Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
At the ripe age of 89, Oscar can still be a notoriously picky fellow when it comes to what constitutes a contender for Best Picture.
For instance, while animated features are often among the most critically lauded and highest-grossing films each year, they are usually forced to make do in the category that was inaugurated in 2001 to specifically honor the tops in ‘toons. Only three—1991’s “Beauty and the Beast,” 2009’s “Up” and 2010’s “Toy Story 3”—were ever given a chance to compete against live-action counterparts.
Foreign-language films are equally unlikely to find themselves going up against non-subtitled selections. Only ten have been given a shot at the night’s biggest prize, most recently the 2012 Austrian entry “Amour.”
Forget about scare fare, too. Only two true fright flicks, 1973’s “The Exorcist” and 1991’s “The Silence of the Lambs” (that year’s winner), have been deemed worthy. And you would think at least one of the 24 official James Bond spy thrillers would have broken the Best Picture code by now. “Skyfall,” which holds the title for the most successful 007 entry ever after taking in more than $1 billion worldwide in 2012, came the closest but no cigar—or martini.
Beloved boy wizard Harry Potter’s eight-film franchise has similarly been overlooked. As for fantasies in general, only one—2003’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”—has ever won and it took a back-to-back-to-back trilogy of epics to do so.
Yes, it is easy to bash the sometimes out-of-touch tastes of the nearly 7,000 qualified Academy Award voters. But at least those in charge listened to the uproar over “The Dark Knight,” Christopher Nolan’s much-admired reboot of the “Batman” franchise that earned an exceedingly high 94% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but wasn’t given one of the five Best Picture slots.
That didn’t stop the late Heath Ledger from winning every major Best Supporting Actor honor that year for his indelible portrayal of the Joker. Meanwhile, the less-glowingly reviewed “The Reader,” backed by the clout of The Weinstein Company, claimed a Best Picture berth mostly on the strength of Kate Winslet’s lead performance, which resulted in her first-ever Oscar trophy after five previous tries.
After hearing complaints and witnessing lower viewership for the annual Oscar telecast when few mainstream titles were represented, the Academy decided to increase the Best Picture choices on the 2009 Oscar ballot to 10 possibilities for the first time since 1943. The limit was later adjusted in 2011 to a range of five to ten nominees. Since then, either eight or nine films have been in the running each time.
Seven years hence, this accordion-like Best Picture category has yet to see a comic-book-inspired adventure land a Best Picture nod. Many thought last year’s offbeat and foul-mouthed “Deadpool” that collected more than $360 million in domestic ticket sales might have muscled its way in after landing a Golden Globe nomination for Best Musical or Comedy and collecting both comedy and action film crowns from the Broadcast Film Critics Association. But it was not to be. And, during the 2015 race, more than a few Jedi supporters were chagrined when “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”—the first new chapter in the franchise in a decade—was also left out.
Not that big-budget spectacle goes unrewarded these days. Sci-fi has especially benefited from the expanded Best Picture contest. In 2009, both the monster hit “Avatar” and the more modest “District 9” competed although the low-budget war film “The Hurt Locker” triumphed. Also represented in their years: “Inception” (2010); “Gravity” and “Her” (2013); “The Martian” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015); and “Arrival” (2016).
But no less than James Cameron, whose “Titanic”—the No. 2 box-office hit of all time next to his “Avatar”—helped the Oscar ceremony hit a ratings high in 1998 that has yet to be bested, recently claimed that the Academy Award voters continue to have a prejudice against populist popcorn titles.
He told The Daily Beast last month that in a typical year, “the Academy takes the position of, ‘It is our patrician duty to tell the great unwashed what they should be watching,’ and they don’t reward the films that people want to see—that they are paying money to go see.”
He continued: “And as long as the Academy sees that as their duty, don’t expect high ratings … There’s a definite bias.”
Tom O’Neil, overseer of the Gold Derby prediction site, also thinks the expanded category hasn’t quite achieved its goal of being more inclusive with blockbusters. “Where is ‘Deadpool’ this year? It got nominated by the Producers Guild, but snubbed by Oscar. The Academy’s omission of ‘Interstellar’ a few years ago was a slap at sci-fi. For the most part, the expansion has just made room for more and more little indie stuff that the Academy embraces as a way to make themselves look smart.”
But he does allow that there has been some positive effects. “The upside is that a few worthy blockbusters have managed to sneak in—like ‘Mad Max’ and ‘Inception.’ And a few small worthy flicks recently got recognition that they would've forfeited under the old voting system—like ‘Lion’ and ‘Hell or High Water’ this year, or ‘Whiplash’ and ‘Selma’ last year.’”
Both men make good points. But I think there have been other upsides to more Best Picture nominees being represented. Just as the abundance of acclaimed, diversely cast movies last year have allowed the voters to include seven actors of color to participate as nominees after two years of all-white candidates, there has been more variety in the types of Best Picture competitors since the category grew.
Historically, female-driven titles have tended to be in the minority when there were only five slots available. But since the switch in the 2009 contest, 31% of 81 Best Picture selections were at least partly if not completely female driven. The worst year would be 2014, when male-oriented true stories as well as fictional ones monopolized the list of eight. The best year was 2012, when five films—"12 Years a Slave," “American Hustle,” “Gravity,” “Her” and “Philomena”—showcased actresses in substantial parts. As for 2016, four movies—“Arrival,” “Fences,” “Hidden Figures” and “La La Land”—are proudly female-forward.
Then there is the issue of variety when it comes to genres. The current lineup features a sci-fi thriller, two family dramas, a war epic, a Western, a musical, a biopic-oriented drama and two coming-of-age stories. Not a bad spread. To me, the verdict is still out as to whether super-sizing the Best Picture category has been a boost or not, at least in terms of giving quality blockbusters a chance to be applauded.
But the true measure of Oscar’s power to make a difference might be better measured by the kinds of movies that Hollywood deigns to put out each year. Voters can only choose from the pool they are given. The fact is that “Hidden Figures”—whose current domestic box office of $130-plus million and counting makes it the top moneymaker among the nine nominees—yet again belies the supposed truism that films with female leads don’t draw big crowds while giving a trio of top-notch actresses incredibly rich roles as smart, successful role models. It’s proof that enriching entertainment can also be box-office bonanzas.
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A tribute to Doris Day.