My eccentric Oscar ballot

26 February 2012

Here’s why I always lose Oscar betting pools with my friends: I try to make the Oscars about something bigger.

For example: I truly don’t understand why The Descendants gets so much love. It’s the story of a rich guy who’s selling off thousands of acres of pristine land so he and his family can phenomenally richer — and all of this when unemployment was still at 9% or whatever … well, you can appreciate why I get cranky about things.

I was also nonplussed by last year’s Up in the Air. We’re in the midst of a financial crisis and I’m supposed to emote on behalf of the dude who goes around firing people? It’s gonna have to be a goddamn fantastic film to get me over that obstacle.

Don’t worry: this post has its eyes on the actual nominees, not the films that didn’t get noticed (but how did Take Shelter not get a single nomination?).

Best Actor and Actress: in which I apply the “99% rule,” aka “redistribute the wealth.”

Critics seem to be guessing that George Clooney will win this, according to some kind of logic that we all like the guy and he’s been doing good work. I say that sounds like an old boys’ club if I ever heard one; this is why that “good guy” at work gets promoted and you don’t.

Don’t get me wrong: I love Clooney. I love love him. But I don’t think he’s the best actor of the year, and certainly not for this film. The award should probably go to Jean Dujardin, who was effervescent in a lovely (and better) film. I’ll be delighted if Dujardin wins.

But because I’m feeling contrarian, I’m rooting for Demián Bichir — the stellar Mexican actor who’s so unknown in the U.S. he’s not even a dark horse in this category; the guy who appears as an undocumented worker just trying to make a better life for his kid in L.A. Bichir’s character is so much a member of the 99% that he’s practically off the map — and that’s why he should win Best Actor.

Look, A Better Life wasn’t great. Neither was The Help or The Iron Lady, for that matter. C’mon, members of the Academy — look beyond your white, male, privileged bubbles to the world around you, even just that guy who cuts your grass, and vote for something beyond yourselves.

Using the same logic, my Best Actress choice is Viola Davis, who gives a stellar performance in a pretty crappy film. It’s impossible to compare her role to Meryl Streep’s — Streep dominates virtually every scene in The Iron Lady and shows off so many virtuoso chops that Streep almost looks like a little rich kid surrounded by presents at Christmas. Davis, meanwhile, is so much a part of an ensemble production that she might well have been relegated to the Supporting Actress category.

But you know what? No matter how disappointing was The Help, we’ll remember Davis. She’s just so good — so transcendent in a sea of embarrassing writing and directing — and her kind of goodness is important to the field of acting in 2012. 99%, bitchez!

Supporting Actress and Actor: in which I cast my all-LGBTQ vote.

What a year for the ladies! I’m so delighted with this field that I’m not sure where to go. Should I stick with my 99% rule and root for the magnificent Octavia Spencer? Should I stick with my Foreigners Deserve to Win Oscars rule and root for Bejo? (Well, that probably wasn’t going to happen, honestly.) Should I assert my Women Of All Sizes rule and root for McCarthy, who practically stole Bridesmaids out from under all those top-billed/ skinny women?

I’m going with my heart on this one, as well as with my own insight that 2011 was the Year of the Trans Ladies. Janet McTeer made Albert Nobbs — she was the real heart and soul of this film, raised the whole thing to a higher level, and was ridiculously hot as a man, to boot. This film has received less love than it should have; yeah, it felt a little bit more like something that would have been profound in 1982 but in 2011 feels like yeah, already. Like Bichir in A Better Life, you don’t get more marginalized than trans persons. But honestly, I’ll be happy with any one of these choices. Even better: they should give three Oscars — to Spencer, McCarthy, and McTeer.

Meanwhile, the men’s category seems less competitive to me. Christopher Plummer will — and should — win Best Supporting Actor for his work in Beginners as the father who comes out as an 80-year-old. ‘Nuff said.

Best Picture and Director: In which I wrestle with my own “degree of difficulty” rule.

