At the Oscars, it's hip to be square
The Los Angeles Times just posted a massive investigation into the demographics of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the 5,765 largely anonymous voters who every year decide who will receive the highly coveted and ultra-influential Oscars. Their findings, which will come as a shock to no one who has watched the Oscars at any point in the last 25 years, revealed a membership that is very old and very uncool. 94% of Academy voters are white; 77% are male. 54% are over the age of 60; just 2% are under the age of 40.
Is it an embarrassment that the Academy is as lily white as a 1950s country club? Absolutely. Is it an outrage that the Academy boasts more men than a Congressional hearing about birth control? You betcha. But that’s not important right now. What is important is this: the Oscars are days away. You’re ready to fill out your ballot. So rather than protest the geriatric, ultra-Caucasian state of the Academy, use their mistakes to your advantage. If you’re gonna want to win your office’s pool on Sunday you need to think old, white, and boring. Look deep within your heart, and pick the movie that your least artistically inclined relative would vote for. Let’s go through the six major categories and pick out the hip choice and the square choice. You ready? Let’s go.
Best Supporting Actor
The Nominees: Kenneth Branagh (MY WEEK WITH MARILYN), Jonah Hill (MONEYBALL), Nick Nolte (WARRIOR), Christopher Plummer (BEGINNERS), Max von Sydow (EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLE CLOSE)
The Hip Choice: Nick Nolte. The 48 HOURS star’s troubles with substance abuse and bad mug shots are well-documented, which made his performance in WARRIOR as a recovering addict and troubled father that much more powerful. Too bad Nolte gave that performance in a movie centered about the world of mixed martial arts, a trendy full contact sport that out-of-touch Academy members probably still believe is a barbaric activity.
The Square Choice: Christopher Plummer. He’s not quite the oldest actor in the category — Max von Sydow was born a few months before him in the spring of 1929 — but Plummer’s role is more obviously about age and mortality. He plays Hal, a man who finally comes out of the closet in his 70s and dives headfirst into the gay lifestyle he knew he always wanted but felt he could never openly embrace. Plummer’s performance is moving but not excessively sentimental. But more importantly it’s all about an old guy proving that age is a state of mind, a theme that will certainly appeal to the optimistic fogeys that hold the majority of the votes.
Best Supporting Actress
The Nominees: Bérénice Bejo (THE ARTIST), Jessica Chastain (THE HELP), Melissa McCarthy (BRIDESMAIDS), Janet McTeer (ALBERT NOBBS), Octavia Spencer (THE HELP)
The Hip Choice: Melissa McCarthy. Hers was a legitimately star-making turn in legitimately funny movie in which she legitimately stole scenes from legitimately talented co-stars (legitimately). Teachers of the craft always say great actors are fearless. How many actors are fearless enough to shit in a sink onscreen? I rest my case.
The Square Choice: Octavia Spencer. Whenever I meet people and they find out what I do, they immediately want to talk about movies. “What’s out that’s good?” is usually the first question, followed immediately by “Did you like _______?” with the blank filled by the last movie they saw they loved. And this year, for anyone I talked to over the age of 50, THE HELP filled that blank. Every. Single. Time. The older demos love THE HELP more than a double feature of 60 Minutes and another episode of 60 Minutes.
The Nominees: Demián Bichir (A BETTER LIFE), George Clooney (THE DESCENDANTS), Jean Dujardin (THE ARTIST), Gary Oldman (TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY), Brad Pitt (MONEYBALL)
The Hip Choice: Gary Oldman. This is almost the polar opposite of the sort of performance that wins awards: no prosthetic makeup, no battles with life-threatening ailments, no heart-wrenching speeches in the rain — hell, for most of TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY’s first act, Oldman’s secret agent George Smiley doesn’t even speak. Oldman’s work is a marvel of minimalism and deception, perfect for a movie about a man whose job requires him to lies to everyone around him. Sadly the very things that make Oldman outstanding are the same things that guarantee he won’t win.
