Like Mitt Romney, the inevitable but unlovable Republican presidential nominee, The Artist looks like a sure bet for most of the top Oscars, which will be presented on February 26. It has won the critics awards, the Golden Globes, the Directors Guild, the Screen Actors Guild, and the Producers Guild— a string of Oscar "primaries" more impressive than Romney's track record. And though many love the movie, it remains a bauble, tough to get excited about. That despite its unlikely success as a black-and-white "silent" trifle from a little known French director with a no-name cast. Are we that desperate for nostalgia, for reassurances about the glory and value of cinema history and tradition, that this is the best the Academy can do?
MARTY VS. HARVEY The only thing standing in The Artist's way is Scorsese's Hugo.
More important, is this the best that Harvey Weinstein, the Karl Rove of moguls, can do? Last year his candidate was the mediocre The King's Speech, and that took nearly every big award. This year, in addition to Best Picture, he has The Artist up for Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress. And no one will be surprised if he wins all of them.
Well, maybe not Best Supporting Actress. If there's anything that the Academy is a sucker for more than Harvey's hard line, it's rewarding films that superficially have a righteous political message but actually are toothless and pandering. Like 2009's The Blind Side.
This year The Help plays that role, a takedown of racism in which a white college girl writes an exposé about the mistreatment of African-American domestics in the Jim Crow South, opposing an ordinance that requires the black maids to have a separate bathroom from their white employers.
That's change we can believe in.
Now the performances by The Help's Viola Davis, nominated for Best Actress, and Octavia Spencer, for Best Supporting, deserve praise. But it's been 73 years since Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar playing a maid in Gone With the Wind. Surely we've progressed beyond that.
Meanwhile, both nominees have already won SAG awards, which usually means Oscar certainty. But they face one big obstacle: they're up against Harvey in both races.
He's probably conceded that The Artist's Bérénice Bejo can't beat Spencer for Best Supporting Actress. But he has two candidates in the Best Actress race, Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn (also with Kenneth Branagh up against Christopher Plummer in Beginners; good luck with that) and Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. It looks like he's putting his money on Streep (the campaign: "She hasn't won an Oscar in 29 years!"). So don't count the iron lady out, and certainly don't underestimate "the punisher," as Streep referred to Weinstein in her acceptance speech for the Golden Globe.
On the other hand, one Weinstein favorite might come up short. Nominated for Best Director for The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius has already won a Directors Guild Award, a near Oscar guarantee. But might not the bane of presidential candidates also prove a liability for Hazanavicius? Not only does he speak French, he is French. And bear in mind that only one foreign director from a non-Anglophone country ever won for Best Director. That was Bernardo Bertolucci for The Last Emperor in 1987. And in his acceptance speech he called Hollywood "The Big Nipple."
Would they risk that again? Instead, why not choose a director who is not associated with freedom fries? One whose film is as nostalgic as The Artist but is forward-looking enough to be in 3D? Hugo might be no match for Harvey, but Martin Scorsese is.
BEST PICTURE The Artist
BEST DIRECTOR Martin Scorsese, Hugo
BEST ACTOR Jean Dujardin, The Artist
BEST ACTRESS Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR Christopher Plummer, Beginners
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS Octavia Spencer, The Help