I’m rooting for two titles: The Artist and Tree of Life. The former is the film I’ll want to see again and again. It’s a crystalline, lovely piece of romantic comedy and melodrama; I found it especially sweet for the way it earnestly wants to teach viewers how to fall in love with classic cinema. I vote for The Artist to take Best Picture.

On the other hand, The Tree of Life attempted a much higher degree of difficulty; like a great diver or ice skater, it took wild risks and didn’t succeed all the time, but what it did accomplish was remarkable: a tale of childhood and early pubescence more real than any I can remember seeing onscreen. If notions like “degree of difficulty” mattered to the Academy, that’s the film that should win.

So I’m splitting the difference: The Artist for Best Picture, and Terrence Malick to take Best Director (or vice versa) — and for these two categories to be split apart. 

Best Screenplay, Original and Adapted: in which I root for the foreigners and commit fully to losing the pool.

A Separation and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. 

The latter is just a beautiful film production — I can’t even imagine how hard it was to come up with a screenplay for this twisting novel that has already received a 7-part miniseries by the BBC in 1979. Starring Alec Guinness, no less. How do you get that down to a bankable 2 hours or so?

Don’t ask me, but Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan did it. Nailed it. (Bonus: an actual woman nominated for an Oscar behind the scenes!)

So if I’m so pro-lady, why am I not rooting for Wiig and Mumolo for Bridesmaids? Because A Separation is so spectacular that the former just seems slight in comparison. Also: Leila Hatami:

From all accounts, I’m going to lose on both scores; I’ve heard people guess that Midnight in Paris and The Descendants will take these categories. That’s too bad. The best I can say is that at least I’m prepared for disappointment.

Best Original Score: how can this go to anyone else?

Listen to this medley of nominations for Best Original Score and tell me if the one for The Artist doesn’t leap out as so memorable that it actually recalls specific scenes. Also: because I found the Kim Novak reaction to be absurd.

It’s not that the other scores aren’t nice and emotional; it’s just that the one for The Artist means more to the film. (Runner-up: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I loved its 1970s derivative, jazzy ambivalence, just like the film. The one for Hugo was okay too, but like the rest of that film, it felt over-cooked to me.)

Best Cinematography and Film Editing: 

Is it even possible for something other than The Tree of Life to win for Best Cinematography? I will throw an absolute fit if it doesn’t.

But in Film Editing, I’m more ambivalent. I think the truly Oscar-worthy editing jobs were overlooked in the nominations process — Martha Marcy May Marlene, Take Shelter, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — so I’m left to wrangle with a disappointing list. Stuck between the rock of my frustration about how these nominations work, on the one hand, and the hard place of a group of films whose editing I didn’t notice as being tight and evocative, I choose The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Like Tinker Tailor, it took the tightest of editing to shape an expansive story to cram this into a watchable 2-hour film; it also demanded cuts and segues that forwarded the tale, evoked emotions with absolute efficiency. A couple of months later and I want to see David Fincher’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo again so I can pay even closer attention to what its editors, Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, did to propel us through that story at such a clip.


There are other categories I’m not commenting on, obviously — a series of documentaries that are so lackluster in comparison to the ones that didn’t get nominated that I can barely breathe, categories I don’t really understand:

  • Why does costume design only get applied to period pieces? As Dana Stevens of Slate put it last year, the clothes worn by Julianne Moore and Annette Bening in The Kids are All Right were so absolutely perfect; why isn’t that costume designer nominated for anything?

  • What does “Art Direction” mean — does this mean, for lack of a better term, some kind of unholy combination of “Stage Design” and “Location Specialist”? Or does it mean something else?
  • And while we’re on the subject: is there some kind of connection between Cinematographer and “Art Director”?
  • Why are there different categories for “Sound Editing” and “Sound Mixing”? Why isn’t this all just “Sound Editing”? Do I sound like an idiot for asking this question?
  • Why can’t I watch all the nominated short films on iTunes or some other service? (Here I go again with my complaints about access.)

