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Why the Oscars matter

Beyond the glitz and the graft, the Academy Awards have the power to propel deserving, daring films into the limelight

Screenshot from The Imitation Game, The Weinstein Company

Due to circumstances beyond my control, the 87th Academy Awards will proceed as scheduled on 22 February at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. How do I know this? Call it fate. Call it luck. Call it karma. Everything happens for a reason. Also, depending on how much legitimacy you credit such a thing, there was an announcement.

The nominations for the world’s most prestigious shame immolation were unveiled by Chris Pine, JJ Abrams and other, non-Star Trek related luminaries during a ridiculous breakfast incident. Against all odds, it turned out to be a surprisingly exhilarating affair, going boldly where no nomination announcement had gone before.

For example, there was the startling moment when the Academy’s president Cheryl Boone, under normal circumstances the epitome of grace and dignity, accidentally referred to cinematographer Dick Pope as “Dick Poop”. Not to mention the sight of everyone in the room lowering their heads in humiliation every time somebody quoted the full title of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s theatrical satire Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).


Everything not awesome for Selma

There were even a few gasps of surprise, and not a little white guilt, when people realised the much-fancied - and politically relevant - Martin Luther King drama Selma would go the ball with just two nominations: namely, the bizarre Best Picture/Best Original Song combo. Selma’s competition in the Best Original Song Category? The stupidly infectious Everything is Awesome i.e. the theme from The LEGO Movie. For the producers of Selma, everything was distinctly Not Awesome. Talk about rubbing it in.

Anyway, the point is that for a rather awkward 15 minutes in Beverly Hills, things weren’t quite as dull and perfunctory as they could have been. Sadly, the actual prize-giving will almost certainly be a more predictable shindig. Overflowing with divine glitz and unimaginable sparkle, that’s for certain. But much like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, lacking in tangible drama. For one boozy evening in February, the showbiz world will come together and collectively ask, “Who are you wearing?” And the answer will be patently clear: “Our own ignominy, stretched across our faces like burned skin”.

Infuriating Imitation Game

If you want to see the “buzz” in action, take a look at the inflated reception afforded to code-breaker thriller The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as a slightly pantomime version of Alan Turing. The film picked up eight nominations, including nods for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. This wasn’t a surprise. Producer Harvey Weinstein has a reputation for being one of the most tenacious campaigners in the business. According a recent piece published in the Hollywood Reporter, Weinstein has been pulling for the movie for ages now, publicly promoting its director, and generally getting the film seen by awards voters. The guy’s a shark.

If only his film was better. Despite Harvey’s best efforts, The Imitation Game remains little more than a B-grade,Sunday-night-on-ITV romp: decently paced, handsomely staged, and with just enough jokes to distract from its narrative wonkiness. As a serious portrait of a fascinating and complex man, however, the film is infuriating to the point of distraction.

In a press release from July, London Film Festival director Clare Stewart said that The Imitation Game “does cinematic justice to Alan Turing’s vision, determination and personal story”. I beg to differ. Screenwriter Graham Moore and director Morten Tyldum (amazingly, a real life filmmaker, and not a character from Game of Thrones) skip casually through Turing’s horrifying chemical castration and eventual suicide via the breeziest of epilogues, when there’s enough material here for a whole other movie. In this respect, it’s a cowardly picture, one that focuses on the more “exciting” or sensational components of Turing’s biography, while glossing over some of the more problematic elements.

In a nutshell, it’s not an especially good film. But that doesn’t matter. Shortcomings aside, The Imitation Game arrives pre-packaged for awards season. Back in June, a healthy stretch of time before anyone had actually seen it, Empire Online predicted, “At best, Oscars could be calling”. The strategy to position the film as a film of cultural significance months in advance, regardless of overall quality, feels like a deliberate one. By the time The Imitation Game reached theatres, so many outlets had unwittingly promoted it as an awards contender, that many cinema-goers simply believed them without actually seeing the damn thing

The perception of a major player in the race, a genuine competitor, is powerful. Self-aggrandising clearly pays off: with the Academy Awards still over five weeks away, The Imitation Game has grossed over $50 million in the US alone. Compared with the paltry $8.5 million worldwide cume (that’s what they say at Variety, right?) earned by Cumberbatch’s previous effort The Fifth Estate, that’s a decent chunk of change.

This kind of logical fallacy, or argument by assertion, is important to smaller “prestige” movies more than blockbusters. It’s how you get folk into theatres. Performance driven pictures like The Theory of Everything, Wild and Whiplash need this kind of hullabaloo to have even half a chance of making any money back. They don’t even need to win anything. The public just needs to see them sitting at the table. And when a film like Selma fails to pick up a sizeable number of nominations, despite a groundswell of support from critics, its legitimacy is brought suddenly and harshly into question.

There are exceptions, of course. You could nominate Birdman for the Nobel Peace Prize and I’m not convinced anyone outside of the film industry bubble would actually give a toss. But for the most part, for better or worse, awards season - and the Oscars, in particular - continue to kickstart the conversations that persuade people to skip the latest CG tentpole and take a risk on something a little different.

Case in point: The Artist. A small, rather esoteric movie that wouldn’t stand a chance in US or UK markets if it wasn’t in competition. How else could something so wonderfully niche make $133 million worldwide? In this year’s line-up, alongside the more typical prestige nominees like The Imitation Game, Oscar shines a light on films like Whiplash, Foxcatcher, Leviathan, Virunga, and CITIZENFOUR - all unique, dark and daring pictures with singular voices. If each of these films find a bigger audience as a result of the glamour and the glitz, then the Academy Awards have done their job.

Finally, there’s Richard Linklater’s passion project: the aforementioned Boyhood. I’m not the craziest fan of the movie, but I admire the sheer audacity of the concept. Linklater obviously has balls bigger than the sun, and what a treat it would be to see him sweep the board next month.

Chris Blohm is a freelance film writer based in London. He is a regular contributor to Little White Lies, Virgin Movies and VODzilla, and his collected work can be found at

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