Oscar 2006: Washington Post on Levy's All About Oscar

Chasing Down the 'Best' Best Picture
Best at What, Exactly A Look at the Ficklest Oscar Category.

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 18, 2007; N01

It's a yearly ritual as dependable as Punxsutawney Phil himself–the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presents the Oscar for Best Picture and is greeted with a single, unified response: Huh

Next Sunday, no matter which breathless producers we've never heard of take the stage to thank more producers we never heard of (but didn't make the cut to be up onstage), a fair amount of outrage, confusion and high dudgeon will surely be abroad in the land.

“Little Miss Sunshine” Cute, quirky, warmhearted, sure, but where's the sweep

“The Departed” Certainly an example of Martin Scorsese returning to Grand Guignol form, but where's the deeper meaning

“Babel” Sweep, yes, and some fabulous performances, but do fuzzy-headed notions about the randomness and violence of life really qualify as deeper meaning

“The Queen” Veddy tasteful, veddy smart, veddy high-toned. But where's the scope

“Letters From Iwo Jima” It's got it all — scope, sweep, ambition, deeper meaning. But . . . where's the audience

When the nominations were announced last month, the hue and cry went up immediately. Many critics gnashed their teeth (another yearly ritual) when at least three of the very best films of the year — “United 93,” “Children of Men” and “Pan's Labyrinth” — were shut out in the Best Picture nominations. And Joe and Jane America felt vicariously dissed when a huge audience favorite didn't get the Big Nod. The hit musical “Dreamgirls” was good enough to earn eight nominations in six categories, but apparently not good enough for the award that common sense suggests would follow from such esteem.

We ask it every year, but here we go again: What the [insert favorite invective here]! Just what do Academy voters mean by “Best Picture” anyway

I've always had a pet theory that the Best Picture category has been more about the film business than the film arts, which is why so many technical and artistic achievements — your “High Noons,” your “Taxi Drivers,” your “Quiz Shows” — get overlooked in favor of mainstream box-office earners (“The Greatest Show on Earth,” “Rocky,” “Forrest Gump”). It's the rising-tide notion of Best Picture, which is that the Academy likes to reward movies that got audiences talking that year, thereby getting them to theaters and into movies in general.

I call it the My Dad in Des Moines formula. If my dad — a man of conservative, wholesome, mainstream taste — calls to say he's heard he absolutely must see “Little Miss Sunshine,” for example, that's the sign that the movie has jumped from quirky niche comedy to a part of the national cocktail party conversation, something we all have to see in order to be culturally literate. (According to the My Dad in Des Moines formula, “Little Miss Sunshine” would be this year's sure winner.)

The ineffable blend of art and commerce has always characterized the Best Picture category, which started out as two categories when the Academy first instituted the awards in 1927. That year, they handed out an award for Best Producer (“who produced the most outstanding motion picture, considering all elements that contribute to a picture's greatness,” according to Academy criteria) and Best Production Company (“which produced the most artistic, unique, and/or original motion picture without reference to cost or magnitude”).

The Academy merged the two categories in 1928, and since then the twain have met, diverged and sometimes contradicted each other to stunning effect. How else to explain a category deemed appropriate for a big-budget special effects spectacle like “Titanic” one year, and the modestly-budgeted, hyper-literary historical romp like “Shakespeare in Love” the next (And “American Beauty” the next, and “Gladiator” after that)

In “All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards,” critic Emanuel Levy points out that one thing all Best Picture nominees share is standout acting, either as an ensemble or in the form of one bravura star turn. Do the math: Every branch of the Academy nominates and votes on Best Picture (unlike other categories, which are nominated by their respective technical and artistic branches); the acting branch is by far the largest branch in the Academy (actors account for slightly more than 25 percent of the organization, according to Levy); ergo, actors vote for movies that feature great acting. (“Little Miss Sunshine,” “The Departed,” “Babel,” “Letters From Iwo Jima,” “The Queen”: check, check, check, check, check.)

But Levy doesn't have a Dad in Des Moines. He has his own calculation of what kind of movie wins Best Picture. “There's something called an 'Oscar-caliber movie,' ” he said recently from his home in Los Angeles. “It's usually a middlebrow picture, where the message or what the movie's about is far more important than the artistic style or innovation. In 1982, for example, I can make a case that each of the four other nominees was better than the winner, 'Gandhi.' ” In terms of artistic merit and social significance, Levy said, “Tootsie,” “E.T.,” “The Verdict” and “Missing” were all superior movies. “The reason 'Gandhi' won was the message,” he said, “because if you vote for 'Gandhi' you vote for a noble figure and you vote for nonviolence.”

The same held true last year, he added. “No doubt 'Brokeback Mountain' was a better picture than 'Crash,' ” he says. “It swept all the guild [awards], it swept all the critics. You have to put yourself in the mentality of the average Academy voter, who's rather old. And mostly men. So it boils down to this. If you vote for 'Brokeback,' you vote for a well-crafted movie, but you vote for a gay romance between cowboys. If you vote for 'Crash,' you vote for interracial relations in America. Which is more significant in terms of the national agenda”

More important than art or commerce, Levy avers, are the values a movie conveys, thereby affirming Hollywood's idealized notion of itself as enlightened, humanist and beneficent. “The Academy is very concerned with its public image,” he said. “It has to do with the TV show being a global media event. They want to project a positive image about the Oscars and Hollywood. So it's more like a sociological event rather than an artistic phenomenon.”

Robert Osborne, the Turner Classic Movies host and author of “75 Years of the Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards,” thinks the “huh” factor has decreased over the years. There was a time, after all, when box office blockbusters (and future kitsch classics) like “Cleopatra,” “Hello, Dolly!” and John Wayne's “Alamo” won Best Picture; these days, small movies like “The Pianist” and “Crash” can win, and a “Little Miss Sunshine” can duke it out with the likes of “The Departed.”

“It's much more democratic now, because Academy members are all sent DVDs of the films,” Osborne said from his home in Manhattan. “So people who ordinarily may not see 'Little Miss Sunshine' or 'The Pianist' or more obscure little films get them sent to their homes. That's why Ryan Gosling was nominated for 'Half Nelson.' ” (The film, released last summer, never cleared $3 million at the box office.)

Both Levy and Osborne agree that, unlike the nomination criteria in specific branches, what qualifies for Best Picture can't be quantified. Rather, voters go by their overall feelings about a movie. And when it comes to voting, if all the nominees are strong, it can get personal. “Things figure in like, 'I worked on that movie and he's so difficult,' or 'I hear she was drunk all the time,' ” Osborne observed. “Like in any small business, you don't tend to vote for people you don't like.”

Still, as wacky as the process sometimes looks to everyone out here in the office pool, Osborne insists that Academy voters take their job very seriously. “People are very honored to be in the Academy,” he said. “They're an elite group, and many of them are winners or nominees themselves, or hope to be. So I think they want to keep a certain standard there. They're very protective.”

All well and good. There will still be millions of viewers next Sunday who will greet the announcement for Best Picture with a shrug, a yawn or a swig — or some combination thereof. As for my Dad in Des Moines, he's rooting for “The Queen.”