The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Oscar silly season in full swing

January 30, 2009 |  1:32 pm

What is the difference between reading Oscar bloggers writing about the Academy Awards and crackpot conspiracy theorists spinning yarns about the CIA killing JFK or the Israeli secret service being behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks? At this time of year: Not much. With the Oscar ballots in the mail, the silly season has begun, when everyone on the Oscar blogging front starts wildly speculating about who's pulling dirty tricks or which movie--often for the most bizarrely inexplicable reasons--is poised to leap into contention in the best picture race.

ThooslumThe wonderers who wonder have come out of the woodwork, especially with a new controversy involving best picture favorite "Slumdog Millionaire" moving from back-burner to front-page headline status. As we wrote earlier this week, this is hardly a surprise, with virtually every modern-day Oscar front-runner getting hazed by the media, who love to build 'em up and then tear 'em down. But that didn't stop the New York Post's Lou Lumenick from idly speculating: "Is someone connected with one of the other best picture nominees behind a desperate smear campaign to stop prohibitive favorite 'Slumdog Millionaire'? Smells that way to me."

Lumenick's proof? None actually, though he finds it highly suspicious--as opposed to highly coincidental--that the news about 'Slumdog's' payments to its child actors "broke the same day as academy ballots were mailed out." (The italics are his.) Lumenick goes on to say: "We all know which truth-and ethically challenged mogul would benefit most from an upset," an obvious not-so veiled reference to "The Reader's" Harvey Weinstein, who, putting aside any ethical challenges, is the only studio chief today with enough personality to merit being called a mogul. Whatever Harvey's possible past offenses, I think he deserves to remain innocent until proven guilty. If Lou has some evidence, we should hear it, instead of getting pure innuendo.

But everywhere you look, someone is cooking up a crackpot Oscar theory. What are the silliest ones? Keep reading:

New York magazine's Vulture blog--which I'm normally a big fan of--is floating the notion that "Milk" is making a move into best picture contention, largely based on the notion that a win for "Milk" would "ease the sting of the 'Brokeback Mountain' snub" and "re-establish the academy as a place where tolerance prevails above all else."

Yeah, right! First off, how exactly did the academy snub "Brokeback"? Just because a good film lost doesn't mean it was snubbed--it simply means some other good film, in this case "Crash," got more votes. I'd be the first to argue that "Brokeback" will probably hold up better in the light of film history than "Crash," but that's true of dozens of other Oscar films too. Secondly, the academy is a group of 60,00 individuals, many of whom are at odds or insanely envious of each other. They don't all get together one night at the Mormon Temple and secretly agree who to vote for and who to snub, much less worry about redressing old wrongs. They look at their ballots and--rightly or wrongly--vote for the movie they like most at that moment.

And then there's Movie City News' always wacky David Poland, who smells a conspiracy involving Variety, saying the trade paper is selling what he calls "the absurd notion" that "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is hot on the heels of "Slumdog Millionaire." Putting aside the fact that Poland is often touting absurd notions himself, what would Variety's motive be for pushing "Button"? Hhmm, Poland doesn't say. Even worse, it turns out that one of the two examples Poland cites as the key to Variety's insidious "Button" selling campaign--a post by Variety Big Kahuna Peter Bart about the DGA Awards--scarcely makes the case for "Button" at all. It only has one tiny sentence wondering whether the academy's older constituency will rally behind a more traditional Hollywood film like "Button." Hardly a sales job, if you ask me.

But that's typical of Oscar silly season, where, particularly when there's one clear front-runner, the bored bloggers and pundits decide to float outlandish theories and engage in ad hominem attacks in the hopes of turning a dreary rout into a lively horse race. Sometimes its hard to tell where Oscar politics end and real old-fashioned partisan-divide politics begin. The new righty pop-culture blog, Big Hollywood, has a post by Geoff Shepard accusing "Frost/Nixon" of being--you guessed it--an ad hominem attack on Richard Nixon, full of "misrepresentations and sheer inventions," making Shepard wonder how much the truth can "be shaved in filmmaking without becoming outright propaganda."

Apparently Liberal Hollywood, in this case personified by "Frost/Nixon" filmmaker Ron Howard (who actually cast his first presidential vote for Nixon in 1972), has a insatiable loathing for Nixon. Shepard bolsters his case by unmasking all sorts of heinous factual distortions in the film, including a scene in the film where Nixon is wearing shirtsleeves--never happened, he says--and the film's portrayal of Frost giving Nixon a pair of Gucci loafers, which Shepard trumpets as a "complete and knowing fabrication." You begin to suspect that Shepard actually may have never seen a Hollywood movie before, since he seems to react to every writerly flourish in what is clearly billed as a fictionalized film as a stealthy example of political chicanery. It's enough to give conservative criticism a bad name, but then again, most of what passes for Oscar coverage at this time of year is enough to give showbiz journalism a bad name too.

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