chances of a documentary breaking through are better — though still tough. By widening the best picture race to 10 nominees, the Academy opened a door, however narrow. And the genre is ripe for recognition. Doc filmmakers have been busy, turning out an eclectic array of movies, training their cameras on everything from infants (Focus Features’ Babies) to Facebook friendships (Rogue’s Catfish), from showbiz survivors (IFC’s Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work) to political scandals (Magnolia’s Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer).

While the studios have retreated into escapism, doc filmmakers have been tackling hot-button issues that often resonate with the more politically engaged members of the Academy. Paramount Vantage’s Superman and Sony Pictures Classics’ Job, two of the year’s highest-profile titles, have gotten the kind of outsize attention that belies their modest box-office returns ($6 million and $1.6 million, respectively).

Both docs, while relying heavily on standard interview techniques, also inject plenty of drama into the mix. And both movies made the shortlist of 15 films being considered for best documentary feature honors. But they could go beyond just that category.

Superman, backed by one of Participant Media’s trademark social-action campaigns, premiered in Washington, where it injected itself directly into a heated debate over the city’s sweeping efforts at school reform. It also drew a sharp rebuke from the American Federation of Teachers — the film treats the teachers union as something of a villain — whose president, Randi Weingarten complained, “It is insulting and counterproductive to suggest, as the film does, that the deplorable behavior of one or two teachers is representative of all public-school teachers.”

Meanwhile, New York Times columnist Frank Rich has championed Job — with its rogues’ gallery of reckless financial executives, feckless academic economists and their government enablers — saying, “It’s hard to imagine a movie more serious, and more urgent.”

Those type of attacks and endorsements should be enough to attract the attention of Academy voters. And if there’s an added reason to invite a doc into the best picture circle, it’s that documentary filmmakers have, on more than one occasion, provided the Oscars with some of their most contentious moments.

When Moore won in 2003, just days after the beginning of the Iraq War, he launched into an attack on the president for starting a “war for fictitious reasons” that met with applause and boos from the Oscar audience.

But that paled compared with the acrimony that surfaced in 1975, when producer Bert Schneider used his acceptance speech for the winning Vietnam doc Hearts and Minds to thank the anti-war movement and send “greetings of friendship” to the Viet Cong. An enraged Bob Hope responded by pushing Frank Sinatra onstage to disavow Schneider’s remarks.

But if docs can be so attention-getting, why hasn’t the Academy given one the full embrace of a best picture nom? In part, it’s because once a separate category for docs was created, some voters felt they’d done their duty. It was the same type of thinking that kept animated movies out of recent best picture contention until Up broke through at the previous Oscars.

Also, within the Academy, documentaries have the smallest constituency. The relatively new doc branch has just 151 members; by contrast, the dominant actors’ branch has 1,205 members. The challenge for any nonfiction film, which by definition involves nonactors, is getting the actors in the Academy to pay attention to something other than themselves. By that measure, Job’s best claim to a best pic nom might be the fact it’s narrated by Matt Damon.

Finally, in the contest for awards-season attention, docs suffer because most documentary filmmakers are accustomed to fading into the background — Moore being the larger-than-life exception that proves the rule. In movies like Job, Superman and Client 9, their directors are heard — as offscreen voices, interrogating their subjects — but not seen. One film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, was even helmed by a director — graffiti artist Bansky — who, though no stranger to publicity, vigilantly maintains an aura of mystery and anonymity.

Because they avoid taking center stage, those directors might serve their films well but not their films’ best picture prospects. When it comes to courting Oscar, self-promotion is the name of the game.  

DIRECTORS FRONT AND CENTER

Madeleine Sackler
The Lottery
“In the end, it’s just sort of a simple story about parents that want something for their kids, and they can’t have it, so you want to know why they can’t have it.”

Alex Gibney
Client 9
“A number of people say they come into the film gnashing their teeth with fury at Spitzer, and leave far more sympathetic and also wondering what we are keeping our eye on.”

Charles Ferguson
Inside Job
“The American financial system, particularly investment banking since deregulation began in the early ’80s, became a criminal industry. The film goes into that in the most literal sense.”

Amir Bar-Levy
The Tillman Story
“It tells of the family fighting to tell the truth about their son’s life and death and the almost aggressive way that we forced our notions of Pat on him and his family.”

Josh Fox
Gasland
“Natural gas has been, you know championing itself as this clean-burning fuel, so we wanted to counter that myth with some of the actual realities of what’s happening.”

BEST DOC SHORTLIST

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer
Alex Gibney
Enemies of the People
Rob Lemkin,
Thet Sambath
Exit Through the Gift Shop
Banksy
Gasland
Josh Fox
Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould
Michele Hozer,
Peter Raymont
Inside Job
Charles Ferguson
The Lottery
Madeleine Sackler
Precious Life
Shlomi Eldar
Quest for Honor
Mary Ann
Smothers Bruni
Restrepo
Tim Hetherington,
Sebastian Junger
This Way of Life
Thomas Burstyn
The Tillman Story
Amir Bar-Lev
Waiting for Superman
Davis Guggenheim
Waste Land
Lucy Walker
William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe
Emily Kunstler,
Sarah Kunstler

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