Woody, Why Don't You Love Me?

 Illustration: Alex Fine

Can Woody Allen pull off a victory at the Oscars? The director's Midnight in Paris appeared to be an early favorite, only to be ignored by the National Board of Review as well as the New York and Los Angeles film critics, and Woody himself has always kept a distance from the awards race. But the answer is -- yes.

There's a big minus side, for sure. Allen hasn't had a best picture nominee since 1986's Hannah and Her Sisters. And even though he's considered one of America's greatest auteurs, the directors branch of the Academy last nominated him for 1994's Bullets Over Broadway. Only the Academy's bolder writers wing has embraced Allen repeatedly -- most recently six years ago for 2005's Match Point.

To some degree, this is because many believe Allen entered a minor phase between Hannah and Match Point with such unmemorable work as 1998's Celebrity, 1999's Sweet and Lowdown and 2001's The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. But it's also because he was tarnished by the 1992 scandal when he left companion Mia Farrow for her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn. That whole business put Allen in Hollywood's ever-rotating (though luckily forgiving) Hall of Infamy along with another of this year's contenders, Roman Polanski (Carnage).

Other possible negatives? Midnight debuted during May's Cannes International Film Festival, which historically doesn't launch a lot of Oscar winners; and the film also is a comedy, while the Academy generally prefers drama -- enough to make any rational person think his chances are zilch. Right?

Wrong.

Midnight is not only a commercial hit (nearly $140 million worldwide); the Sony Pictures Classics release is also a near lock to be nominated for best picture. Indeed, most Oscar pundits consider it one of four movies certain to get a picture nom, along with The Artist, The Descendants and The Help. Here's why it could go even further:

First, forget the other awards as a litmus test. Last year, the New York critics and the NBR opted for The Social Network, but The King's Speech snatched the big bauble. This year, as veteran awards campaigner Tony Angellotti notes, "No pattern has developed." And none will until the Golden Globe nominations are unveiled shortly after press time on Dec. 15. If Midnight earns a best comedy/musical nomination (and especially if Allen also garners noms for screenplay and directing), it will get a huge boost with Oscar voters.

Second, Allen to some degree has been rehabilitated in the public eye because of the longevity of his relationship with Soon-Yi, whom he married in 1997 and with whom he has two children.

Third, he might not be campaigning overtly -- he has granted only a few brief interviews with major publications (and he'll be playing the clarinet at UCLA on Dec. 29) -- but he has been helped by a perfectly timed two-part American Masters biodoc that aired late November on PBS, along with positive PR done by his sister and producer Letty Aronson, whose sheer normalcy sends a reassuring message about her brother.

Woody's absence from the Oscars -- he's only recently attended the show once, after 9/11 -- should be counterbalanced by the fact he keeps his three Oscars at home, contrary to myth (with 21 noms, he's won as writer and director of Annie Hall and for writing Hannah), which should mollify slighted voters.

Certainly, the Academy has been willing to forgive worse: Polanski was named best director for 2002's The Pianist, and voters who can turn a blind eye to his illegal transgressions will overlook Woody's eccentricities.

More than anything else in Allen's favor is the film itself. Glowing with romance, glitteringly evocative of the City of Light and nostalgic for a past that takes us away from our current malaise, it's perfect Academy fodder.

If Sony Classics co-president Michael Barker is right that the Academy these days "doesn't concern itself with the private lives of artists," things bode well -- because, as any insider will tell you, lots of Academy members simply love Midnight in Paris.

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