On Academy Awards night, the moment just before the announcement of the Best Picture winner is always, of course, intensely dramatic — even if it’s one of those years when it has become obvious, by the end of the night, which film is going to win (hello “The Sting,” “Gandhi,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Titanic”). But the Oscars can be even more dramatic if you have no clear idea what’s going to win (hello “Annie Hall,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Crash”). And the years, to me, when they have the most drama are those in which the competition for Best Picture is dominated by two front runners, and each one of those movies stands for something radically different within the Hollywood cosmos. Then you have a horse race charged with meaning.
To me, the last Academy Awards year that really had that full-on, King Kong vs. Godzilla culture-war vibe was 1994, when the competition boiled down to “Forrest Gump” vs. “Pulp Fiction.” The fact that Quentin Tarantino’s jubilantly violent and head-twisty independent-cinema landmark had zoomed to the front ranks of the Academy Awards derby was enough to electrify the evening all by itself. Clearly, this was an acknowledgement, by the Hollywood establishment, that the indie movement was no longer just a bunch of eager rude upstarts but that it had truly arrived, and was a force to be reckoned with. But, of course, the Hollywood establishment doesn’t tend to like eager rude upstarts who rewrite the rules of their business. And so it was poetically perfect that the movie “Pulp Fiction” was competing against was “Forrest Gump,” a sentimental patriotic afflicted-hero fairy tale that seemed, in many ways, to be a kind of crowd-pleasing candy box of “mainstream” values.
That night at the Oscars, in the spring of 1995, it wasn’t just one big-hit movie facing off against another. With “Forrest Gump” taking on “Pulp Fiction,” it was square vs. street, classic-rock boomer fantasy vs. surf-rock Gen-X reality, Establishment vs. Outsider — and, since both films had gone on to become cultural touchstones, it was, in effect, a battle over the question of which mythological movie Hollywood would most like to represent its core values. Perhaps it’s no surprise that, Hollywood being Hollywood, the establishment candidate won. By contrast, the famous Best Picture moment that left a bewildered daze on Harrison Ford’s face — the surprise victory by “Shakespeare in Love”over “Saving Private Ryan” — may well have been as dramatic as they come, but not because the two films really represented competing, which is to say conflicting, values. It was a dramatic upset that signified … nothing.
I predict that the Oscar race this year will have a similar symbolic heft to the one in 1994/1995. First of all, my premise is that the Best Picture race will probably come down to two movies — and let me take just a moment to explain why. Dave Karger, in his very shrewd analysis, has already listed what he thinks the Best Picture nominees would be if there were only five of them (“Up in the Air,” “Avatar,” “The Hurt Locker,” “Inglourious Basterds,” and “Precious”). Out of those five, I think that “Inglourious Basterds,” fantastic as it is, will be seen as a kind of grateful-to-be-there, come-from-behind nominee; it’s far too naughty and reckless a movie, with too little collective critical support, to have much of a chance for nabbing Best Picture. “Precious,” it has become increasingly clear, may well have peaked too early, and “The Hurt Locker,” while it keeps racking up awards and does have that collective critical support, wasn’t a big enough hit, at least by the classic yardstick of Hollywood history, to be a likely Best Picture winner. I do think that Kathryn Bigelow could take home the Best Director prize, but my instinct tells me that the Best Picture award will probably go to a movie that’s perceived, in raw Darwinian box-office terms, as “bigger.”
That leaves “Up in the Air” vs. “Avatar.” And to me, at least, that’s a very, very symbolic race. In this case, though, it’s not Establishment vs. Outsider. It’s Old School script-driven Classic Hollywood vs. New Age post-script 21st Century Entertainment. “Up in the Air” is a movie of such nimble wit and craftsmanship, and such timely humanity, that it has been compared, often and justly, to the venerable films of the studio system — the screwball comedies, for instance, that were rooted in clockwork elegant screenplays, incandescent star performances, and a certain tossed-off (but, deep down, rigorously achieved) insouciance. Whereas “Avatar” is the eye-popping techno spectacle of the Now era: a vision so “revolutionary” that it leaves many of those pesky old-fashioned story elements behind, but (at least according to its adherents, who are legion) more than makes up for that by placing the audience directly inside an organic wonder-world, using technology to return fabulistic awe to the big screen. I may be mixed on “Avatar” myself, but to me that certainly sounds like a potential prescription for Oscar victory. Especially now that the jaw-dropping success of “Avatar” has sealed the film’s promise as a preview — and a savior — of the movie industry to come.
I don’t claim to have a clue as to how the kremlinology of this year’s voting procedures will influence all of this. But if I’m indeed right about these two films becoming the front runners, what I do know is that each one, on Oscar night, will represent a radically different, even opposed, set of dramatic/aesethetic/pop-cultural values. And so the voting, as it always does, will inevitably reflect what the majority of the Hollywood establishment has chosen as a symbol of its values. In more ways than you can count, it’s the past versus the future.