Friday, February 11, 2011

Don't Believe the Hype: Your Guide to the 2011 Oscar Backlash

It's Oscar season! For all you film buffs out there, that means that informed viewers are making spirited defenses of their favorite movies, highlighting all the good cinema that's come out in the past year. Right? 

Wrong. Actually, it means that heavy-duty smear campaigns are underway. It's pretty likely that your favorite movie of 2010 (yes, that one) has a fair amount of detractors, and at least one piece about how it doesn't deserve to win Best Picture for some minor reason.

This is nothing new - smear campaigns are just as much of an Oscar tradition as drunk awards presenters or unfunny hosts. Remember when 2008's eventual winner, Slumdog Millionaire, was slammed because many of its child actors were found to be still living in poverty? Or last year's winner, The Hurt Locker, had troubles during the award season - its producer was found breaking Academy rules by campaigning against Avatar, and was banned from attending the awards ceremony. 

As those two movies show, smear campaigns often have little effect on the eventual outcome. Rather, one can usually identify the film with the most scandal surrounding it as the frontrunner. Keeping that in mind, what sort of controversies are currently raging this year? Jump ahead to find out (and beware of spoilers):


The fact that The Social Network was going to meet backlash was unavoidable, especially after all of those hyperbolic comparisons to Citizen Kane. But Time's "Man of the Year" article did the movie no favors, pointing out several exaggerations. One was that Zuckerberg has had a steady girlfriend for several years, and the movie's attempt to portray him as a nerd eager for female attentions was utterly false.

As with most Hollywood movies, it was only sort of based on a true story, and Zuckberg's recent contributions to public schools and appearance on Saturday Night Live show a man who, unlike his fictional counterpart, has an actual soul. On the other hand, however, the Winklevoss twins are currently out to prove that Mark Zuckerberg is just as much of a scumbag as the movie implied. 

Another major charge laid against The Social Network is sexism (nearly all the female characters are stupid, slutty, or both). But accusations of misogyny are not unique to this film among the Oscar contenders. Which brings us to...


First Slate magazine took Darren Aronofsky to task, declaring the dark psychological thriller to be nothing but "camp." The charge in and of itself is not damning (I thought that campy aspects of the movie are what made it great), but it hints at the "style over substance" argument that circles around the film. 

But then some critics criticized the "style" along with the "substance," taking issue with the film's portrayal of ballet. These are dance critics, not film critics, so perhaps they can be excused for getting upset at the fact that the one time people are paying attention to ballet, it's portrayed as a dystopia of psychosexual madness. Alastair Macauley, the dance critic for the New York Times, points out several problems of this sort, most notably the fact that the film portrays ballet as an art that leads to violence and self-mutilation ("The ‘Black Swan’ view of ballet is that it’s an unnatural art in which women deny too many normal aspects of womanhood"). The dance critic for The New Republic makes a similar argument, calling the movie "a ballet without ballet" and going on to state:

"It is a vision so drenched in lurid stereotypes and flamboyant clich├ęs, so stripped of human possibility, so drunk with its own technique (mirrors!) and with violence and crass sex, that it leaves the viewer emotionally cold. Love, ambition, beauty, eroticism, and art are all reduced in Aronofsky’s overheated mind to the undeniable “ickyness” (as he puts it) of physical self-mutilation. Instead of opening a door, Aronofsky has locked us into a chilly and campy melodrama: a glamorous spectacle of self-immolation masquerading as art."

So, dance professionals don't like Black Swan. On the other hand, The Fighter was lauded for its realistic portrayal of boxing. Perhaps the critics like this one better?


Well, with this movie, the backlash isn't against the actual film, but against one of its stars. Melissa Leo is considered the frontrunner in the Supporting Actress category for her flawless portrayal of the protagonist's overbearing, smothering white trash mother. Normally, studios and producers campaign for their stars during Oscar season, but Leo has taken the unprecedented step of waging her own personal campaign, taking out ads for herself in Hollywood trade magazines. 

Apparently some Academy members have taken offense to what amounts of hyper-self-absorption (even in a profession that's no stranger to narcissism). Leo herself defends the ads, claiming that a combination of ageism and sexism has kept her from true stardom, and after the lack of interviews and photo shoots, she decided to take matters into her own hands. Whether her ploy pays off or spectacularly backfires remains to be seen. 


The British costume drama is the current film to beat, and because of its status it's probably garnered the most criticism. Like The Social Network, The King's Speech has the basic problem of ignoring several pieces of history in order to tell a better story. 

The most ink has been spilt on the film's portrayal of George VI as a hard-core anti-fascist friend-of-Churchill. As Christopher Hitchens points out in a widely-cited article, George VI was a much bigger fan of Chamberlain than Churchill. The New Republic takes one further step, calling the film an "ugly distortion of history," while highlighting Edward VIII's coziness with the Nazi Party. Many critics have maligned the movie as merely being another flick in a long line of hagiographic Windsor worship, asking the audience to sympathize with characters who are rich, spoiled, and useless. 

As someone who enjoyed all four of the above movies, I can't say that I necessarily agree with any of the criticisms levelled against them. In fact, most of it appears to be experts in a particular field (ballet, British history, Mark Zuckerberg) taking a minor problem and inflating it into an argument disproportionate to the movie in question. 

The question of historical fidelity always seems to come up around this time of year, but it's not something that necessarily bothers me in movies. It reminds me of what a friend said about Amadeus (Best Picture Winner, 1984): "The film made pretty much everything up, but it gets away with it because it's a good movie." Similarly, Black Swan is not subtitled "A Real Life Documentary About Ballet," and The King's Speech wisely avoided a "my brother is a Nazi" subplot. 

So, here's to hoping that the Academy will put aside all the politics, all the questions of historical accuracy, all the ad hominem attacks on directors, and choose the best movie of the bunch.