Wednesday, July 23, 2008

We're not worthy

Ever mindful of the struggle to find daily blog fodder, Whit kindly left a question in her comment to yesterday's post:
What is your definition of an Oscar worthy performance? There's a lot of debate going on now around Ledger's performance in The Dark Knight. I think people say he doesn't deserve it because a) he's no longer living, and b)he starred in a comic book movie. Those to me don't have any bearing on the fact that it was a great performance.
Critics get asked about the Oscars a lot. Some profess to be completely weary of the subject, and refuse to engage in the yearly speculation and prognostication. Others recognize that the Oscars, although far from an independent evaluation of quality, are a media event that the public uses as a guide to the world of worthwhile film. Critics ignore the Oscars at their peril; far more people respond to Oscar nods when looking for a good movie to see or rent -- or just when trying to enter the general cultural conversation about movies -- than follow critics' top ten lists or (heaven forbid) read their reviews.

And truth be told, most of us critics got a big chunk of our film education, at least early on, from the Oscars. Like any well-publicized award, the winners and nominations form a list that interested amateurs to can use as an entryway into the appreciation of that art. Sure, the Oscars are hopelessly "middlebrow"; there's a certain type of drama that the Academy seems not to be able to restrain itself from praising. Stories about physical affliction, serious (but not too dark or twisted) tales of violence, biopics, sobering portraits of war, stately historical melodramas, adaptations of lauded literary works. At the same time, comedies that are not artful enough, dramas that are too experimental, and most genre work (science fiction, horror, rom-coms, even animation) have a hard time breaking through to be considered for Oscars. Anybody who stops with the Academy Award lists is going to get a very narrow view of the cinematic art.

But nobody's ever claimed that the Oscars are the be-all and end-all of movie quality. Best they be considered a starting point -- and in fact, they don't make all that bad of one, like most lists and awards. Supplement them with Danny Peary's thought-provoking book Alternate Oscars, in which the indispensable writer on cult topics critiques each year's choices, and you're on your way. All you have to do then is follow the rabbit trails -- the other movies that appear on critics' lists, for example, from various genres or periods; the acclaimed directors, writers, and cinematographers whose body of work is honored by various organizations or canonized by critics; and so on. Pretty soon you're on your way to a solid grounding in at least the better-known areas of English-language film, and you probably know where to look to find out more.

The Oscars' limitations derive from the nature of the awards themselves -- self-congratulatory. Industry people giving awards to other industry people isn't exactly a recipe for objectivity. In fact, it inevitably leads to the kind of narrowness I just described. Industry people are naturally going to promote (and reinforce with awards) work that reflects what they believe the industry should be -- in this case, for many years, films that are socially relevant and serious without being unprofitable.

So saying what is "Oscar worthy" is a bit of a circular exercise. We might mean it as shorthand for "of the highest quality; laudable." But in fact, there's absolutely an Oscar-style performance: charismatic actors getting grubby and hiding their star quality under makeup or antiheroics or tragic underdoggery.

I don't think anybody who's keeping track of Oscar possibles at this stage has downgraded Ledger for being dead. (If anything, dying -- young or old -- causes your award stock to go way up.) And for actors, it's usually not a demerit to have a showy turn in genre fare. The acting awards range far wider than the awards for films themselves. And while the Academy hasn't been falling all over itself to give prizes to the recent spate of comic-book adaptations, that's not really because it turn up its nose at low culture -- it's more because the majority of the films haven't been all that good.

But we could be reaching a turning point with The Dark Knight and the upcoming Watchmen. Like the pulp novels that once provided the basis for The Godfather and its ilk, the superhero source material clearly can be turned into rich, relevant film art. The very best talent is being attracted to the genre, and it's being used as a vehicle for themes and commentary and character development. Of course none of this is new -- genre work has always had this potential and often this reality. But it often takes a visionary auteur's embrace of the form to get it into the mainstream of the cultural conversation pit. It's possible that the universal (and well-deserved) praise afforded to Nolan's work will mean that the movie itself breaks out of the technical-awards ghetto that most summer blockbusters occupy at the Academy Awards. I don't think there's any doubt that Ledger's remarkable performance will be in the mix for awards at the end of the year -- in contention if not nominated. The question for me is whether he will be plucked out of the movie's context to be considered solo, as the actors so often are, or whether he'll be part of a more broad spectrum of appreciation for The Dark Knight. I have great hope for the latter.


W.E.B. Adamant said...

Thank you. I've heard some of the exact same criticism about the Grammys, except that they're worse.

The question came from a debate I was having with some random person on ObsessedwithFilms over what does it mean to have an Oscar-worthy performance. I said complete ownership of the role. What you said went far beyond that, and has given me so food for thought.

Eric Grubbs said...

I remember when The Return of the King won the Oscar for Best Picture. As much as I love that movie (and the whole trilogy), I was surprised The Academy deemed it Oscar-worthy.

Besides, generally, aren't movies based on books that are highly praised by geeks automatically disqualified for Oscars, except for special effects, music, and makeup?