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Academy Awards Roundtable (I)

James Searle, Trace Vardsveen, Laura Ludtke

The Academy Awards this year were not well received by either The Atlantic [1] or The New Yorker [2], with Seth MacFarlane fronting the tasteless show. Below, three of our regular film correspondents have united forces to provide an ongoing cinematic discussion of the Oscars ceremony this year, looking at wins, losses and the politics behind Oscar nominations.


James: The ceremony is heading towards the starting blocks; welcome to the next two and a half hours. In the name of potential humiliation, does anyone want to offer some predictions? Actor and Supporting Actress are locked up, but everything else is open to some degree.

Laura: I’m never keen on making initial predictions, but I think it is quite safe to say that either Les Miserables or Anna Karenina will win best costume design.

James: Oh costume design, that most competitive of categories.

Trace: Insofar as the cinematography and editing categories are concerned, Janusz Kaminski and Michael Kahn are always good contenders. Roger Deakins is also a strong contender with his record of nominations, even if I have to admit that his work in Skyfall was not up to his usual standard.

James: Has Deakins ever won? If not he’s more than due.

Trace: Deakins has 10 nominations, but no wins. He is due for his Oscar, but that brings up the point of whether one should win for a particular work or a body of work.

James: They could just give him a lifetime achievement award, but that would be just a little too easy.

Laura: What do you think the purpose of the lifetime achievement award is? Too often, I think, they are given out to make up for past oversights and upsets.

Trace: Even if that’s the case, one should still feel honoured to receive one. The achievement award signifies something greater than work on just one film; it signifies a notable contribution to the motion picture arts and sciences.

James: And it’s less subject to the furious gamesmanship that characterises the ‘common or garden’ Oscar award.

Trace: One only has to consider the fact that it took Martin Scorsese several decades to win. That’s the politics of Oscar.

Laura: The ceremony begins with a cameo from William Shatner. No Academy Awards ceremony has ever been so complete.

James: For those reading this before watching the event, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend catching up on the opening number. Unless you like time-travel jokes and boob jokes.

Laura: I have to admit, having just re-watched the 2009 opening with Hugh Jackman, I preferred its nod to ‘austerity ceremonies’ and the ‘nowness of the musical.’

James: Supporting Actor is looming. I think Robert De Niro will grab it for Silver Linings Playbook, but my heart yearns for a Christoph Waltz victory. I think it’s a bit of a shame that Philip Seymour Hoffman never got much traction for his work in The Master.

Laura: You don’t think that Seymour Hoffman is a strong contender? In terms of the other nominees, Tommy Lee Jones, though a great actor, felt horribly out of place in Lincoln.

James: For whatever reason, The Master just didn’t resonate with the Academy. Waltz grabs the award, making me wrong for what will not be the first time tonight.

Laura: James, your heart has called it, if nothing else. I’ve got some theories as to why The Master didn’t resonate with the Academy but they verge on the order of conspiracy.

Laura: I’m not surprised that Paperman, with its widespread internet presence, has won for Animated Short Film. The animation was flawless, but the premise was a bit tired: two people destined to meet, not only willing to give up everything to be together, but also being pulled along by forces beyond their control.

James: Life of Pi has just grabbed Cinematography and Visual Effects, suggesting that the Academy voters were a little fonder of it than I gave them credit for. Could be a sign for an Ang Lee win for Director later (I still think Spielberg is the front-runner, though not on merit).

Laura: After her nomination for Pride and Prejudice, it’s not surprising that Jaqueline Durran has scooped Costume Design. Even though there were so many period pieces this year, Anna Karenina stood out, if only in this category.

Trace: Anna Karenina’s production design was very detailed and a bit theatrical, but ultimately worthy of an Oscar considering the work that went into it.

Laura: Agreed, Trace. I quite enjoy films that exploit their theatrical qualities. There’s an attention to detail necessitated by stage productions (something that needs to be renewed night after night) that can translate quite well to the screen.

