Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Changing Face of the Academy

This is it. In just over 12 hours, the Oscar ceremony will begin and all our questions will be answered. Will No Country for Old Men stay the reigning champ, or will Oscar voters go for the one that made them laugh and vote for Juno? Or will they confound all the pundits and vote for Michael Clayton, or revert to their old selves and crown the sweeping period romance, Atonement? Or will they do the right thing and anoint Paul Thomas Anderson's masterpiece There Will Be Blood?

One things is for sure, this is not the Academy of the 90s. This is a new Academy, one that is not afraid to award darker, edgier fare. 10 years ago, No Country for Old Men would have been relegated to a Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay, while There Will Be Blood would have been noticed by AMPAS only for Daniel Day-Lewis' performance. The Best Picture nominees would have included The Great Debaters and Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and Atonement would have swept the awards.

But this is not 10 years ago. While the Academy is still skittish about awarding some things (*cough*Brokeback Mountain*cough*), they have shown remarkable growth in their willingness to break out of their usual comfort zone and show some love to more daring artistic visions, a la There Will Be Blood. Yes, it's still a shame that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Into the Wild were not nominated for Best Picture, but one can't be greedy. The very fact that two of their 5 nominees are such bold, dark, gritty works, and that two of the remaining three are so strong (Juno should not be here...sorry), is a major step in the right direction for the Academy.

You can say what you want about the growing disconnect between the Academy and the general public if you must. But let's look at this trend: starting with Traffic in 2000, the Academy subsequently nominated In the Bedroom, The Pianist, Lost in Translation, Mystic River, Sideways, Capote, Brokeback Mountain, Crash (yes, Crash), Munich, Babel, and Letters from Iwo Jima - all of which are far darker, grittier, and more independent minded that your typical "Academy friendly" film. Yes the feel-good Forrest Gump-y pics were still winning (a la A Beautiful Mind), that is until The Departed, which was a mainstream film yes, but as hard-edged as they come. Martin Scorsese made it safe for them (let's face it, if this same film had been directed by anyone else, the Academy would have ignored it completely).

This year, we have two downright nihilistic pictures with a real shot an taking home the gold. This could never have happened 10 years ago. Crash may have been a safer pick for them than Brokeback Mountain two years ago, but in terms of the grand scheme of things the Academy is heading in the right direction, no matter what conservative nutjobs might say, who seem to think the fact that the Academy doesn't award popular films means they are out of touch, saying that they days are gone when they awarded popular hits like Casablanca and The Sound of Music.

This is not the case. The Academy has not left the people, the people have left the Academy. The Academy is still honoring worthy films, it's just that people are no longer going to see them. Back in the 1970s, No Country, Michael Clayton, and There Will Be Blood would have been huge, because people went to see those kinds of films then. They were always hungry for something new. Not so much anymore. They want re-heated leftovers - a never-ending barrage of sequels and remakes. These do not a Best Picture make.

By midnight tonight, we will know whether this new Academy has stayed true to its progress, or whether it has somehow copped out at the last minute by awarding some nice, safe comedy like Juno, instead of challenging, thought-provoking fare like No Country or There Will Be Blood.

A victory for either one of those films is a victory for bold, risk-taking filmmaking, a validation of films that go against the norm. I hope this new Academy is not afraid to take chances, and doesn't at the last minute get cold feet and vote for the populist pick that will make them popular. Go with your gut Academy and honor a film whose artistic merits truly distinguish it as one of the year's very best.

History will judge you for the choice you make tonight...make sure it remembers you kindly.

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