Meanwhile, there’s the all-important issue of gowns. Please tell me that Leila Hatami will appear in something stunning, that Jessica Chastain wears something that shows off that strawberry hair, and that Janet McTeer wears a tuxedo.

Here’s hoping! and here’s hoping, too, that I don’t throw anything at the screen when Hugo wins everything in sight.

25 Responses to “My eccentric Oscar ballot”

  1. I loved the Beginners. I fear the Academy Awards is a rather intricate political machine. Lest we forget that the MPAA was run by the Fascist Jack Valenti for many many years!

  2. servetus Says:

    It’s kind of astounding to me that I was going with you to the movies at least every other week for the first half of the year, and yet I have seen one or two of these movies at all.

    • Didion Says:

      Yeah, it’s because they dump all the Oscar-eager movies between about Oct. 15 and Dec. 31. What I wouldn’t give to have watched The Artist with you, though!

  3. JustMeMike Says:

    Great post Didion.

    I’m not agreeing with your selections for the mantelpiece hardware in most cases – but it was fun to read. I could be wrong but since you’ve seen The Artist you’ve been raving about it. You will it see it honored. So I don’t quite see you throwing something hard and heavy at your TV. Your bowl of popcorn – maybe.

    I’m hoping that Billy Crystal will do well – and lock up next year’s hosting gig. I’ll be massively disappointed if he let’s us down.

    Other than that, it is coming up on 1:00 here in the Eastern US. The Red Carpet show starts in 4 hours.

    • Didion Says:

      I hope you’re right about The Artist — but you can see why people love to have me join the Oscars pool. I’m guaranteed to lose the $1 bet we each put in. I see it as a matter of principle.

      So JMM, I’m curious: The Artist was nominated for 10 awards. I’m guessing/hoping it’ll win 4 — do you have any predictions?

  4. “Monsieur Lazhar,” Canadian submission for best foreign language film knocked many of us out. Hope you see it when recovered from above. Fun to read your take on the Oscars–even though have minimal interest in outcomes.

  5. FD Says:

    Thanks for your comments on this year’s oscar race. If picking the winners is important, I agree you’re not the best person to consult. But, if reading an interesting critique on the awards race itself appeals to you, Feminema delivers.

    If they gave an award for the Best Remarks About the 2012 Oscar Awards, you’d have my vote.

    • Didion Says:

      @Naomi: I’ve been waiting, waiting, waiting to see Monsieur Lazhar — I too have heard great things, and will report as soon as I’ve seen it.

      And @FD: many thanks for the kind words! Every year I try to fill out my ballot strategically (I mean, even at only $1 per submission one can sometimes walk out with a good $15 if one wins at a well-populated party), and every year I just can’t do it. Also I’ve never seen all the films, so I guess wildly at those categories like Best Documentary Shorts, etc.

  6. Didion Says:

    Let me say that I’m relieved that not one of you seems to have clear answers to my questions — perhaps no one understands what an Art Director is, nor why Sound Mixing and Sound Editing have to be done by different people.

    I have also received an email from a terrific composer, code name RS of the TPIAS, who confesses that he also missed the fact that the score for The Artist “borrowed” a segment from Bernard Herrmann’s score for Vertigo. RS suggests that even though we missed it, we might all check out this piece in The New Yorker about why this is a controversial move:

    • JustMeMike Says:

      According to the winners list – Art Direction is really two categories:

      Production Design & Set Decoration. But that’s as far as I can go.

      As for the Sound Cats:

      Sound Mixing is the creation of the sounds or the capturing of the sounds.

      Sound Editing must be where and when it is inserted into the film. And that’s as far as I can go here as well.

      • Didion Says:

        Yes! A film-savvy friend explained that the mixer is the person who’s actually on set with the film crew (managing all the people with booms and microphones, etc), and the editor is the one who manages everything back in the studio during the production phase. That makes total sense to me, even though this distinction makes it hard to gauge how well a mixer does his/her job — because a good editor might well be able to cover up mistakes and/or problems.

