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Can an Indie be too popular for the Oscars?

We are well and truly in Oscar season, in case you didn’t pick up on the Toronto International Film Festival as the kick-off of events (in fairness, it’s been going on longer than that – Oscar season is like Christmas advertising, it gets earlier every year. It’s fun the way that (even at this stage) every minor bump in the road for any picture is seen as potentially the end of its run. I’m not an Oscar-ologist, so I will concede I’m outside my field of expertise. It’s stunning that the perceived snubbing of perceived Oscar-lock Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (heck of a title, there) at the Gotham Awards. It’s got a lot of film critics and Oscar-watchers pondering if the mainstream support that stars like new Academy member Tyler Perry and Oscar-nominee Oprah Winfrey may have actually harmed it. Are AMPAS such snobs that a showing of support from Oprah can ground a film’s chances?

Cruising for a bruising at Oscar season?

Cruising for a bruising at Oscar season?

We know that Oscar voters are snobs. The whole fiasco over the snub of The Dark Knight demonstrated this – and I said then and I say now that widening the number of nominees will not change that, only the gradual changing of the demographics of the Academy can move the Oscars back in touch with regular movie goers. It’s still interesting to think that they might penalise an indie darling for enlisting a little a-list talent to help boost public interest. But stranger things have happened.

As the most feverish Oscar prognosticators are prone to do, they’ve begun reading heavily into the fact that this movie didn’t pick up a best film nomination at the Gotham awards, a particularly indie-conscious stop on the road to the biggest awards ceremony of the year. The New York Post was the first to suggest a link between the perceived snub and the two high-profile “executive producers” of the film, oddly singling out the new member of the Academy Tyler Perry rather than Oprah:

Which I’m not sure is going to help the movie’s Oscar chances (or its performance in year-end critics’ awards) any more than Perry’s recent public confession that he was abused as a child. After all, he’s best known to Oscar voters as the cross-dressing star/director of wildly popular lowbrow melodramatic farces.

There are a lot of people drawing a connection between Oprah’s support for other films which haven’t made the cut – The Great Debaters being the most recent example – but I think that honestly ignores two factors: an endorsement of a mediocre film does not Oscar gold make (and rumour is that Precious is far more than mediocre), and Oprah simply doesn’t have the same level of influence over film as she does on say books (she got Cormac McCarthy’s first interview!). There’s also the observation that, while Oprah may not consistently back winners, she isn’t necessarily a kiss-of-death to a film’s Oscar hopes either:

But, hey, lets give the former supporting-actress nominee (The Color Purple) her due for the key role she played tub-thumping for Crash, which went on to topple Brokeback Mountain for best picture of 2005.

Still, maybe – if the objection or snubbing of the film is not an affront to Oprah herself, maybe it’s a response to the film’s increasing mainstream appeal. We’re all relatively selfish with our media, enjoying it best when it was a small production made solely for discerning viewers like us, rather than becoming a main course of the mainstream menu. It’s a very strong sentiment among any group that feels strongly about anything – witness the reaction from some Torchwood fans when the series went mainstream this summer or the reaction of Watchmen fans to the film. We like to imagine that critics would be above such things, but they can be a very sensitive group. As Tom O’Neil points out:

I think critics are starting to resent the fact that their darling flick’s gone mainstream, as evidenced by it winning the audience awards at the Sundance and Toronto International film festivals. Now Precious is obviously Oscar-bound. Critics are stubborn, contrary-minded folk, of course, and I think we’re seeing classic evidence of that in the nominations just announced by the Gotham Awards.

There are also arguably other factors at play which might explain why some critical organisations feel uneasy about the film, mostly due to its very dark content, as Jeffery Wells observes:

If there’s a Precious backlash — ‘if,’ I say — it’s due to the oppressively ugly, emotionally sadistic vibe generated by Mo’Nique’s ‘mom from hell’ character. It’s a movie about compassion and, at the end, a ray or two of light breaking through the clouds, but the cruelty we are obliged to endure (along with poor Gabby, of course) is quite awful. Mo’Nique sells malicious monsterhood like a champ. So if — IF — there’s a certain hesitancy or resistance to Precious, it’s that.

I think that might be a factor. There was a very light discussion last year as to whether Revolutionary Road might even be too dark and depressing for Academy voters, with its exploration of suburban inadequacies. I think there were other, more serious structural flaws with the film that locked it out, but it’s worth stating that this isn’t necessarily a new idea. It isn’t necessarily that Oscar voters like lighter fare – though they did give the Oscar to Shakespeare in Love – but also that it is possible to go too dark for them.

Being honest, and I concede that I’m an amateur here, but I really don’t see too many problems or roadblocks on the way for Precious. It’s been talked about since January (though Mariah Carey was dominating the discussion at that point), so I think some backlash was inevitable at some point – just like we eventually saw some backlash against Slumdog Millionaire (admittedly much later) last year.

It’s kinda cool that with ten nominations there’s still a discussion about who should and will get in – I think this year’s Oscar race is shaping up to be a very interesting one. There are a whole range of potential contenders, with the list being updated nearly every day. That’s fun and vital and everything that fun derby should be. It also means that there are a rake of quality films in the pipeline for the coming months, which is good news for any film fan.

My money is still (seemingly against increasing odds) on Invictus, the Mandela biopic we just got a first look at, but I don’t think that Oprah, Perry or even the whole of mainstream popular culture will interfere with an Oscar nomination for Precious. It’s never going to be a blockbuster and completely lose that low-budget indie shine that the Oscars love so much. Its only enemy is itself: is it too dark for Oscar voters?

I’ll let you know after I’ve seen it.

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