Trace: The production design in Anna Karenina helps the film unify all of its technical characteristics, which is also evident in the costume design. Theatrical productions usually unify the production with and around a central theme, and one can see this theatrical quality in Anna Karenina. I like to see that in a film from time to time.

Laura: Indeed. I think theatrical productions often benefit from having financial and pragmatic constraints. When those limits are applied to film, a certain mastery can be achieved. I must admit, these preferences fuel my dislike of more post-production-reliant films. It seems that many of the best theatrical qualities were lost in the stage-to-screen transition of Les Miserables.

Trace: I must confess that I was disappointed in the use of cinematography in Les Miserables. There were too many shallow focus shots, which resembled the style of music videos.

James: I got the feeling that Les Mis resulted from Hooper trying to double down on everything that was refreshing about The King’s Speech, with the result being that we were bashed over the head with extended close-ups and nauseating tracking shots.

Trace: Best Foreign Language film is coming up. I think Amour should receive the Oscar. Michael Haneke has proven an adroit filmmaker over the years, and his directorial talents are shown in his latest film. He has proven that he can intellectually and emotionally stimulate with his films.

James: Agreed. It was a real thrill to see Haneke get some long-deserved recognition this year in the Director category.

Trace: Haneke’s critics have long said that he does not appreciate his audience and is a technical director, but I disagree. I think Haneke has always considered the effect film has over people, and he has demonstrated that effect through his use of narrative and the technical aspects of film. That being said, he has only recently concentrated on more accessible human relationships in The White Ribbon and Amour.

James: Talking of accessible, here’s the musicals segment. It’s nice to see that Catherine Zeta-Jones still exists.

Laura: At the same time, I feel there is an incredible expectation for her to look as good as or better in this performance than she did over a decade ago in Chicago, a problem not faced by her male contemporaries. The Oscars are primarily about appearance and only secondarily about sound and talent.

James: To be fair though, Jennifer Hudson has just demonstrated some serious vocal chops. Unfortunately she’s been followed by an overstuffed Les Miserables cast performance.

Laura: Yes, Les Mis has just stormed the Oscars and shot their star-power across the viewing audience’s bow.

James: We have a tie for sound editing!

Laura: Does anyone know the history of Oscar ties? Do they have to sound edit for their lives?

James: Perhaps they just get half the allotted speech time each. The Supporting Actress award, i.e. the Anne Hathaway prize for Most Acting, has arrived. In an ideal world, who would you give the award to instead?

Laura: I have such a soft spot for Hathaway, but I would award Best Supporting Actress to Amy Adams.

Trace: I agree with the selection of Amy Adams out of the nominees. The whole cast of The Master was incredible.

James: I agree wholeheartedly. It’s unfortunate that all three leads have been passed over in the campaign season.

Trace: Oscars rarely go to the really great performances or contributions to filmmaking. The Academy Awards often have the consideration to nominate great work and films, but all too often that work or those films do not win. Citizen Kane is one of the best examples.

James: All too true. This year I’m feeling for the loss of recognition for The Kid With A Bike and Holy Motors, my other two favourite films of the year alongside The Master. Neither even landed a nomination.

Laura: Argo wins Film Editing; does this prime it for a Best Picture win?

Trace: Perhaps. Usually the Editing and Best Director categories are good predictors of Best Picture, but Argo isn’t nominated for Best Director. Lincoln or Silver Linings Playbook still have a chance.

James: In many ways, that Argo Director snub is what put it in the running for Best Picture.

Trace: So far this year has produced a divided Academy.

[Part II of the Roundtable discussion to follow tomorrow]


James Searle [4] is reading for an MPhil in Political Science at St Anne’s College, Oxford.

Laure Ludtke [4] is reading for a DPhil in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford.

Trace Vardsveen [4] read for an MSt in Film Aesthetics at Worcester College, Oxford. He is currently studying for a J.D. at the University of Nebraska.