Oscar generation and content gaps are more evident

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) and a fierce Bengal tiger named Richard Parker must rely on each other to survive an epic journey in Life of Pi. (Peter Sorel/20th Century Fox)

When comedian Daniel Tosh recently offered mocking recaps of the Oscar nominees for best picture on his Comedy Central show, he ended with his own choice for best movie of the year.

“Batman,” he said, assuming that viewers knew he meant The Dark Knight Rises. “You all know it’s the best movie of the year.”

And it likely was to many of the young people in Tosh’s audience. Those same young people — as well as a fair number of oldsters — made box-office hits of the likes of Marvel’s The Avengers, The Hunger Games and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2, none of which is in serious contention for major Academy Awards. The closest you get is that Jennifer Lawrence, who starred in The Hunger Games, is nominated for best actress — but for Silver Linings Playbook.

I am not saying that Breaking Dawn 2 is better than the Oscar nominees. Not even while threatened. I could argue that The Dark Knight Rises is better than the sluggish Life of Pi, but that’s not the point here. Rather, it’s another reminder that the movies most people love do not fit the motion-picture industry’s criteria for greatness.

A recent Nielsen analysis of American moviegoing concluded that, among people 12 or older, “61 percent of U.S. moviegoers indicated that action/adventure movies are the ones they like to see the most in theaters.” The runner-up category was comedy, which, like action films, tends not to get much Oscar love.

Then there is the issue of young moviegoers. When I asked a group of about 20 University of Akron students which of the nine movies nominated for best picture they had seen, the answer to several was zero — and no film got more than three yeses.

It’s not that those students are ignorant of pop culture. Some pointed me to the Tosh monologue, for one thing. But Oscar movies, for the most part, aim for a certain seriousness of theme and execution which is appealing to an older crowd, which includes a lot of Oscar voters.

That is part of the dilemma facing the people putting on tonight’s Oscars telecast. The Oscar-watching tradition risks becoming something that young viewers do not take up, because the movies they care about don’t get nominated.

So what has Oscar done to make up for that? A few years ago, it expanded the best-picture category to include up to 10 nominees (increased from the long-standard five) in order to get more commercial films into the mix. But the plan has not really worked. Last year’s big winner, The Artist, ranked seventh at the box office among the nine best-picture contenders. This year, there are some box-office hits on the nomination list (including Lincoln, Django Unchained, Les Miserables and Argo), the biggest hit of the lot, Lincoln, stands far behind the blockbusters I mentioned above.

And the more-nominees strategy for best picture caused a major blow-up in the best-director category, which still has only five nominees. There was no room for Ben Affleck (Argo), Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) or Tom Hooper (Les Miserables), even though their movies were nominated for best picture. An explosion of backlash on the well-liked Affleck’s behalf has had him and Argo sweeping through major awards since the Oscars snub.

Another tactic has been the hiring of a new host, Seth MacFarlane, known to TV audiences as the mastermind of the edgy animated comedies Family Guy and American Dad, and to movie fans for the unapologetically vulgar (and often funny) Ted. He has all but promised outrageousness and bad taste (which he provided during the announcement of the Oscar nominees), and even if the older viewers cringe, the movie folks expect young audiences to tune in and laugh.

Unless, that is, MacFarlane aims his sharper barbs at those movie folks.

But this is all about the show. Sure, it promises to be a spectacle filling hours on TV (and in various streaming forms). Sure, people will be posting on Facebook and Twitter and in their blogs (look for me in all of those places), especially if something marvelously awful happens. But what about the awards themselves?

I offer some favorites.

Not necessarily the Oscar favorites. Last year, The Artist was a big winner in the ceremonies — but not on my favorites list. This year, I expect further disappointment. But here’s what some of the major categories looked like, based on a study of sundry experts and my own wishes.

Best picture

As I have said before, Argo is widely favored here over Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les Miserables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook and Zero Dark Thirty. But that’s a deep group — I liked every nominee except Django and Life of Pi — and I would like the Oscar to go to Zero Dark Thirty, a richly complicated movie about terrorism and how to combat it.

Best actor

The closest thing to a certainty in the Oscar races appears to be Daniel Day-Lewis here, for his stunning work in the title role in Lincoln. And I don’t disagree, even with some estimable competitors in Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook), Hugh Jackman (Les Miserables), Joaquin Phoenix (The Master) and Denzel Washington (Flight). Washington’s performance is one of the best of his career. And I highly recommend you check out Phoenix’s work, in a film directed by Ernie “Ghoulardi” Anderson’s son Paul Thomas Anderson, which is coming to DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday. But the Oscar belongs to Day-Lewis.

Best actress

Jennifer Lawrence is widely considered a shoo-in for her work in Silver Linings Playbook, but not overwhelmingly so. Some experts are touting Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), while others see an opening for Emmanuelle Riva (Amour), the oldest best-actress nominee ever. Filling out the category are Naomi Watts (The Impossible) and Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild), who is the youngest best-actress nominee of all time. I will be cheering for Chastain, an actress overdue for some Oscar honors.

Supporting actor

Every nominee in this category has at least one Oscar already. Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook) has been talked up, and this is a good performance after a lot of treading water. Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln) is favored by some, although I thought he gave a richer performance opposite Meryl Streep in Hope Springs. Then there are Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master), Alan Arkin (Argo) and Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained). My vote goes to Waltz.

Supporting actress

Remember my mentioning that you should see The Master? Another reason is the performance by Amy Adams, nominated in this category along with Sally Field (Lincoln), Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables), Helen Hunt (The Sessions) and Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook). An Adams win would be great, Field would be a fine choice — but Hathaway tops the field, with the handicappers and with me.

Best director

As I said, this category is skewed by who is not in it. Who is in: Michael Haneke (Amour), Ang Lee (Life of Pi), David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook), Steven Spielberg (Lincoln) and Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild). Spielberg appears to be a favorite, but I’d have preferred either Bigelow or Hooper, who aren’t nominated. While I am fine with Spielberg winning, just to make this category a surprise, I would be even more pleased if Zeitlin took the Oscar.

Of course, there are many more categories, as we will have to see on Oscar night. But let’s hope, as always, for deserving winners and a good show.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including in the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter, and will be spreading his Oscar thoughts across those formats. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.

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