I sincerely wish I could present you with an Oscar free column this week, but really – what else is there to talk about right now? I blame Steve Jobs. With his thoroughly underwhelming "Fun New Products" presentation on Tuesday – in which he unveiled not the iTunes Movie Store, but an overpriced "boom box" – he wrecked the entire week. It was gut-punch, for sure – the kind of extreme, unexpected disappointment that takes the fun out of everything for a while. And now we have the Oscars to "look forward" to? How depressing, especially considering that the only thing that makes the Oscars even remotely compelling this year is the possibility of the exact same kind of underwhelming surprise.
Last week in this space, I talked about how and why the buzz that Crash might surpass Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture has given both bloggers and critics a cause to unite behind. This is still going on, and as the days tick by and it seems more and more as if this Oscar season is never going to end, the possibility that the Academy is really going to screw this one up has now metastasized into an official panic. Matt Zoller Seitz, critic for the New York Press, is the latest to enter the ring. On Monday, he wrote on his blog: "If Haggis' movie wins, it won’t just take home a statuette, it’ll claim a new title: the most indefensible Best Picture winner since 1956’s tax shelter spectacle Around the World in 80 Days."
I guess there's two ways to react to a line like that. You either immediately pull up Oscars.com and start scanning the archives for an example to prove Matt wrong (this one immediately comes to mind), or you take the assertion at face value and take a long, hard look at your office pool ballot. Either way, there's something strange about the idea that Oscar winners are/can/should be "defensible" to begin with. Do you ask a little girl to "defend" her choice of ice cream flavor? Do we have any evidence that the bulk of the Academy employs a more sophisticated selection process? The only difference I can see, is that when lil' Susie picks Chocolate Chip, Rocky Road doesn't worry about how it's going to make back its marketing budget on foreign DVD.
Believe me, I'd love to be able to entirely dismiss a body that declares Driving Miss Daisy to be qualitatively equal to The Apartment; that has nominated Warren Beatty four times for an award that Charlie Chaplin was considered for not once; and that, perhaps most egregiously, keeps trying to convince us that Billy Crystal is a funny guy. But the fact is, that Oscar logo is still a huge sales driver, both here and abroad, and an actual trophy has a funny/awful way of legitimizing the barely tolerable. What's insane about that is the element of chance involved. You hear a lot of people talk about how one single vote could have pushed Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan; when it comes to Goodfellas' now inexplicable loss to Dances with Wolves, you hear different, angrier people say the same. And that doesn't even begin to take into account Senior Syndrome – when aging stars are blamed for surprise winners, such as when Bette Davis blurted out Paul Newman's name when announcing the Best Actor winners in 1986, or when Jack Palance crowned Marisa Tomei Best Supporting Actress six years later. There's no real evidence that either presenter actually handed the trophy to the wrong star, but there's this common feeling that it would be pretty easy for the trophy to go home with the wrong man, despite the Academy's insistence that they station accountants in the wings (no, seriously) to prevent just such a surprise.
It's no longer surprising when the Academy picks the "wrong" film, but it may never cease to frustrate. After reading my last column, a friend and fellow film writer anticipated Seitz's declaration. "Crash would be the worst choice since Greatest Show on Earth, with Jimmy Stewart as the clown-who-turns-out-to-be-an