Surprises, Precedents and Compromises in this year’s Oscars

Written by Seth Hynes.

This year’s Oscar’s were a fun if shakily-presented affair and the results were (save for a couple of surprises) pleasantly expected.

Ellen DeGeneres hosted the Oscars for her second time, with her first back in 2007. While she presided over this year’s ceremony with general levity and humour, her delivery left much to be desired.

She began the night with an amusing if slightly meandering monologue in which she made some clever jokes about the major Oscar contenders and subjected the celebrity audience to some good-natured teasing (except for that rather mean comment calling Liza Minnelli a man), but the rest of her hosting felt rough and uncoordinated, with long pauses, some stumbled introductions and an annoyingly drawn-out gag involving pizza.

However, her endearing selfie moment, which she took with a bunch of other grinning actors, was delightfully spontaneous and which briefly “broke” Twitter with the surge of re-tweets, standing as the non-awards highlight of the night. Ellen DeGeneres’ hosting was fun and entertaining, but I think I prefer the exciting combination of old-style showmanship and biting irreverence that Seth Macfarlane brought to the Oscars last year, along with his more rigorous focus in the position.

The overall vibe of DeGeneres’ hosting was “could have been better”, but this was not the case with the awards themselves. The winners represented an encouraging level of diversity and social awareness from the Academy and talent was rewarded where due, but in the case of the Best Director and Picture Oscars, I would have preferred the awarding to have been flipped.

My response to the acting wins was half relief for the actresses, half surprise for the actors (but this surprise quickly morphed to approval as I saw each film they were awarded for).

I was immensely glad to see Lupita Nyong’o win Best Supporting Actress for her transcendently great acting as Patsey in 12 Years A Slave. Her tortured, sorrowful performance is perhaps even greater than Chiwetel Eijofor’s central performance as Solomon Northup, and her Oscar win is even more impressive for the fact that she earned her first Oscar from her first nomination for her first film.

Nyong’o also delivered a very humble, gracious speech in which she thanked all the friends and family who helped her in her career, and also paid tribute to the real woman she played by acknowledging the bitter-sweet fact that the joy she has experienced in her life has come from so much pain in someone else’s.

Her most probable contender in the category was the world’s sweetheart Jennifer Lawrence for her role in American Hustle, but Nyong’o was the clear win from the outset for industry reasons, not just because Nyong’o’s performance was so much more impressive and achingly moving. Some pundits even believed that Lawrence winning the Oscar would have hurt her career, as it would have been seen as robbing a fresh new talent of recognition for a tremendous performance highlighting an important issue in American history.

And while I like Jennifer Lawrence, as she’s friendly, cool and humble, I’m not in love with her like the rest of the world is. It’s ultimately for the best that Nyong’o won Supporting Actress, and her joy at receiving the award was infectious.

Likewise, I was relieved to see Cate Blanchett win Best Actress for her role as broke socialite Jasmine in Blue Jasmine. In this engaging, frequently funny drama, Blanchett is phenomenal as a staggeringly vain yet pitifully sympathetic Blanche DuBois-type who cannot shake her snobbish refinement when, penniless after her businessman husband’s arrest, she is forced to move in with her lower-class sister.

Many pundits feared that recently-resurfaced allegations toward director Woody Allen molesting adopted daughter Dylan Farrow would harm Blanchett’s Oscar chances, but these accusations against the director should not detract from the quality of Allen’s films or the work of those within them (a stance I also have on Roman Polanski’s films). It would have been grossly unfair to deny Blanchett the Oscar for unproven deeds that she herself had nothing to do with, and the Academy thankfully did not hold Blanchett accountable. Thus, she was rightly awarded Best Actress (though many people were, of course, hoping to see Amy Adams, another extremely talented actress, receive her first Oscar for American Hustle).

As for the actor categories, both winners received their awards for their roles in the solemnly uplifting biopic Dallas Buyers Club. I had no opinion either way on Jared Leto winning Best Supporting Actor, as I hadn’t seen Dallas Buyers Club at the time, but I was surprised to see Matthew McConaughey win Best Actor, as I was betting on Chiwetel Eijofor to win.

