One of the film industry’s most versatile actors went on a massive rant this week in Playboy’s latest offering.
Gary Oldman (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) stated, among other things, that “at the Oscars if you didn’t vote for 12 Years a Slave you were a racist.” There’s certainly a common understanding in Hollywood that films which tackle sensitive or difficult issues, including race, are forerunners comes awards season. An actor as prolific like Oldman, however, voicing the issue as part of his strong criticism of political correctness, as publicly and vociferously as he did, is not common at all.
Race is only one of many sensitive issue explored in Best Picture winning films. Central to many of the plots are themes including mental illness (A Beautiful Mind, The Silence of the Lambs, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) or physical limitations (Million Dollar Baby, The King’s Speech). Exploration of ‘the human condition’ is central to many Oscar contenders, as wonderfully parodied by Cracked’s ‘trailer for every Oscar winning movie ever.’ The trailer for ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,’ along with the film itself, were widely touted as Oscar-bait following their release, both promising an inspirational narrative complete with U2 soundtrack.
But is it fair to say that films like ‘Lincoln’ which tackle contentious issues including race always win out, or that their success must be attributed to their exploration of these issues rather than the talents and merits of the film and its makers? Not really, and the proof is in the pudding. ‘Lincoln,’ despite being nominated, did not win Best Picture. Instead ‘Argo,’ being more a heist-action movie than anything else, took out the top award. This was not seen as a slight on the subjects explored in ‘Lincoln’ nor the quality of the film itself, simply the recognition of both a well-made, entertaining thriller and of Ben Affleck’s talents as a film-maker. Similarly, during the previous year’s ceremony silent-movie nostalgia-flick ‘The Artist’ won out over popular adaptation ‘The Help,’ a film exploring racial attitudes in 1960’s Mississippi.
’12 Years a Slave’ beat out, among others, ‘Gravity’ and ‘American Hustle’ for the top prize, both of which were expected to do well and were excellent films. ‘Gravity,’ while technically and visually groundbreaking, suffered from having only two characters in the entire film. An audience engages with a film when they see multiple characters interact and for most of the movie it was just either Bullock or Clooney floating around. The latter, being very entertaining, nevertheless suffered from too many players with David O’Russell seemingly unable to decide which of his main cast of 4 (Bale, Adams, Cooper and Lawrence) were either driving the story or the central focus for the audience at any one time.
The winner this year did not have either of these problems and followed Solomon Northup’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) true story as a slave in 19th century America. Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o were stand-outs in a highly emotive and engaging narrative of a free man who was sold into slavery and the film deservedly took a hefty number of Oscars.
There are many times when a film has achieved a Best Picture win on merit over a film that has either or both widely perceived Oscar-worthy traits or themes dealing with provocative issues. In 2000 ‘Gladiator’ defeated drug-thriller ‘Traffic’ for the top spot and just two years prior ‘Shakespeare in Love’ won over ‘Saving Private Ryan.’ The two winners may not have taken many risks or dealt with sensitive topics but nevertheless appealed widely to a mainstream and critical audience. There are certainly a number of films that deal with sensitive issues, which following a comparison of their merits with others nominated alongside them for Best Picture deservedly won out, including ‘The Deer Hunter,’ ‘Dances with Wolves’ and ‘On the Waterfront.’
‘The Silence of the Lambs’ was one of the only 3 films ever to win the top 5 awards (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay). It dealt with the same thematic issues as Oldman’s follow-up ‘Hannibal’ which garnered none of the critical acclaim of it’s predecessor, in large part due to it’s deviation from the source material. Awards season produces a lot of winners and losers, but in a industry whose success relies largely on audiences being receptive to the merits of a film, it is commonplace for movies to be successful on their originality, technical achievement and ability to engage, rather than simply reverting to a theme in a movie to judge it’s success.