Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What Does Oscar Love? And a Mere Eleven Percent--A Wednesday Journal

I occasionally read the Arizona Republic's film critic Bill Goodykoontz, even after leaving my home in Arizona tweny years ago (to return to balmy Chicago).  He doesn't always please me; he tries too hard to be "relevant", may even be a little pandering at times.  But he writes well, and at least it's fun to disagree with him.

In a recent article about the upcoming Oscar Race (Feb. 16) he predicts a Best Picture win for "The King's Speech" with a certain backhanded compliment that I have heard too often in connection with this film's Oscar hopes:
"Will win: 'The King's Speech.' It's everything Oscar loves - an inspirational period piece with English accents that involves World War II."
This is a sentiment expressed by many who were caught off-guard by the film's sudden enthusiastic reception within the industry, calling to question the lockstep consensus from the critical community's bandwagon.

What Goodykoontz says may have been true in the 1960's when Oscar handed a string of awards to inspirational British films like "My Fair Lady", "Sound of Music", "Tom Jones" (not really inspiring but fun), and "A Man for All Seasons"; or heavier fare with English accents, like "Lawrence of Arabia" (British and cerebral) and "Oliver!" (British, but too dark to really inspire).

In fact, the LAST time Oscar's Best Picture met all of  Goodykoont's Oscar-loving ingredients, was 45 years ago in 1965 with "The Sound of Music": English accents, inspirational, period piece, WWII. 

Sure, there were British period pieces since then ("Chariots of Fire",  inspirational but the wrong war) "Gandhi" (ditto), "The English Patient" (a British WW-II period-piece, with Colin Firth to boot, but no one's idea of uplift) and "Shakespeare in Love" (lots of fun, and AGAIN Colin Firth, but much too early for the Great War).  For the English accents and the period design, toss in "Titanic" and "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King".

That makes 6 in the past 42 years, the last one winning 7 years ago ("LOTR..")

And WWII inspired several Oscar favorites: after "Music" and "Patient", there's "Mrs. Miniver", "Casablanca", "The Best Years of Our Lives", "From Here to Eternity", "Bridge on the River Kwai", "Patton", even "Schindler's List". 

That makes 9 by my count (give or take 1 or 2 which I may have missed), out of 80 best picture winners.

So there is no discernable formula, or Oscar-profile, at least not recently. 

Can anyone really say that "inspirational" films are still considered "Oscar Bait"?  Not if you go by the most recent list of winners.  In the last ten years, maybe "A Beautiful Mind" can be thought of as inspirational.  Perhaps, for the easily inspired, "Slumdog Millionaire".

Even though "King's Speech" shares some characteristics of a number of previous Oscar-winners, it would be inaccurate to say that these specific ingredients have had much influence on Oscar in the last decade.  And it doesn't appear that there is a concerted effort by any conservative voting bloc to rally around this film for the purpose of ensuring a loss for another critically acclaimed film (the way "Crash" seems to have been used as a vote-drain to derail a deserved and expected win for "Brokeback Mountain").

So maybe it is all right to predict a win for "King's Speech" because it is a fine film that appeals to emotions as well as the intellect, and, if one reflects on it, offers a surprising parallel to the importance of modern political rhetoric.

What of that 11 percent?  Here's another reason why having 10 Best picture nominees dilutes the honor.

Okay, assume there were only 100 voting members of the Academy.  Let's say the vote tallies came up with a 10-way tie. (Unlikely but hear me out.)  For a film to win Best Picture, it would need only 11 votes, or 11% of the total Academy voting tally.  

With 5 nominees, the winning picture would still require only 21% of the votes, but it's still ten percent more than what's needed now.

So, everything else being equal, and assuming 100% voter participation, a film with a strong cult following can pull a victory, with a small minority of total votes, over a more universally-praised film.   


  1. WRT 11%

    However the Academy has a single transferrable vote policy not a first past the post.

    So assuming one film has eleven votes therefore there is another with 9, these votes would go to the second choice and so on until one film had greater than 50% of the remaining electorate.

    A cult film that divides audiences is less likely to have second votes so will suffer in these circumstances.

  2. Although theoretically in your example a film could win with 19% of a ballot of 10 if all the other films lost one vote evenly.

    In an Academy of 5,501 ish members that would mean 9 films getting 550 and one with 551 equivalent to just 10.02% of the vote.

  3. Ben..WOW, thank you for crunching the numbers. While I was trying to simplify the process and make everything else equal, I wasn't quite sure technically how the new ballot was tallied. Unbelievable that with such a complex system, the ballots have to be counted, the winners determined..and the envelopes printed less than five days!!!!!