  7. FD Says:

    Earlier today, I posted my thanks for your remarks about the Oscar race. Now, having watched the show, I’d like to pose a question. And I hope you will try to give me your best answer as I think it’s both important and appropriate to pose the question on this particular forum.

    So here’s the question. In view of the increasing preference that both men and women be identified as “actors,” why does the Motion Picture Academy still bestow separate awards for Best Actor and Best Actress (and the corresponding supporting roles).

    Is there any reason to segregate recognition of achievements in the art of acting based on gender? Given the fact that gender plays no role in any of the other award categories, why not allow men and women to compete equally for these awards?

    If an actor portrays a member of the opposite sex, which category is the correct arena? If a man plays a female character, should he be judged as an actor or an actress?

    If you have an answer, please explain your reasoning as I’m quite at a loss to understand how one makes this decision.

    Is the quality of a performance gender-specific? Am I missing something important here? Or is this simply a holdover from an outdated sexist point of view?

    • Didion Says:

      How funny — I have no problem with that distinction most of the time. The reason: although we would all like to live in a world in which women had achieved full equality in society, that’s not the world we live in. I’ll write more soon about the abiding gender inequities in the film industry — not just in terms of pay but also in percentage of screen time, the #s of women behind the camera or working as producers, etc. — but for now I’ll just focus on the Academy Awards alone.

      If both sexes were lumped into a single category, I’d bet you a Mitt Romney-style $10,000 that it would be the rare year when women made up a full 50% of the nominees. Not because they are lesser actors or that their films are less viewed, mind you — but because the list of the Academy’s voters, which has long been a secret but has recently been analyzed demographically, is overwhelmingly old, white, and male. An LA times reporter uncovered the fact that:

      The Academy is 94% white
      The Academy is 77% male.
      The median age is 62.
      Only 14% are under 50 years old.

      When challenged on those numbers, former Academy President and current Board of Governor member Frank Pierson replied: “I don’t see any reason why the academy should represent the entire American population. That’s what the People’s Choice Awards are for…We represent the professional filmmakers, and if that doesn’t reflect the general population, so be it.”

      You can see how easy it would be, with that attitude, to justify having very few female acting award nominees in any given year — and how long it’ll take to change the industry.

      So it’s no surprise they tend to nominate finalists who look a lot like them. No wonder female directors have only been nominated three times in the 84-year history of the Awards. Honestly: I’m relieved they break the actor category down by sex, because otherwise I can guarantee you that it’d be even more of a sausage fest than it is.

      You say that gender (or race, for that matter) plays no role in any of the other categories — but doesn’t it? I mean, why have only three women directors ever been nominated? Because the Academy’s voters don’t think these women’s work is “good enough,” nor do they think it’s important for the Academy to be any less than 94% white. I can easily imagine an alternate-reality scenario in which Frank Pierson explains that the reason why only 3 women had ever been nominated for a Best Actor prize: “because their acting wasn’t good enough.”

      I mentioned that I have no problem with that breakdown most of the time: I’ll tell you when I think it matters. First, a very small but increasing number of trans actors are breaking into film — not just men playing female characters or vice versa (a la Glenn Close) but individuals whose gender identification is outside of the male/female binary or which does not conform to the biological sex they were born with. Right now the Academy has no way to acknowledge or judge those actors’ work.

      And finally, I don’t see why the Academy couldn’t break the acting categories down a bit a la the Golden Globes, between Dramas and Musical/Comedies. It’d help acknowledge more films and more actors who have terrific skills but who don’t appear in “serious” films.

  8. “We represent _[fill in blank]_________, and if that doesn’t reflect the general population, so be it.” Welcome to mid-20th century …leaves me breathless.

  9. FD Says:

    Thanks for your reply. I had originally included the transgender question in my post.

    In response to your comments, I feel the division by gender is unjustified and degrading. Would you be in favor of a category named Best Black (or other minority) Actor to address the imbalance against that population? I wouldn’t.

