You know the oft-repeated phrase heard this time of year, “It’s an honor just to be nominated”? That was never more true for some who might have actually won the Academy Award but tripped on their way to the Kodak stage by failing to get to first base with a nomination this past Tuesday. This year, presumed frontrunners in different categories weren’t moved forward in the Oscar race because of their own peer group. In case you’re not aware, peer groups pick the individual nominees in their categories. In the final vote, the entire Academy votes for the winners. The membership at large, thought not to be as technically judgmental as the formidable peer groups (or, in some situations, as swayed by petty jealousies), usually tend to select the more obvious choices. But what should be an anomaly happens a lot when it comes to Oscar. In 1989, Driving Miss Daisy was the big winner with four Oscars including Best Picture. Its director Bruce Beresford almost certainly would have made it five except for one small thing: the Director’s branch didn’t nominate him so the Academy at large couldn’t vote for him. It was the first time since Grand Hotel (1931-1932) that a director was not nommed for a movie that won Best Picture. (Instead, Oliver Stone won for Born On The Fouth Of July.) Most famously, Hollywood was shocked when the actors branch didn’t nominate Bette Davis for 1934’s Of Human Bondage even though it was considered one of the greatest female performances ever and its omission caused such a stir that the Academy augmented their rules to allow a write-in vote. (The write-in didn’t work, and Claudette Colbert triumphed.) Out of embarrassment, the Academy tried to make amends and gave Davis the Oscar the next year for the much-lesser Dangerous.
For instance, this year in the Best Make Up category, Alice In Wonderland was considered the frontrunner among the seven finalists – but shockingly failed to even be nominated. Instead, the final three nominees were Barney’s Version, The Way Back, and Universal’s early 2010 dud The Wolfman, forcing Academy voters to choose from these far more obscure entries. Which is why I have to ask: Was Paul Giamatti’s disheveled hair in Barney’s Version really better than the Make Up artistry on the Red Queen or the Mad Hatter? It’s all a very closed club, and the answer may not lie in the work itself but in who did the work and who is a member of the club.
For instance, the critically drubbed The Tempest‘s Sandy Powell, a 3-time winner in Oscar’s Costumes category, can get nominated for just about anything she does because she is one of Costume branch’s inner circle. The same is true for the Music branch and John Williams who doesn’t score for movies as much anymore. But any time he does, he’s likely to get a nomination because he’s an icon among musicians.
Regarding the Best Documentary nominations this year, I heard that one Governor of the Academy’s Documentary branch told a consultant that if Waiting For ‘Superman’, Davis Guggenheim’s widely favored education doc from Paramount, received a nomination it would win Best Feature Documentary with the membership at large. But he wasn’t voting for it and neither were some other branch members he knew due to questions they had about the way some of the documentary was conducted. Specifically, objections were raised about one scene recreated for the camera after it happened in real life. The result is that Guggenheim won’t be getting that second Oscar this time around (he won for An Inconvenient Truth) since his documentary didn’t make the cut with his branch.
Christopher Nolan was now infamously passed over in the Best Director category, first for The Dark Knight and this time for Inception. Would he have won this time out for staying true to his passion project? We’ll never know. My guess is there’s a certain level of jealousy because he pretty much can do whatever he wants and wherever he wants. (I often say he could go in and pitch a remake of Howard The Duck and studios would say yes.) Steven Speilberg was famously not nominated as Best Director for the Best Picture nominee Jaws. (Worse, a TV show following around Spielberg that day the Oscar nods were announced showed him anxiously anticipating a nomination that never came.)
Lee Smith’s dazzling Editing for Inception was thought to be an easy winner in that category once it got to the general vote. Problem is, the editors themselves dissed it. No Oscar for Lee this year.
Diane Warren won a Golden Globe this month for the anthem she wrote for Cher in Burlesque called “You Haven’t Seen The Last Of Me”. And she was considered a likely Academy Award winner this time after 6 previous Oscar nominations. Plus, Cher was expected to perform it on the telecast. Unfortunately, the Academy’s grumpy Music branch decided we had seen the last of Warren this awards season and nominated only four tunes, none of them from the critically reviled Burlesque. Talk about a backlash. (A publicist connected with Warren’s campaign even wanted to ask for a recount but knew the Academy would never allow it.) The same Music branch disqualified Clint Mansell’s soaring blend of original music and Tchaikovsky in Black Swan which almost certainly could have triumphed with the general Academy membership when voting starts on February 2nd.