After all, the Oscars aren't just about writing the current movie year into the history books. They're often about rewriting past history -- righting old wrongs, settling old scores, and dealing with unresolved old resentments and controversies that have returned with a vengeance. (Remind you of any current blockbuster space operas?)
Think about last year, where the main competition between "Boyhood" and "Birdman" got pushed to the side, in favor of bitter arguments about how long-odds contenders "Selma" and "American Sniper" depicted recent historical events. Considering how many people learn their history in movie theaters, rather than classrooms, it mattered a great deal, especially to people who were directly involved, how accurate those two films were, how they interpreted controversial events, and whether the Academy would validate those interpretations with golden trophies.
This year, thankfully, there are few of those controversies, at least when it comes to potential award-winning movies about real-life people. Sure, some individuals who are portrayed in an unflattering light in "Spotlight" and "Straight Outta Compton" have complained. Pundits have made similar complaints about "Steve Jobs" and "Trumbo," but since hardly anyone saw those movies, no one seems to care. There were loud gripes about "Truth," but that box office flop also fell off the awards radar. And now that "Joy" and "The Big Short" are screening widely, there may be grumbling about the wildly imaginative liberties those movies take with the historical record. But so far, at least, there hasn't been the kind of sustained screaming we heard last year over "Selma" and "Sniper," or over such recent Oscar front-runners as "Argo," "Zero Dark Thirty," and "The Social Network."
Instead, the historical issues this year are strictly Hollywood-centered. Should Leonardo DiCaprio finally get a Best Actor Oscar for "The Revenant"? Most pundits seem to think he should, not just because his rugged, ragged performance as a frontiersman fighting for survival merits a prize, but because it would make up for two decades of Oscar snubs.
Similarly, if Michael Keaton wins a supporting prize for "Spotlight," it'll make up for his never having won, especially for last year's "Birdman," a Best Actor trophy he was highly favored to win. If likely honoree Ridley Scott wins Best Director for "The Martian," it'll be validation for the Oscar-less 78-year-old, who didn't even win the prize for his Best Picture honoree "Gladiator" 15 years ago.
And what about Harrison Ford? The 73-year-old is one of the most beloved stars in the galaxy, but he's never won an Oscar. In fact, he was nominated only once, 30 years ago, for "Witness." But thanks to "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," there's now talk of a supporting actor nomination for him. It'll be an uphill battle for Ford, whose chief competition may be Keaton, "Bridge of Spies" co-star Mark Rylance, and another old-timer reprising an Iconic role he created in the 1970s. That would be Sylvester Stallone, who was nominated 39 years ago for writing "Rocky" and playing Rocky Balboa, and who is almost certain to be nominated this year for playing the character again in "Creed."
The late entry of "The Force Awakens" into the Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor races has caused other upheavals. Most notably, it led to a controversy at the Critics' Choice Awards, two of whose voters quit the organization this week in protest over the group's late addition of "The Force Awakens" to its already-issued list of Best Picture nominees.
When the Broadcast Film Critics Association, the group behind the Critics' Choice Awards, announced its nominees on December 14, its members hadn't even seen the new "Star Wars" yet, as Disney was keeping the film under wraps and spoiler-free until just a few days before its release. Citing the association's own history -- they made a similar exception 15 years ago for "Cast Away" when it screened late and proved a worthy addition to the list of Best Picture nominees -- the BFCA held an emergency vote and agreed to make the new "Star Wars" the 11th nominee on this year's Best Picture list. But they did not add it to any other categories.
BFCA member Eric Melin (who's also the president of the Kansas City Film Critics Circle) immediately quit the group. In his resignation letter, he complained that the "Star Wars" waiver "smells like a desperate ploy to get better TV ratings." (The Critics' Choice Awards airs January 17, a week after the Golden Globes, on A&E and Lifetime.)
Salt Lake City critic Scott Renshaw wrote a similar resignation letter, saying, "It is obvious to me that this decision is based more on ['The Force Awakens"'] marketing value than on making sure that the best films are included. If that were the case, the entire nomination process would have been opened up again to allow 'The Force Awakens' to be considered in all categories. Any suggestion this decision was made primarily for any reason other than to improve ratings for the awards broadcast feels disingenuous at best." (Neither Melin nor Renshaw were BFCA members in 2000 during the "Cast Away" decision.)
Why does this matter? In part, it matters because the Critics' Choice Awards have historically been a highly accurate predictor of the Best Picture nominees ultimately picked by the Academy. Adding "Star Wars" to the list indicates, at the very least, increased odds that Oscar voters will nominate the film as well.
The incident also shows the bind critics are in over the year's last-minute releases -- not just "Star Wars," but also such likely contenders "The Hateful Eight," "The Revenant," and "Joy" -- movies that either screened too late for many awards groups to see them or else didn't even get sent on screener DVDs to awards voters until late December. Sure the awards groups could all wait until after New Year's Eve to issue their lists, but that would mean each group's announcement would be crowded into the first nine days of January (since no one cares what the critics say after the Golden Globes ceremony and the Oscar nominations announcement in the second week of January), and none of them would stand out or get much attention. In recent years, there's been a race among critics' groups to be the first out of the gate, leading to an announcement creep that now sees some groups touting the year's best movies at the end of November. The studios, however, haven't accommodated the awards groups by screening or sending out their year-end movies any sooner; after all, they have their own marketing plans to stick to, regardless of what critics want. So the critics are forced either to bend their own rules to accommodate the studio marketers or leave potentially worthy movies off their lists.
And the question raised by Melin and Renshaw -- Is it pandering to include a blockbuster like "The Force Awakens" that doesn't need awards validation to get noticed? -- is the biggest historical controversy at the heart of this year's awards race. As this column noted last week, the Academy has seldom given crowd-pleasing genre movies that are also critical favorites their due. This year, however, it has several chances to change that by recognizing such hits as "Mad Max: Fury Road," "The Martian," "Creed," "Compton," and "Inside Out."
Not to mention "The Force Awakens." Remember, 38 years ago, the first "Star Wars" was nominated for Best Picture and nine other Oscars, but the top prizes that year went to "Annie Hall." If the new "Star Wars" wins big this year, will that redress a historical wrong? Or will it be a sign that the dark side of the Force is ascendant?
Thirty years after the defeat of the Galactic Empire, the galaxy faces a new threat from the evil Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the First Order. When a defector named Finn crash-lands on a desert planet, he meets Rey (Daisy Ridley), a tough scavenger whose droid contains a top-secret map. Together, the young duo joins forces with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) to make sure the Resistance receives the intelligence concerning the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the last of the Jedi Knights. Read More