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The Oscars

The Oscars

Lifting the lid off the planet's biggest film awards…

Total Film

March 2008

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This month, we lift the lid off the planet’s biggest film awards…

2008 marks the 80th Academy Awards and on the evening of 24 February at the Kodak Theatre, The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart – who’s getting his second crack at the Oscar MC gig – will kick off the industry’s swankiest event with some bone-dry witticisms (although his material is at the mercy of the writers’ strike – and if it’s still going on, it could be a very long night for Stewart). Buzz is here to tell you what happens between now and that starry night. How does it work? Who gets to vote? And how the hell do the likes of Crash and Shakespeare In Love steal the night’s biggest prize (Best Picture) away from superior opposition?

“Each November, an election campaign commences that rivals the passions and sometimes the excesses of the race for the nation’s presidency,” gushes, the Academy’s website. That may sound like peacocking up the whole process, but it’s actually quite apt: with the money and prestige at stake, the battle for those sleek golden baldies can be a down-and-dirty scrap. For ‘passions’, read greed and ego; for ‘excesses’, read dirty tricks and ambitious actors, actresses and directors visiting Hollywood’s old-age homes to woo the large Academy pensioner vote.

The height of nasty campaigns is still considered to be 2002, when A Beautiful Mind weathered smears claiming Ron Howard had glossed over mathematician John Nash’s bisexuality and anti-semitism. It still secured Best Picture (no surprise, as Universal spent $15 million to win that war). Harvey Weinstein’s bloody, take-no-prisoners Oscar crusades as Miramax honcho often infuriated the industry (many fingered the company as the originators of the anti-Mind crusade). His worst infraction came in 1998 when Shakespeare In Love beat Saving Private Ryan. You don’t piss off Steven Spielberg in that town…

But before the gongs, comes the voting. There are 6,000-plus Academy members, divided into 16 branches. In the initial ballot to draw up the shortlist of five nominees, voting is restricted to each branch’s members. So cinematographers vote for Best Cinematographer, actors vote for acting, etc. However, Best Foreign Language Film is decided by all the branches, with only members who have seen all five shortlisted films at Academy-sanctioned screenings casting their votes.

The Academy has attempted to stifle the studios’ more shameless promotional gimmicks. Nowadays, Academy screenings aren’t allowed to be followed by receptions, banquets or “other refreshments” (what, coke in the loos?). But if you think that’s stopped studios and independents from Oscar-pandering, think again: they just hold their events on the sly now. The ‘For Your Consideration’ ads in trade rags like Variety are still de rigeur, as are DVD screener mailouts. And in backing Little Miss Sunshine in 2006, Fox Searchlight even gave free cupcakes to Hollywood eateries, as if their yellow-iced sweetness would convince voters to spread the light to Sunshine. Which they did, at least in the nomination stage...

Once the nominations are made public, final voting in all categories opens up to the entire membership. That explains why you often get clean sweeps (when a juggernaut like Titanic captures the imagination, voters tend to just tick all the boxes that film’s in). Actors are the largest voting block by some way (roughly 22 per cent), which is why actors-turned-directors frequently pick up the Best Director gong. Anyone still lamenting Robert Redford’s (Ordinary People) triumph over Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull), or Kevin Costner (Dances With Wolves) beating Scorsese again (GoodFellas)? Blame it on the actors. The famously sentimental voting block loves comebacks and veterans and is also credited with allowing Crash – an actor’s film – to steal Best Picture from Brokeback Mountain.

With the likes of There Will Be Blood, Atonement, American Gangster, Juno and No Country For Old Men panting for pole position, Oscar silly season can be feverishly long, as various other awards tip the scales prior to the actual Oscar count. As you read this, the nominations should have just been announced and final voting ballots are due in on 19 February. As with every year, ditch the form-book: there are bound to be some bombshells. That’s what keeps us hooked.

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