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Could Avatar Flip The ‘Populist Oscar’ Debate?

With the Golden Globe firmly in hand, James Cameron’s double victory at the Golden Globes cemented Avatar as a serious contender for the Best Picture Oscar. Not that there was ever really much doubt about the film receiving a nomination: the Academy loves Cameron. It still just seems a surprise in a race that has generally seen debate over Precious, Up in the Air and The Hurt Locker, with a fringe advocating Inglourious Basterds. Still, give the people what they want, right? An Oscar win for Avatar clearly indicates that the Academy is moving back to embrace popular tastes, right? I’m not so convinced.

Yes, that's James Cameron biting his lips to stop himself from reminding you how awesome he is...

This discussion stems from the failure of The Dark Knight to secure an Oscar nomination last year, being replaced in the five-film line-up by Holocaust-themed flick The Reader. Consensus was that the Academy was simply being snobbish, ignoring a film beloved by millions simply because it was beloved by millions. It’s worth reminding readers that this debate is typically framed in the context of the Academy itself disengaging from regular cinema goers – something that has been wrestled with over the past year with the expanding of the best picture category to ten films and a decided shift in the film makers selected for membership of the Academy.

The reason the Academy cares about what plebs like you or I think is because they need the money from advertising during the ceremony to keep them going – they need people to watch. People generally won’t watch the Oscars if they nominate films that they haven’t even heard of (the year before last is an example of this principle in action), so you need to give people a reason to watch. While the awarding of a posthumous Oscar to Heath Ledger and a pull-out-all-the-stops host in the form of Hugh Jackman (“I am Wolverine!”) helped bouy up last year’s awards, AMPAS (the folks behind the awards) are noticeably antsy and are looking for the common touch.

James Cameron and his film receiving a nomination was a given. Even from a marketing point of view it seems a safe bet – the ceremony received its highest ratings the year Titanic won, lending credence to the emotional investment theory – not to mention the fact that the organisation loves him. Before it came out, a lot of folks had it down as a sure bet for a nomination. After its release and ascension to earth-shattering phenomenon, more and more people are talking like the movie could actually take home the prize. The victory at the Golden Globes cements that.

There are a few dissenting voices, such as from Brad over at Rope of Silicon who suggests that the Globes simply don’t have the more suitable technical categories in which to award the film:

I believe Avatar is worthy of awards, but technical awards, which it will win at the Oscars, but since those aren’t handed out at the Globes it means the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) feels the need to dote on it in categories where others are more deserving.

I don’t disagree that the movie is certainly more deserving of technical awards, but that won’t stop the Academy from giving it some major dramatic ones as well.

Granted, ABC makes some solid points about why Avatar won’t be taking as many Oscar nominations as Titanic did (and there is -generally speaking – a relation between the film with the most nominations and the winner):

For starters, Avatar was not on the recently released shortlist for the Academy’s makeup award, a category in which Titanic earned a nomination.

And while Titanic earned nominations for best actress (Kate Winslet) and supporting actress (Gloria Stuart), Avatar isn’t considered a contender in the acting categories.

Both are solid points, but I still wouldn’t rule the film out, nor would I necessarily agree that James Cameron’s arrogance has cost him brownie points with the Academy:

Nobody loves a bore and a show-off, even in Hollywood. Cameron may have hurt his cause at the Globes Sunday by pompously offering up Avatar’s fake blue planet Pandora as a model for loving the real blue Earth.

I’d disagree – the Academy loves its pompous arrogant asses. Jack Nicholson isn’t exactly shy, after all. Yes, Mickey Rourke and Eddie Murphy’s antics might have cost them acting awards, but Cameron isn’t plastered over billboards in a fatsuit at the height of Oscar season nor is he… well, Mickey Rourke.

Part of me worries that this might be another example of Hollywood delibrately misconstruing popular opinion. My fear is that we will wake up the morning after Avatar takes home the biggest award of the night and hear talking heads telling us that this is exactly what we wanted: that nominating and awarding Avatar shows that the Oscars are, in fact, still in touch with the average cinema-goer. Shouldn’t we be happy? We complained that the awards weren’t populist enough when Batman got snubbed, so surely overgrown smurfs show that there’s no prejudice here, right?

Except the argument was never that the Oscars needed to be more populist or that they weren’t populist enough to give Christopher Nolan credit where credit is due: the argument contended that they were too snobbish to do so. There’s a big difference between the two positions. If we believed that the Oscars should be populist, they’d be judged by Simon Cowell. They’d feature a performance from Zac Efron (hey… wait…). That is a distortion of the argument made. The Dark Knight didn’t deserve an oscar nomination because of all the box office records it broke, it deserved it because it was one of the best films of the year.

Support for the film as an Oscar contender wasn’t just coming from nerds and geeks. It was coming from honest-to-goodness critics. And it was excluded from the race because it was a pulpy comic book film. The problem with last year’s nominations arises not from the fact that the Academy didn’t recognise the biggest movie of the year, but because they snubbed it because it was outside their comfort zone.

Giving the Best Picture award to Avatar doesn’t change that. The movie is within its comfort zone because it’s made by an insider. Because it doesn’t have any teeth, but offers a feelgood political message. Because this is the type of bland matinee fare that the Academy is far too comfortable with. I have no problem with the movie being nominated – but I don’t want to see the nomination championed as a reversal of the philosophy that excluded The Dark Knight. Had that movie been released this year, it still wouldn’t receive a nomination.

I can see this example being distorted by the same talking heads who have defended year-after-year of bland predictable Oscar choices by focusing on some variation of the argument that the Oscars don’t exist to recognise great cinema, merely to draw attention to it – the logic being that a small film ebenefits more from a nomination than a big film and is more deserving. However – if that is the function of the Academy – how come we aren’t hearing people talk about Oscar nominations for genuinely unseen masterpieces and daring and original cinema (Moon comes to mind from this year)? The fact is that the Academy likes what the Academy likes and there’s not a damn thing that you or I can do about it.

The Guardian summed up why Avatar’s victory at the Golden Globes left me feeling more than a little uneasy:

Lest there were any doubt, the Golden Globes came to assure Hollywood’s millionaire celebrities that yes, they were altogether wonderful people, fully deserving of every private jet, second home and gleaming statuette the Almighty cared to bestow on them. Last night’s ceremony opened with a best supporting actress award for Mo’Nique (for Precious), who said: “First let me say – thank you Gaawwd.”

It ended with James Cameron, collecting the crowning best picture (drama) gong for Avatar and informing the gathered guests that “we all have the best job in the world”. “Give it up,” he added, “Give it up for yourselves!” This was Hollywood giving thanks to Hollywood, for the benefit of Hollywood, while the rest of the world peered in from the other side of a TV screen. Would they notice or care if we flipped the channel?

But, if the picture wins, I know what will happen. It will be brought up every single time that any commentator anywhere suggests that the Academy is ‘out of touch’ or that they are snobbish or elitist. Perhaps that’s the biggest reason that I fear a win for Avatar.

No, it’s the second biggest. The biggest is that there are far more deserving films out there.

8 Responses

  1. What can I say? You know where I stand on the Avatar debate, personally I’m glad The Dark Knight was not nominated last year, it wouldn’t have made my top 5 either. Clearly, you’re not an Avatar fine, which is fine, but the thing is IF Avatar wins it will not be the first time a film that is “more deserving” wins the Oscar, and that’s pretty much all subjective. I know I’m missing something because I don’t follow interviews, but Cameron doesn’t come off as that much of a douche to me. He essentially said the same thing Streep said in her speech about enjoying what’s there and I don’t think it was self-congratulatory as it was him in his [potentially misguided] attempt to highlight the importance of art. Don’t people use LOTR and Titanic for the populist argument, though?

    Okay, too much ranting. You’re getting me sucked back into the race 🙂

    • It’s great to have you on board for the race, to be honest (I think you were already in with your own excellent analysis).

      It’s hard to narrow my distaste about modern Cameron down to specific events – it’s just the way that he seems so ridiculously entitled. And yes, he’s earned it (no one can protest that he hasn’t by any measurable sense), but stuff like asking Hollywood to give it up for themselves, dismissing a project he was interested in during the 1990’s using the words “sloppy seconds” and just giving part of his thank you speech in a language he made up himself make him seem like that douche bag who is brilliant, but can’t wait to point out to you how brilliant he is.

      I accept Titanic as a populist victory and I think that The Lord of the Rings dominated popular culture through a three-year sustained campaign to made it harder for the Academy to ignore.
      I don’t have a problem with Avatar winning (apart from the fact I feel it’s not the best film – but you’d think after all these years I’d be used that). My problem is suggesting that the Academy is doing it as a move to demonstrate how in touch with the zeitgeist they are. They aren’t. They’ll do what they damn well please, and reward James Cameron because they like him. Avatar is popular and a cultural phenomenon, but that has nothing to do with why it will win.

      My problem is that it will be heralded by everyone and their mother as the Academy getting back in touch with popular culture, which has been a huge issue behind the scenes over the past few years. I have my own feelings on that, but – that whole minefield aside – I don’t want to wake up to articles of how Sid Ganis has put the awards back on touch with the common man, because that’s patently not the case if it wins.

      Jeez, this is turning into a mini-article.

  2. Even though I’m tuning out, if there’s one thing I love about the Oscar race, it’s discussions like these. You are definitely raising some astute points. I never really get why people are all up on Oscar for not being populist enough, and then whenever they do go “populist” everyone hates it. Granted, I like Titanic – much, but now all of a sudden it’s one of the worst BP wins ever. Conversely, The English Patient – a favourite of mine – is one of the worst because it’s completely boring. Granted that’s all subjective, but they don’t want popular like Titanic, they don’;t want artsy like The English Patient, they don’t want funny like Shakespeare in Love or musical like Chicago. I’m not sure they know what the hell they want.

    The thing about it is that you can’t please everyone, or anyone sometimes. I wouldn’t use Avatar as a populist argument though, why do they need to?

    Which is your favourite film of the year anyway?

    • I don’t know, it just seems that lately ‘how in/out of touch are the Oscars?’ seems to be the traditional post-ceremony (or even post-nomination) analysis and I’m worried that several commentators will be using the wrong ruler, so to speak.

      Being the at once ‘hip’ and yet massively conformist (so, a boring and safe opinion), I though Inglourious Basterds was the best film of the year. Yourself?

  3. Right now the top five is Coraline, An Education***, The Hurt Locker, Avatar [yes] and The Messenger. But I’m seeing Bright Star next weekend, which I suspect will be a big player in my final analysis.

    *** Best thus far.

    • Of those I’ve seen, Coraline and The Hurt Locker are fantastic and I’m pretty much a minority of one on Avatar. I love the way that, as you pointed out above, Oscar season brings out all these interesting debates (and I’m glad to hear you thought An Education is good, it’s on my ‘to see’ list).

  4. Nobody comes up with posts quite as thought-provoking as yours, Darren, because you made me realize what a hypocrite I’ve been — I ranted for pages about “The Dark Knight” being snubbed for Best Picture, and lately I’ve been ranting that “Avatar” will steamroll so many deserving smaller, less ostentatious films like “Precious” or “Up in the Air.”

    And you’ll have to make that a minority of two, because I don’t think “Avatar” should get a Best Picture nod. Just because some blockbuster films deserve Oscars doesn’t mean they all do, and “Avatar” has some flaws that, for me, kept me from joining its fan club.

    • Ah no, I don’t think the Oscars will nominate Avatar because it’s populist. They’ll nominate it because it’s James Cameron – if he released Avatar acted by sock puppets he’d likely still get nominated. That said, I won’t be too ticked if Avatar wins, just if I turn on the television/radio the following morning and people claim it shows the Academy is back in touch.

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