    Unlike sports where physical capabilities make an unfair playing field, acting is an equal achievment opportunity (in fact, one might argue that due to cultural conditioning, women have an advantage over men when it comes to expressing emotion). A female actor has the right to full Best Actor recognition, not just a positive action award for underrepresentation in industry employment or academy decision-making.

    Despite this, I agree that the Motion Picture Academy is still a good old boys club that will resist equal representation/recognition of women and other minorities as long as it can get away with it.

    But, I think the acceptability of this stance is declining. While I sympathize with your reasoning, I tend to feel that “times are changing” and that we’ll probably see the Best Acting awards become gender free within a decade.

    • Didion Says:

      Acting is NOT an equal-opportunity profession insofar as women have significantly fewer opportunities than men. To be as blunt as I possibly can be to make my point: this is not an opinion but a fact, and you should acquaint yourself with those facts with the help of annual studies undertaken by scholars at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication and others (which I’ll link to) which point out that by most measures, these numbers are not improving or improving in only negligible ways for women over time. The numbers are even more dire for people of color, but that’s another piece.

      That is: women’s equal capacity to act does not translate into equal numbers of roles, lines, significance, or diversity of roles. Nor would it result in equal numbers of Best Acting nominations in a hypothetical gender-blind category of Best Actor.

      To sum up a few of these facts:

      1. In real numbers, women get fewer roles than men. Women get only 32.8% of speaking roles onscreen, meaning that there are more than 2 men for every 1 woman with lines appearing onscreen. In children’s film and TV the numbers are worse — about 2 1/2 male characters for every 1 female character.
      2. Fewer than 17% of films have a balanced gender ratio of male to female characters, as defined by featuring women in 45 to 54.9 percent of speaking roles. A tiny number of films have a majority of female speaking characters (2007=5 movies; 2008=6 movies; 2009=5 movies).
      3. Female characters are more heavily stereotyped and sexualized in film than male characters, meaning that their appearance onscreen is often less significant or valued. (There are other differences as well: female characters are significantly younger than male characters, for example.) To be clear: just because women get 32.8% of speaking roles doesn’t mean their screen presence accounts for 32.8% of a film’s dialogue or importance.
      4. Female actors receive significantly less pay than male actors. (See here for a nice assessment of the Forbes account of top-earning actors; for middle- and low-range earners the gender gap is just as stark.)

      The USC researchers’ conclusion: “Overall, the landscape of cinematic content is still grossly imbalanced. Females are not only infrequent, but they are also stereotyped and sexualized in popular motion picture content. Little change has occurred across the three years studied, with absolutely no movement in the percentage of females working behind-the-scenes in key gatekeeping positions. As for on screen portrayals, a small increase was observed in the percentage of films depicting gendered-balanced casts. But this increase was a hair shy of our 5% criterion. Less than one‐fifth of roughly 300 films evaluated featured stories with gender parity. …. Clearly, females are not as valued as males onscreen, behind‐the-camera, or as consumers of motion picture content. Otherwise, our findings would be different.”

      Given these facts, there is no evidence that lumping male and female actors together into a single Best Actor category would improve anything or result in gender equity. At best the nominees and winners would reflect an utterly biased industry (women actors might make up 32.8% of nominees for Best Actor).

      But there are many reasons to believe they would not make it to the 32.8% threshold. It’s far more likely such a system would result, in combination with the overwhelmingly white, male members of the Academy, in a negligible number of women nominated for Best Actor.

      Let’s take the “gender-blind” category of Best Director, for example. To wit: In the 84-year history of the Academy Awards, 4 women directors have been nominated for Best Director. Considering that there have been some 413 nominations in this category overall, that means that women directors have received 0.9% of all nominations.

      If we ignore the early years and only consider nominations in this category starting in 1976, when Lena Wertmüller was nominated for Seven Beauties, the total percentage of female to male nominations in this category (4 to 180) “leaps” up to 2%. This number is small even when compared to the <a href=" ” target=”_blank”>low percentages of female to male directors working in the 250 top-grossing films overall. In 2011, only 5% of the 250 top-grossing films were directed by women. That number has dropped dramatically since 1998, when the percentage was 9%. Yet when it comes to nominations for Best Director, somehow only a tiny number ever get noticed by the Academy. The number of female directors of films screened at film festivals is significantly higher but still a fraction of overall films — 22% of all films screened at major film festivals between June 2008 and May 2009. But let’s keep in mind that sometimes festival films fail to get picked up by distributors, no matter how appealing they are to festival attendees.

