Like bullfighting, bear-baiting, fox hunting, and other sadistic pastimes, the annual quest for an Oscar is blood sport. After all, the stars who (may) arrive at the Kodak Theater on February 24 will enter on a carpet that is stained crimson. They represent an industry of dreamers and schemers in which violence on screen is complemented by backstabbing behind the scenes. Studios spend millions to coax votes out of members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but, in the spirit of Karl Rove more than Mary Poppins, they sometimes try to sabotage the opposition. This year, the initial Israeli nominee for best foreign-language film, The Band’s Visit, was disqualified for containing too much English; credit for pointing out that flaw is said to go to the producers of Beaufort, which replaced it as the Israeli nominee. While feigning indignation, the public is always looking for a fight. Films about brawlers (Raging Bull, Pretty Baby, Fight Club, Cinderella Man, Gladiator) sometimes serve the purpose, but films themselves are not boxers, and we impoverish our experience when we reduce an entire season of cinema to a pugilistic contest.
There is, of course, blood all over contenders for this year’s awards — not only There Will Be Blood, which concludes with sanctimonious Eli Sunday lying in a widening pool of his own red fluid. It earned eight nominations, including best picture. The corpuscle count in No Country for Old Men, in which psychopath Anton Chigurh keeps the Texas-Mexico border from being a country for old men by slaughtering its young men, is even higher. In Atonement, nurse Briony Tallis gets splattered with the blood of British soldiers forced to retreat from Dunkirk.
But no recent film revels in the taste of hemoglobin more than Sweeney Todd, an ode to the exquisite tang of fresh meat pies, carved from human flesh. It was nominated in three categories, but if there were one for “most inventive butchery,” it might face stiff competition from Eastern Promises, which finds creative ways to transform a bathhouse into an abattoir. Even without the striking writers, it will be easy for Oscar host Jon Stewart to devise a sight gag in which ketchup oozes over the Kodak stage.
The blood gushing out of this year’s Oscar choices reflects the mayhem in the world beyond the screen — Iraq, Afghanistan, Congo, Darfur, Sri Lanka, Gaza, Kenya, Pakistan. Michael Moore’s Sicko is the only one of five nominated feature documentaries that does not deal directly with war. During a time of war, a culture regresses to old macho postures. During the reign of the blustering cowboy president, football and NASCAR enforce woman’s role as spectator. It is true that Juno was nominated in several categories. But it was directed by a man, Jason Reitman, and though it takes the point of view of a young woman confronting an unexpected pregnancy, it ends up affirming the conservative values of childbirth and motherhood; this is apple — not meat — pie politics.
No woman director was nominated for an Oscar this year, while the screens were bathed in gore. Sarah Polley surely deserves the honor for Away From Her, a delicately modulated Alzheimer’s drama that pierces the heart. But it draws blood discreetly. Besides, Polley is Canadian, a stranger to most of the 6,000 Academy members. They work within the industry, as actors, cinematographers, hairdressers, and electricians, and Michael Clayton, with a large cast, crew, and budget, has a built-in constituency that the consummate chamber piece Away From Her — which at least earned Julie Christie a leading actress nomination — lacks.
What makes my blood boil is the way that the Oscars have hijacked everything. Because of breathless suspense about how Hollywood will judge its own handiwork, the Gregorian calendar has been contracted into two months: 1) September-December, when, fearing no one remembers anything released earlier, studios release all their best work, and 2) January-August, when entertainments lacking any claim on our memory or respect flood the market. We can blame that fatuous statuette for the lean months of moviegoing that now lie ahead — as well as for making moviegoing resemble a night at the fights; we are there not to savor athletic talent but to handicap performances. It cripples our capacity to experience art if our primary focus is on assigning trophies.
It is all a bloody shame, though violence within movies and through Oscars is nothing new. Last year’s winning documentarian quickened the pulses of even those with ice in their veins. Yes, his name was Gore. •
The following picks (in bold) reflect the 2007 films, screenplays and performances we hold closest to our hearts (and the shoulda-woulda-coulda Oscar I’d like to give P.T.A. for Magnolia), not the ones we’d put money on.
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Casey Affleck (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) (tie)
Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men)
Philip Seymour Hoffman (Charlie Wilson’s War) (tie)
Hal Holbrook (Into the Wild)
Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton)
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Cate Blanchett (I’m Not There)
Ruby Dee (American Gangster)
Saoirse Ronan (Atonement)
Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone)
Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton)
Best Actor in a Leading Role
George Clooney (Michael Clayton)
Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood)
Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd)
Tommy Lee Jones (In the Valley of Elah)
Viggo Mortensen (Eastern Promises)
Best Actress in a Leading Role
Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth: The Golden Age)
Julie Christie (Away From Her)
Marion Cotillard (La Vie En Rose)
Laura Linney (The Savages)
Ellen Page (Juno)
Best Adapted Screenplay
Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood)
Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men)
Christopher Hampton (Atonement)
Ronald Harwood (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly)
Sarah Polley (Away From Her)
Best Original Screenplay
Brad Bird (Ratatouille)
Diablo Cody (Juno)
Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton)
Tamara Jenkins (The Savages)
Nancy Oliver (Lars and the Real Girl)
Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood) (tie)
Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men) (tie)
Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton)
Jason Reitman (Juno)
Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly)
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood