Well, we knew the Oscar campaigning would be brutal. We just didn't know there'd be a real casualty, so soon, and in the Best Song category. And if it can happen there, what guarantees of safety are there for the more prominent nominees?
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Wednesday's announcement that the title song from "Alone Yet Not Alone" has been disqualified because its composer, an Academy governor, was perceived to be using the influence of his office to campaign for the tune, is a shocker. First of all, nominees are almost never disqualified once the nominations have been announced. Second, fair or not, it's going to look like bad politics. (After all, this is a tiny movie, made for a Christian audience, with a tune performed by a quadriplegic singer, up against several industry behemoths who are famous pop stars or Broadway tunesmiths. It's going to look like the Academy, on behalf of the music industry, is beating up on the poor Christians.) And third, the song can only have been disqualified because someone complained and prompted an Academy investigation of whether it broke the rules.
And who would complain but someone who has a stake in the race, presumably a rival nominee?
Whatever you think of the merits of "Alone Yet Not Alone," it's a casualty not just of the Academy's desire to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, but of the lengthy and sharp-elbowed Oscar campaign season as well.
It's only a matter of time before such bitter competitiveness bubbles over into the high-profile races. After all, we're looking at a Best Picture race that doesn't really have a front-runner, thanks to the confusion sown by the guild awards. The Screen Actors Guild, whose voters have a fair amount of overlap with the largest branch of the Academy, favored "American Hustle" at its Jan. 18 awards ceremony. The Directors Guild gave its top prize to "Gravity" helmer Alfonso Cuaron. And the Producers Guild, in a rare tie, gave top honors to both "Gravity" and "12 Years a Slave." So maybe we should have been primed for something bizarre and unpredictable to happen.
There's another wild card: "The Wolf of Wall Street." Clearly, there's more Academy support for that Martin Scorsese film than anyone predicted, as evidenced by Jonah Hill's completely unexpected nomination for Best Supporting Actor. The movie that the "Wolf" pack is most likely to hurt is "Hustle," given their tonal similarities. If they cancel each other out, that makes it a race between "Gravity" and "12 Years."
As we've noted, that would make this year's race an echo of the one four years ago, between "Avatar" (technological leap forward but thin script) and "The Hurt Locker" (a weighty, historically-based, feel-bad drama). If this year's race went the same way, "12 Years" would win Best Picture.
Then again, much has been made of how "12 Years" seemed to be the only African-American drama the Academy was willing to consider this year, as if there was room for just one. (Sorry, "Lee Daniels' The Butler" and "Fruitvale Station.") Given that line of reasoning, it could be that the Academy will feel it's done right by the film just by giving it so many nominations (and probably a Best Supporting Actress win for new red carpet fashion icon Lupita Nyong'o).
Besides, "Gravity" could be the first Best Picture winner in ages (since 1997's "Titanic," really) that centers on a woman's story. Again, much has been made about what a weak year this was for opportunities for women, both in front of and behind the camera, and a win for "Gravity" could be a bit of an apology for that, even if Cate Blanchett ("Blue Jasmine") beats Sandra Bullock for Best Actress, as seems likely. Again, not fair, pitting one aggrieved constituency against another, but that's how the competition is shaping up in this final stretch.
Even if it's unlikely that there will be any further disqualifications, there's still the possibility of a nominee being nitpicked to death.
Questions of historical fidelity are likely to dog several of the nominees ("12 Years," "Wolf," "Hustle," "Captain Phillips," even "Philomena"), not because the filmmakers have been sloppy with the truth, but because anything that casts doubt on a movie's merit is pretty much fair game -- as long as the attack is distanced from anyone who actually stands to gain from a rival's diminishment. (Op-ed articles and blog posts by third parties tend to be the weapon of choice.)
After all, the "Alone Yet Not Alone" debacle could make everyone a lot more careful about campaigning over the next month. Or it could lead to a free-for-all. We'll see.