Oscar is at least two people. On the one hand, like any 86-year-old, he is visibly frail. Both nostalgic and forgetful about his past, he dodders off in new directions, chasing elusive dreams: bigger ratings, younger viewers, perfect hosts, greater “relevance.” Among this year’s field, he’s basically Bruce Dern in Nebraska. Oscar queens like me follow suit as Will Forte’s character does in the same movie. We’re dutiful, frequently horrified, but ultimately forgiving. Especially this time of year, we drop by to check Oscar’s vitals, which have been stuck in a slow fade for at least a decade. Yet despite the grim prognoses and bitter frustration of his intimates, the old bastard keeps on kicking. Reluctantly, we hand him the keys and agree to go wherever he’s taking us. If he crashes (say, by giving Best Picture to Crash), we pull him from the wreckage, grumbling that this really is the last time, knowing full well that we’ll always return.
We don’t know how to quit him, because Oscar has that other side: glamorous, sexy, like Amy Adams in American Hustle. He too is erratic, deeply misguided, but ingenious when you least expect it. He barely grasps what people from other countries look and sound like, but he’s superficially willing to try new styles. Even if we get what a con artist he is, he comes with great gowns and a twinkle in his eye. His taste in partners is spotty at best, but if you’re a devotee (a French word that means “Oscar queen”), you keep rooting for him. If he invited you to the disco, you’d absolutely go.
The annual ceremony is less than a week away, so the most succulent scandals have already passed, the “Alone Yet Not Alone” farrago being this year’s filet mignon. The nominations now feel ancient, hailing from a time when Ukraine had a government, Ellen Jr. hadn’t come out yet, and everyone was vehemently for or against The Wolf of Wall Street, now only vaguely recalled as The One Where Leo Crawls to His Car. I expect Wolf to go home trophy-less Sunday, but Marty’s orgy converted its short, happy life of media obsession into five nominations, including one for a screenplay you could occasionally hear beneath the din of improvisations, and one for the amiable and gifted Jonah Hill. The actor’s fake teeth, fake penis, and jovially lewd extemporizing apparently moved Oscar more than James Gandolfini’s middle-aged distillation of qualified optimism in Enough Said or James Franco’s gonzo fusion of Spicoli and Scarface in Spring Breakers or David Oyelowo’s forceful selling of the father-son rift amid all the honey-baked hammery of Lee Daniels’ The Butler.
Gandolfini and Franco won major critics’ prizes, and Oyelowo was a lauded element of a hit film that once seemed Oscar-bound. Nonetheless, all missed the Academy's list, for reasons exceeding “different strokes for different folks.” Oscar campaigns keep getting longer, louder, and more precision-targeted, while the nomination window gets shorter and shifts earlier — even in years like this, when the Olympics pushed the ceremony quite late. As in Olympics coverage, the media follows vague cues about who is worth profiling, for reasons including but hardly limited to talent. These biases affect outcomes.
Like the Slovakian biathlete who earned gold in Sochi, you can still bag an Oscar without any teammates or flashy sponsors. Christopher Plummer pulled that off two years ago, when he won for playing Ewan McGregor’s gay father in Beginners, a tiny, wonderful movie that otherwise eluded Oscar’s radar. With this year’s offering of Oscar contenders, even Plummer might have trouble: A mere 11 movies, each with a massive and multipronged campaign, ate up all 34 spots in the picture, director, and acting races. That means fewer films penetrated the so-called “top” categories than we’ve seen in 30 years. You have to reach back equally far, to the 1981 ceremony, to find another ballot where no actor represents the sole nomination for her or his film — as good an indicator as any of a spot earned on merit alone, notwithstanding a costar’s, a film’s, or a campaign’s momentum.
These “lone wolf” nominees frequently dignify Oscar’s dubious enterprise, compelling attention toward small films that mainstream audiences or even movie nuts might otherwise overlook: diamonds of understated observation like Beginners or Georgia (1995) or Junebug (2005) or The Visitor (2008), or detours into challenging styles like Breaking the Waves (1996) or Requiem for a Dream (2000). This year, by contrast, if you’ve been paying any attention to TV spots or popular magazines since September, you’d already heard of every movie in every category where the victor speaks for more than 20 seconds. Not to fetishize only these fields. Some of the year’s most moving, daring, and handsome films are tucked into the animation, foreign-language, sound editing, cinematography, and documentary derbies. Still, in the top ranks, Oscar risks feeling gratuitous, furnishing extra hype to already well-hyped entertainments. If that’s all he’s good for, why not let him wander off into that Nebraskan good night?
Granted, there’s a glass-half-full way to consider this outcome. Many people describe 2013 as a banner year for Hollywood. Lucky us, if a bevy of strong titles like Gravity and Her and Captain Phillips and 12 Years a Slave arrived in one vintage — each abundant with virtues, none reducible to one-person shows, all gunning for lots of prizes. But are voters growing less adventurous? Does “best” now basically mean “best promoted”?
This trend can bar tough-sell films from winning a seat at the shrinking cool kids’ table at Oscar time, including LGBT movies, movies with nonwhite casts, or movies not in English.
Increasingly, nominees only hail from films that are somehow perceptible months or years in advance as “Oscar plays.” Dark horses and audience discoveries have a harder time. When films like Pariah or Weekend fail to earn a single nod for their insightful script, revealing performances, or astute cinematography, the reasons have less to do with homophobic double standards (entrenched though these absolutely are) than with competing titles that factored Oscar explicitly into casting, contracts, budgets, and release dates. Yes, the Academy prefers when straight actors play gay or cisgendered actors play trans, perennially embracing a Jared Leto over a Harmony Santana. Even at that, Oscar prefers the Letos to be packaged alongside a McConaughey-level lure, in a movie that prompted awards buzz from the second its long-delayed cameras started rolling. You can’t, in classically queer fashion, show up fashionably late to this party, or even show up on time. You must in some sense be early, even if you don’t open till December. Ten or 15 years ago, star-less Cannes sensations like Secrets & Lies became major contenders. In 2013 lesbian-themed Cannes champ Blue Is the Warmest Color got even better reviews but could not keep pace with drabber films that had “looked right” on paper since this time last year. Blue was eclipsed in year-end press coverage and, I’d wager, trumped in many voters’ viewing itineraries even by ultimate nonstarters like Saving Mr. Banks.
Are those reasons to stop following Oscar? Maybe, for those who try to cultivate pristine cultural politics. But many of us couldn’t stop if we wanted to, even with a virtual 1 percent of movies hoarding ever more Oscar gold for themselves. Whenever Academy glory and global notice extend to an urgent, brilliantly filmed commemoration like 12 Years a Slave or to Her’s sly, searching meditation on what we mean by “love,” an angel gets its wings. Even the mixed cultural messages of Dallas Buyers Club are better heeded and debated than ignored, especially if they guide viewers back to last year’s exceptional, Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague as counterpoint, or to a trans performer’s poignant rendering of a trans character, like Santana’s in Gun Hill Road. Matthew McConaughey keeps describing Dallas as the story of a man who simply refused to die despite constant assurances that his days were numbered. For better or worse, maybe that’s who Oscar is too.
NICK DAVIS is an associate professor of English and gender and sexuality studies at Northwestern University. Follow his ongoing Oscar coverage at Nick's Flick Picks.