As a critic who is a year-end awards voter, the annual November pile-up in my mailbox of screener DVDs of December Oscar hopefuls fills me with dread. It’s always a marathon of bleak, grim, serious, depressing films.
This winter, I thought I’d start out with something mild and benign, so I popped in the disc of Saving Mr. Banks, which I knew was the story of how Walt Disney (played by an avuncular Tom Hanks) persuaded P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to let him bring her Mary Poppins to the big screen. And even that turned out to be a heavy psychodrama about a woman whose childhood had been marred by her father’s alcoholism and early death in a remote, windblown Australian town, traumas with which she was still coping 50 years later. So I tried August: Osage County, billed as an all-star family comedy. Nope; more drinking and dying, dust and deserts. And then Inside Llewyn Davis, which I thought would be a picaresque musical journey from the Coen brothers, along the lines of their wry O Brother, Where Art Thou? But it was more like their A Serious Man, a wintry tale of a talented folk singer’s Job-like suffering and repeated failures in both his career and personal life. By now, it was clear that this year was going to offer little respite from the usual parade of horrors presented in the name of art.
Every year, the Academy wrings its hands and wonders why the Oscar show’s audience isn’t what it used to be, and it’s tried to compensate by making its selections more populist (notably, by expanding the Best Picture field from five movies to as many as 10). And yet, every year, the Oscar voters come up with a list of movies that most people haven’t bothered to see because they’re so downbeat that they’re often a chore to watch. They may be important movies, good movies, even movies that are good for you, but general audiences have avoided them at the multiplex the way they avoid vegetables at a fast-food restaurant.
As it turned out, Mr. Banks, August and Llewyn Davis didn’t even make the cut for the Best Picture Oscar – were they not bleak enough? The movie likely to win Best Picture this year is an unrelentingly brutal depiction of the horrors of slavery. There’s also a drama about a man held hostage by economically desperate pirates, a drama about looming death in the vastness of space, a drama about a deluded old man on a futile quest, a drama about a woman searching for the child she was forced to give up for adoption half a century ago, a drama about AIDS patients fighting the system to get the drugs and information they need, a failed romance between a man and a computer operating system, a comedy-drama about a real-life sting operation, and a satire about a real-life financier who enjoyed a life of extreme debauchery while bilking his clients for millions. If you watched all nine Best Picture nominees in a row, you’d end up running screaming to the nearest screening of The Lego Movie.
Of course, it’s been this way throughout Oscar history. A look at this week’s TIME infographic breaking down common elements of Best Picture winners since 1970 finds precious little levity but plenty of cruelty. (Frequent plot points include “Shot to death,” “Beating,” “Falling down stairs,” “Punched in the face,” and “Bag over head,” while “Drug Dealer” and “Mafioso” are common characters.) The Academy appears to see grittiness as a sign of artistic merit; lightness and uplift, less so.
Part of this has to do with the difference between what regular moviegoing audiences want to see and what critics and industry insiders (like Academy voters) want to see. When you pony up your hard-earned cash at the multiplex on a weekend night, you want to make sure you’re getting your money’s worth, so you want a moviegoing experience that’s comforting, familiar, and reassuring. (Hence the flood of formulaic action films, romantic comedies, and horror movies, with recognizable stars and glossy production values.) But critics and industry insiders, who may see five movies a week or more, are bored with formula. They want to be surprised, shaken, and challenged. (Hence independent and foreign language films, low-budget aesthetics, unfamiliar faces and confrontational subject matter.)
But the other issue is the Academy’s desire to make a statement, one that says: Here is the best that the film industry has to offer this year. Of course, the implied statement is one about the Academy members themselves: We are serious artists, not just merchants who pander to audiences by offering the lowest common denominator.
The paradox is that this stance leads to the same kind of conformist, formulaic thinking that it pretends to decry. As the TIME chart suggests, Oscar films can be just as formulaic as superhero movies; they merely place value on a different set of narrative techniques and plot and character elements.
The Best Picture formula doesn’t just give short shrift to comedies, which win the top prize about once a decade. (And even the comedies that win are awfully serious or bleak, from Annie Hall and its narrator’s obsession with mass death, to Driving Miss Daisy and its focus on Jim Crow racial attitudes, to Shakespeare in Love with its historical pageantry and sad ending, to The Artist, with its hero spending much screen time depressed over the death of his career as his art form becomes obsolete.) It also shortchanges movies that don’t make big sweeping statements. In 1982, Gandhi beat E.T., but does anyone today think that the ponderous, plodding biopic, however worthy its subject, is a better movie than Spielberg’s emotionally rich fantasy about kids and space aliens? In 1994, Forrest Gump beat Pulp Fiction because it seemed to be thinking big thoughts about 20th century history, while Pulp was about potty-mouthed gangsters, but does anyone now deny that Tarantino’s exhilarating celebration of sheer narrative drive, with its accompanying meditations on loyalty and redemption, is the better film? In 2010, The King’s Speech fit the Oscar formula to a T (dramatic, British, period setting, World War II, pedigreed actors, the overcoming of a personal handicap), while The Social Network was a contemporary tale of bratty American college kids and computers, but won’t history find the latter to be the more innovative and historically significant film?
There is one arena where movies that aren’t serious historical or issue-oriented dramas can triumph in the Best Picture race, and that’s where there’s an overwhelming display of craftsmanship. It’s craftsmanship that allows the occasional victory for genre films like The French Connection, The Sting, The Silence of the Lambs, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and The Departed. (And, if you really think about it, Braveheart and Gladiator, both action spectacles in historical drag.) Sometimes a movie is simply so well made that it doesn’t matter what it’s about. That’s the sentiment behind the Oscar support this year for Gravity, American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Captain Phillips.
It’s worth noting that these are also the films among the Best Picture nominees that have passed $100 million at the domestic box office. The indication seems to be that mass audiences do appreciate craft and good storytelling, no matter what the topic, as much as the Academy does. It’s fun for viewers to have master filmmakers take them on a wild, blackly comical ride (as in Hustle and Wolf) or a gripping adventure (Gravity, Phillips). And that’s the kind of fun the Academy can get behind.
Perhaps this is the area where awards voters and general moviegoers can find common ground, where the Oscars can rediscover their populist appeal, and where the Academy can recognize that art comes not only from making viewers feel like they’ve taken their medicine, but from something that goes down much easier — making them happy.