Eijofor’s star performance in 12 Years A Slave is remarkable, as he portrays the real historical figure Solomon Northup with incredible dedication and restraint. Eijofor shows him struggling to resist being swallowed by despair from his horrific situation, even as harsh treatment from his masters and his necessary deference to avoid punishment slowly strip him of his identity.

But there is significant precedent for McConaughey’s Best Actor win for playing real AIDS sufferer and medical activist Ronald Woodruff.

As with Ben Affleck and his Best Picture win last year for the brilliant thriller Argo, McConaughey has been experiencing a career resurgence in recent years. He has discarded his pretty-boy image from the rom-coms in his early career and gained major acclaim for numerous roles in edgier, more mature productions and indie pictures (including Mud, Killer Joe and Wolf of Wall Street, in which he has a tone-setting cameo as a haughty, cocaine-snorting mentor for Jordan Belfort). The Academy enjoys Cinderella stories of actors and film-makers attaining success from shabby beginnings, and evidently felt that McConaughey was due an Oscar, having proved himself in the acting business.

In hindsight, Leto, as AIDS-suffering transgender woman Ronay, was a shoe-in for Best Supporting Actor, as he was up against actors who, while delivering great performances in and of themselves, were too unsympathetic (in the case of Jonah Hill in Wolf of Wall Street, also rowdy and prickish), or just somewhat overshadowed by their co-stars (which Bradley Cooper in American Hustle suffered from). Awarding Michael Fassbender for playing the ruthless slaver Mr Epps in 12 Years A Slave may have sent the wrong message, given the praise for Nyong’o and the film’s black director. It may have been seen as incongruously rewarding victim and villain, as compellingly vile as Fassbender’s performance was.

I respect these positions, and having now seen Dallas Buyers Club, I also support McConaughey and Leto’s wins for their quality in simplicity over the rest.

Leto’s Ronay is earnest and heartbreaking as a woman who joins with Ronald to help AIDS sufferers, and whose sass masks a self-destructive sorrow at her rejection by her family and broader society and her impending death from AIDS.

While it would be meaningless to judge McConaughey or Eijofor’s performances themselves as one being better than the other, McConaughey wins Best Actor (the way I see it) for the meatier character development of his role as Ronald Woodruff.

As he partners with Ronay and finds kinship among fellow AIDS victims, Ronald steadily progresses from a reckless, homophobic asshole to a determined humanitarian who works tirelessly to deliver non-FDA approved medication to AIDS sufferers, as an alternative to the harmful drugs peddled by the pharmaceutical companies. Immersing himself in the role both mentally and physically, McConaughey superbly conveys Ronald’s brash anger, sharp resolve and growing compassion. As Ronald fights harsh legislation and government interference to continue supplying his patients, we as viewers come to admire him for his commitment, and even as the authorities keep seizing his supplies and the courts ultimately rule against him, we feel strong pride at how much he has changed for the better and for his sincere efforts to help those in need.

Both 12 Years A Slave and Dallas Buyers Club feature main characters changing as a result of adversity, but in opposite ways. Dallas Buyers Club follows a man whose death-sentence condition makes him a better person, whereas 12 Years A Slave has its protagonist suppress his identity to survive and, by necessity, develop almost into a non-person.

Both are well-written and well-acted characters; Eijofor’s acting as Solomon is a master-class of understatement and subtlety, whereas McConaughey’s acting as Ronald is more bombastic and in-your-face, but appropriate to the character and scenario. Ultimately, McConaughey very narrowly deserved Best Actor for the more prominent, elevating character development he superbly enacts.

So, McConaughey and Leto won their acting Oscars fair and square.

I just wish McConaughey’s acceptance speech didn’t sound so self-aggrandizing and conceited.

But the categories I had the biggest stake in were Best Picture and, to a lesser extent, Best Director (as the two are linked in the issue I’m about to discuss).

