The big talk with this year’s Oscars is how everyone’s certain The King’s Speech will steal the Best Picture trophy from The Social Network, except everyone’s only certain to a point, making this year one of those rare (and quite welcome) horse races. So here’s where I go out on a limb and say with great certainty – the same great certainty that left me claiming victories for Saving Private Ryan and Brokeback Mountain, I should add – that The Social Network will walk away a winner.
The push for The King’s Speech (which I still haven’t seen; I’ve been holding out for the AMC Best Picture Showcase, and wouldn’t ya know it, AMC scheduled it as the last movie of the last day) comes from your basic “what we know about the Academy” file: voters are older types who prefer to play it safe, honoring Forest Gump instead of Pulp Fiction, Dances with Wolves instead of Goodfellas, The Greatest Show on Earth instead of High Noon. All of these examples (and others) overlook the simple fact that the winners were runaway blockbusters, rewarded for their box office successes more than chosen to save the world from riskier cinema.
But grosses factor less into the awards these days, so to discuss The King’s Speech‘s box office take would be moot. The real question is: do Academy voters still play it safe? Can we still count on “the Ernest Borgnine Factor” (that is, when predicting winners, try to imagine what appeals to the oldest voters)? I’m not quite sure we can.
Two factors. First, in the years since Oscar played it safe with Crash, the Academy has almost intentionally taken a reverse position, rewarding edgier, darker fare: The Departed, No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Hurt Locker. This can be seen as a reflection of crummy times Stateside, what with war and recession and a general sense of national crumminess, but it can also be seen as a recognition of a New Hollywood. Compare our past few years with the late 1960s and early 70s, when moodier, more daring works often trumped traditional pictures. As they did then, today’s audiences are more regularly appreciating when filmmakers push away from the same old same old. When our multiplexes are smothered in sequels and adaptations, invention seems brighter, more welcome. And with the death of monoculture, it’s easier for a small film like The Hurt Locker to get noticed in the world of Avatar. With the playing field leveled, it’s easier for the Academy to find and champion films based on quality.
Second, Gen-X is now the establishment. The Ernest Borgnine Factor is fading away, replaced by the George Clooney Factor. Hollywood’s new middle-agers are the ones who will call the Oscar shots for the next decade or three, and these are the people for whom “voting safe” is out of date. They’ll want to celebrate David Fincher’s vision as the future of Hollywood.
Am I wrong? Perhaps. Here’s how to tell: watch the Original Screenplay prize. If The King’s Speech wins, it’s the sign of great momentum for the film, and it’s a lock to win Best Picture. If it loses (to, say, Inception, he says with fingers crossed and great hope in his heart), it’s a sign the momentum’s just not there.
Of course, True Grit could come along and split the difference between old and new Hollywood. That would make for a fun evening.