The Square Choice: Jean Dujardin. As silent film star George Valentin, THE ARTIST’s Jean Dujardin smiles like Errol Flynn, dances like Gene Kelly, mugs like Harold Lloyd, and wears a tuxedo like Cary Grant. Dujardin is funny, charming, soulful, and he harkens back to all those wonderful actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood. In every sense of the word, he’s a true feel-good pick. And if there’s one thing Academy voters like — other than a new flavor of denture glue — it’s feeling good.
The Nominees: Glenn Close (ALBERT NOBBS), Viola Davis (THE HELP), Rooney Mara (THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO), Meryl Streep (THE IRON LADY), Michelle Williams (MY WEEK WITH MARILYN)
The Hip Choice: Actually, there really isn’t a hip choice in this category. The closest might be Rooney Mara — but despite the presence of director David Fincher and composer Trent Reznor, there’s still not much hip about THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, which is the movie-you-watch-on-an-airplane equivalent of this classic book-you-read-on-an-airplane. The hip choice would have been Anna Paquin’s astounding turn in Kenneth Longergan’s little seen MARGARET. She was so good — and so hip — she wasn’t even nominated.
The Square Choice: Meryl Streep. This is an interesting category, because the consensus pick here amongst Oscar prognosticators like The Gurus of Gold is not necessarily the pick I envision an aging, white demographic embracing. True, THE HELP is catnip for old people, which certainly bodes well for the pundits’ odds-on favorite, Viola Davis. But Streep’s performance screams “ACTING!” in a way that resonates even more strongly with both old school voters and people who enjoy doing Jon Lovitz impressions. She played a real historical figure with grace, poise, and impressive fidelity without stooping to imitation. That should seemingly put her over the top. If Streep doesn’t win on Sunday, it will prove that all those stereotypes about the aging Academy aren’t quite as sturdy as we believe (and make all my terrible old people jokes way out of line). But then again if she does, I’m a genius. So let’s see what happens.
The Nominees: Woody Allen (MIDNIGHT IN PARIS), Michel Hazanavicius (THE ARTIST), Terrence Malick (THE TREE OF LIFE), Alexander Payne (THE DESCENDANTS), Martin Scorsese (HUGO)
The Hip Choice: Terrence Malick. Dazzling visuals. Impressive performances from child actors. Dinosaurs. Sean Penn doing not particularly much of anything. Malick’s impressionistic vision of the origins of life for a Texas family and pretty much everything else in the goddamn universe has already accrued quite an impressive trophy collection, including a Palme d’Or and the Best Film Prize from the Indiewire and Village Voice annual film critic surveys. Malick’s also the consensus pick amongst all my cinephile friends who claim to hate the Oscars and everything they stand for. Doesn’t bode well for his chances.
The Square Choice Michel Hazanavicius. On a number of levels, Hazanavicius pulled off a difficult feat with THE ARTIST. He made a black and white silent movie at a time when black and white silent movies are nonexistent. But he also paid homage to that silent period without making his references too taxing for the average viewer. Assuming the Academy voters are the average viewer (just, y’know, more decrepit) that bodes well for his chances.
The Nominees: THE ARTIST, THE DESCENDANTS, EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE, THE HELP, HUGO, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, MONEYBALL, THE TREE OF LIFE, WAR HORSE
The Hip Choice: HUGO. HUGO and THE ARTIST are so similar: both are about the magic of early cinema, both repurpose classic moments from movies past, both are intensely French. But where THE ARTIST fudges some of the details — its big melodramatic conclusion, for example, is set to Bernard Hermann’s score from VERTIGO which, as Kim Novak reminded us, wasn’t a silent film — HUGO oozes with authenticity. Scorsese didn’t just wallow in nostalgia either; he used innovative digital effects and 3D technology to tell his story. That makes a vote for HUGO a vote against THE ARTIST as well as a statement about the right way to look to the past: by simultaneously providing a vision of the future.
The Square Choice THE ARTIST. For all the reasons why Dujardin and Hazanavicius will win too. A vote for THE ARTIST is a vote for “Movie history is important!” in a vague, non-specific, easily digestible way. For a certain kind of person — say a person who, statistically speaking, has a 94% probability of being white and a 77% probability of being male and a 2% probably of being under the age of 40 — it hits that sweet spot. It’s white, it’s predominantly male, it’s about old people and old things. And who says the Academy is out of touch?
Oh, right. Everybody.