On March 3, the day of the Oscars, I had an opinion piece published in mX that argued why I thought Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuaron, should win Best Picture. I asserted that while 12 Years A Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, is a magnificent film, the Best Picture Oscar should have gone to Gravity, as the Academy would finally be granting long-overdue recognition to science fiction, a legitimate and dramatic genre that has (with rare exceptions) only been acknowledged in the technical categories.

I felt that it was about time that a science fiction film won Best Picture. And, of course, Gravity is also an excellent film with a fantastic sense of peril and adventure. It grips you from start to finish with its incredible suspense, amazing action scenes and astounding effects, but it also contains a welcome human spark of personality in Sandra Bullock and George Clooney’s solid performances.

The article is of course moot now, as 12 Years A Slave took home the top honour at the Oscars, and I don’t want that earlier article and my continued discussion of the issue to sound like I’m disappointed in this outcome.

            12 Years A Slave ended up as my second-favourite film of 2013, just under The Day of the Doctor (Doctor Who fan-boy that I am), and pushed riveting Danish drama The Hunt (which I was dismayed to see lose the Best Foreign Feature Oscar to The Great Beauty) from this spot. Gravity was number 7.

12 Years A Slave is an enthralling, intensely emotional and brilliantly acted film about the dehumanisation in slavery and holding onto hope. While kick-arse revenge films like Django Unchained have their place as entertainment, 12 Years A Slave‘s unflinchingly accurate look back at the slave trade is essential for modern audiences;  it ensures that we don’t forget this evil period in American history or view it flippantly as just a setting for a gun-slinging hero to make it right.

I’m glad that 12 Years A Slave won Best Picture. I simply wished Gravity to win for personal reasons, and for the good of its genre. But in an argument that was cut from my mX article, I proposed a compromise that would have resulted in Gravity receiving Best Picture and made it as fair as possible for both it and 12 Years A Slave.

Cuaron consistently received the best director award from numerous prominent awards organisations such as the BAFTAs, Golden Globes and the Directors and Producers Guilds, with best picture going to Steve McQueen for 12 Years A Slave. Best director is still a great honour, as the winner is judged to have done the best job at coordinating all the actors and crew to express his/her artistic vision for a film. Cuaron certainly deserved the Best Director Oscar, as Gravity is a tight, efficient and precise in its effects and storytelling.

But I suggested that, after this trend of awards at the other ceremonies, Steve McQueen should have been given the almost-equal Best Director Oscar and Gravity given Best Picture.

The Academy doesn’t want to look like a bunch of stuffy, old-fashioned conservatives who only go for character dramas and historical pieces (even though this is often the case), making a sci-fi film for Best Picture a wise choice for their public image. But they also want to appear as liberal and inclusive of “minority” talent as possible, so it may have been even more groundbreaking if McQueen had been made the first black director to win Best Director.

It helped, of course, that Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker also won Best Picture at the 2010 Oscars, but it’s important to remember how her Best Director win (making her the first woman to win that award) was hailed as a welcome acknowledgement of female creative talent and step toward equality in the industry.

The word I used earlier for my idea, “compromise”, is excessive, as it implies a negative outcome that both sides reluctantly settle with each other to avoid. My idea would have been beneficial for Cuaron, McQueen, the Academy and the sci-fi-enjoying audience. But is it fair to deny an arguably better (or at least more emotional and relevant) film the top honour, and give it to another, for the sake of principle and politics? Maybe not.

It’s just a bit of wishful thinking. I loved 12 Years A Slave, and I’m glad it won Best Picture, even if I was hoping for Gravity to win.

Overall, I’m very happy with the results of this year’s Oscars, particularly in the acting categories, and I look forward to seeing what films will be nominated next year, and who will host the next ceremony.

Again, a bit of wishful thinking, but how about Paul McDermott?

Movie reviews (as QuantamJoker)

Find more of Seth’s work in the Time edition of WORDLY Magazine.

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