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The problem with this year’s Oscar announcements

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When the Oscar nominations were announced January 16, the Oscar pundits gasped at who was snubbed. The crew over at GoldDerby.com posted half a dozen pieces on the controversies (http://bit.ly/1dCdKsb). And while there are always some truly worthy candidates unfortunately passed over by the Academy each year, there was another announcement made that was much more troublesome.

There are many reasons that the likes of Robert Redford, Tom Hanks and Oprah Winfrey weren’t called this season. The amount of marketing, interviews and promotion that their ‘candidacies’ each received, or didn’t receive, played a large role in what the Academy remembers. The less exposure, the less chance the nomination. And in the case of those two lead males, the Best Actor category was simply too crowded. Many great choices, like Hanks, Redford, and Joaquin Phoenix for that matter, were ignored. Oprah’s movie “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” may have come out too early in the year to be top-of-mind, and the fact that the hit film didn’t receive a single nomination points to that unfortunate issue of timing.

However, the announcement that this year’s Oscar ceremony is focusing on a theme of ‘movie heroes’ seems more egregious and out-of-touch than any nominating omission. For starters, this year’s slate of Best Film nominees hardly qualifies as an outstanding year of ‘heroic characters’ in the movies, certainly not in the Indiana Jones, Clarice Starling or Atticus Finch sort of way. The protagonists of “American Hustle” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” are ridiculously the opposite. They’re wildly anti-heroic. The main characters in “Her”, “Nebraska” and “Philomena” are many things, but heroic wouldn’t be the first adjective anyone would use. I doubt it would be even the tenth.

Moving farther down the list of nominees, to some of the other movies Oscar has nominated, you’ll find it’s just as bereft of heroes. No character in “Blue Jasmine”, “Inside Llewyn Davis”, “August:Osage County”, “Prisoners” or “The Great Gatsby” qualifies as remotely heroic. And just because Walt Disney wanted to make the book of “Mary Poppins” into a movie, did that make him heroic? Hardly.

True, the main characters in “12 Years A Slave”, “Gravity”, “Dallas Buyers Club” and a few other nominees qualify as genuinely heroic, but do a handful of films that fit the desired show criteria warrant making it the year's theme?

One could argue that the true theme of this year in movies is survival. It’s literally that, explicitly and writ large, in seven of this year’s nine Best Picture nominees: “12 Years a Slave”, “Gravity”, “American Hustle”, “Dallas Buyers Club”, “Captain Phillips”, “Nebraska” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.” I talked about that and the lonely battle that it is in my 10 Best List late last year (http://exm.nr/1d5HbyS). If anything, most of this year’s top movies illustrated how tough it is to make it in the ugly world out there. And how too often, we’re alone in that fight, with no one really having our backs.

Wouldn’t that have made for a more relevant topic in 2013? It would have certainly shown that Hollywood gets its times, and creates movies that reflect them. Couldn’t the theme have been how movies reflect their times rather than how movies creates heroes? Indeed, Oscar has a long history of doing just that, particularly if you look at how Oscar’s choices reflected the war years in the 40’s and 70’s, as well as social upheaval in many of their top picks throughout the last five decades. But this year, no dice, as the Oscar telecast has chosen an outdated black and white theme in an increasingly gray world. Oscar is missing the boat. (Or in case of “All is Lost”, the sinking boat.)

The theme of the telecast should be about the given year of the movies being awarded, not a love letter to the past or the industry as a whole. But unfortunately, the Academy does that oozy-gooey thing too often. And then they wonder why their ratings keep slipping. And you know that all the clip packages this telecast are going to have the same cast of characters and scenes the Oscar show highlights year in and year out. I mean really, how many times do we have to see that same shot of Gary Cooper standing alone in the middle of the dusty town in “High Noon”?

Seemingly, the Academy doesn’t care. They’ll just keep running the same type of Chuck Workman clip montages as they’ve done ever since he saluted the DGA’s fiftieth anniversary back in 1986 with his award-winning short “Precious Images” (http://bit.ly/19zYQTV). But if the point of this year’s show is to “honor movie heroes” as all the promotions are now exclaiming (http://bit.ly/1gVGcF7), then the Oscar show deserves the derision it will likely get for once again trotting out the same-old, same-old.

The sad part about it is that this year’s Oscar nominees are, by and large, one of the best rosters in years. The Academy did themselves very proud with their choices, and regarding the Best Picture nominees there isn’t a dog in the bunch. But if “American Hustle” takes as many statues as it’s expected to, including the top prize, then Oscar not only is sending mixed messages, it’s looking utterly ignorant in their show's theme. The nominations weren't that clueless, why does the show have to be?

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