      If sexist attitudes are falling away, as you want to believe, why aren’t the total numbers of female directors going up rather than down in the industry overall? Why aren’t female directors receiving increasing numbers of nominations in this category? The notion that “things will just eventually work out in favor of gender equity” is not supported by facts.

      These number differences are just as stark at other levels of the industry — in children’s film and TV content, in animation — and behind the scenes it worse; it is estimated there are 4.8 men for every 1 woman in that area of the industry (see the Geena Davis Institute’s findings in various fields).

      I see no evidence that the good old boys’ club is getting less powerful or less boy-oriented — especially if Academy members like Pierson don’t feel the need to apologize for or address the inequities. Look, I know these facts aren’t pretty and they don’t reflect what we all would like to believe. But these are facts, not opinions. Gender equity will not naturally result from a laissez-faire, gender-blind attitude toward the market — because there is no gender equity at any level of the film industry. The Annenberg researchers wrote recently about Oscar-nominated films: “parity is still nowhere in sight. The lack of equality sends a message to future content creators and consumers about who is and who is not important and who is and is not valued in film.”

  10. FD Says:

    Thanks for your well-supported explanation. Yes I agree there should be more and better roles for women, equal access to professional opportunities, equal compensation, etc.

    But, the question I asked yesterday was not are the Academy Awards fair? Or how can they be made more fair? My question was, why are there separate acting contests for men and women? Aren’t the awards meant to rank one performance against another, to reward inequality, not to extend equality?

    Your answer seems to be that the academy runs separate acting competitions because otherwise women won’t win anything. And you seem to feel that the academy could improve things by creating more categories or running more gender specific competitions.

    Unfortunately, we have reached an impasse and I have probably misunderstood your position yet again. My point is simply this. I think Meryl Streep gave the best performance of 2011. Not a tie. Not as good as the best male actor. Streep was the best actor. Period. If there’s one best picture, one best director, one best song, etc., than I think Streep deserves recognition as best actor.

    I do sympathize with actors who decry this type of artistic competition. It’s silly to judge art like a horse race. But, for now, we’re stuck with the Oscars. So, who won the acting horse race?

    • Didion Says:

      Maybe she would have won in a head-to-head race against the male talent this year — and I agree she probably should win by all rights. But in the real world, in 98% of the cases, the men will win these head-to-head races, and not because their performances are “better” but because of entrenched sexism. Even more relevant is the question of who gets nominated. Once again, I’d bet you a lot of money that the number of female nominees would be tiny.

      Every year I thank our lucky stars that they have separate acting categories for women because otherwise we wouldn’t see a single female face on that stage. Except that one short documentary that won, the one that was directed by a man and a woman. Woo hoo for that.

  11. Hattie Says:

    Not very informed about all this, but as a resident of Hawaii I have got to say that I could not bear to watch a movie about rich people in Hawaii, not even one with George Clooney in it.

  12. I find it odd that this discussion about the members of the Academy began with pointing out how it is dominated by white men, yet the discussion continued on with the topic of gender without any further mention of race or nationality.

    By the way, I saw “THE ARTIST”. It was a mildly entertaining movie with a gimmick that truly did not deserve to be named as the year’s best film. Sorry, but that is how I feel.

    • Didion Says:

      I’d be happy to have a discussion about the under-representation of people of color and foreign films of all kinds. Those are issues I feel passionately about and love to talk about. But I think you’ve mischaracterized *this* discussion, which was specifically about whether the Oscars should eliminate the gender divide between Best Actor and Best Actress and just lump it all into a single category.

      Also about The Artist: chacun à son goût!

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