Oscars 2011: The Academy Goes for Safe Nominations

Paramount, distributor of David O. Russell's The Fighter, celebrated the helmer's Best Director Oscar nomination by placing a "For Your Consideration" ad on the cover of Variety, touting him as "the comeback of the year." It was an odd choice of phrasing, considering that The Fighter, Russell's first feature to net any Oscar nominations, is by far his biggest success. What is he coming back to?

Prognosticators of the Academy Awards, which will be broadcast this Sunday, had presumed that Russell's slot would go to Inception mastermind Christopher Nolan — who Russell reportedly put in a headlock at a Hollywood party in 2003. Such stories about Russell's bad behavior have overshadowed his films, most of which have drawn mixed reviews and lost money. The Fighter seems like less of a return than a rebirth: a calculated, successful attempt by Russell to remake himself as a filmmaker capable of working quietly within the Hollywood establishment.

The fact that this problem child is a contender for the highest honor in his field could be taken as evidence that the Academy establishment is changing. Though several Oscar-feted members of the old guard made films in 2010 — Eastwood, Polanski, Scorsese — the Academy ignored them in favor of work by comparative youngsters (at 56, Joel Coen is the oldest director of a Best Picture nominee), most of whom launched their careers at Sundance and via other indie-film conduits.

Six of this year's 10 Best Picture nominees were made by filmmakers who had early career breakouts at Sundance: the Coen brothers in the '80s; Darren Aronofsky, Lisa Cholodenko, and Russell in the '90s; Debra Granik and Nolan in the '00s. Two others, David Fincher and Danny Boyle, who established cult bona fides with late-'90s zeitgeist-definers, have been recognized by the Academy only fairly recently (the former for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the latter for Slumdog Millionaire). Rounding out the roster are two non-indie vets: Lee Unkrich, whose Toy Story 3 was the highest-grossing film of 2010, and Tom Hooper, the 38-year-old British director of The King's Speech with a TV-heavy résumé who enjoys a unique advantage: the full support of Harvey Weinstein. After several years barely in the game, Weinstein, with The King's Speech, has his first likely Best Picture win since Chicago (2002).

It may be a return to glory of a sort, but, as with Russell's, Weinstein's very good year represents a "comeback" that reeks of compromise. The King's Speech is closer to the turn-of-the-millennium Miramax pap — think Chocolat — that Weinstein managed to get nominated by his typically aggressive approach than to the risk-taking titles on which he built his reputation (sex, lies, and videotape; Pulp Fiction). Weinstein's safe bet with The King's Speech arguably shafted his company's two other late-year prestige films, Blue Valentine and The Company Men. Fully endorsing the stark, time-fractured marital drama Blue Valentine might have challenged Academy members to evolve; instead, Weinstein got behind the film that conforms to Academy voters' conservative, sentimental tastes.

The combination of Anglophilia, historical "importance," and capital-A "Acting!" makes The King's Speech a likely Best Picture shoo-in, irresistible to the same voting body that fell for the milquetoast charms of 1998's Shakespeare in Love — Weinstein's most controversial Oscar victory. The comparative quality of much darker nominated films like Black Swan, Inception, and The Social Network might be debatable, but, at the very least, these are cerebral movies built around questionably sympathetic antiheroes, with polarizing conclusions — which likely puts them at a disadvantage. The King's Speech is about the entwined victories of overcoming a personal disability to conquer Nazis, and its uplifting final scenes reliably jerk tears. Academy history suggests that wet eyes guarantee more ballots than ambiguous endings — and who's to say that emotional response isn't valid?

But a victory for The King's Speech would still be dispiriting. For all the evidence that 2010's nominees offer that Hollywood has been fundamentally changed by a new generation of auteurs, Academy consensus will likely reward the least innovative, most old-fashioned film — the one that best embodies the middlebrow sensibility that other Best Picture nominees, and the indie institutions that nurtured their makers, seem like a defiant reaction against.

 
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