January 25, 2011
Congratulations to the Academy Award nominees announced early this morning! For only the second time in the Academy’s history, ten films are eligible for a Best Picture Oscar. The number of nominations in that category was doubled last year because network executives and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences governors believed that AMPAS members -- filmmakers -- had previously recognized excellence in films the movie-going public didn’t embrace. Their feeling was that a larger group of people would watch the awards telecast if they had seen more of the pictures singled out by voters. The more nominees, the higher the ratings.
That’s not wrong, of course. And each of the ten films named this morning is, indeed, excellent and Oscar-worthy. But as an Academy member, I must point out that a chasm between our organization’s recognition of greatness and box office revenues has nothing to do with voters’ elitism, effeteness or aesthetic snobbery. Most of us are very catholic in our love of movies.
No. The widening gulf between recognition by critics and award-givers, on one hand, and popularity, on the other, is a result of radical changes in film distribution and exhibition. To succeed, a new release must perform exceedingly well at the box office in its opening weekend. If it does so, it may remain in first run theatres for over a month. A two month run is more or less unheard of.
But such was not always the case. I remember discovering “The French Connection,” winner of five Academy Awards in 1972 (including Best Picture), six months into its run! “Bonnie and Clyde,” another Best Picture winner, was rescued by Pauline Kael’s rave review after floundering at the box office for weeks. Subsequently, it ran for months on end. The winner of 1971’s Best Documentary Feature statue, “The Sorrow and The Pity,” played at New York’s Paris Theatre for years. The run was so long, many of Gotham’s baby boomer movie buffs think it’s still playing there.
Extended exhibition of films, I know, is as likely to re-enter popular culture as manual typewriters or rotary phones. So, too, with adaptation of best selling novels as a mainstay of Hollywood production: it’s not coming back any time soon.
But it certainly was a mainstay. Starting before “Gone With the Wind” in 1939 and reaching a pinnacle in the seventies with “Love Story,” “The Godfather,” “The Exorcist” and “Jaws,” studios made movies for a literate public. The most widely attended pictures began with literary sources that appealed to Academy members and the public at the same time. It’s hard to believe, in this era of countless sequels and comic book-driven filmmaking, that novels by Peter Benchley and Mario Puzo (if not Margaret Mitchell) were seeds of the blockbuster as we know it. Literary origin and popularity weren’t mutually exclusive.
Nonetheless, to reiterate, all ten of this year’s Best Picture nominees are deserving, to be sure. It’s just ironic that excellence in filmmaking craft continues to be recognized with only five nominees per category. Of course, the already protracted Oscar broadcast would seem endless if presenters had to recite twice the number of names they’re called upon to read now.
That said, however, I wanted to hear quite a few names in this morning’s announcement that I didn't. Mila Kunis, “you wuz robbed!” Andy Garcia, if anyone had seen “City Island,” you’d have gotten much deserved official kudos. And as for my erstwhile colleague, Coen brothers’ cutter and alter ego Roderick Jaynes, how can excellent performances or the film overall be recognized without a best editing nomination?
One of an editor’s primary tasks is performance construction. Each angle of each scene is shot multiple times; there can be a dozen or more “takes” of every shot. Editors, working side by side with directors, piece the best of them together seamlessly to create unified and moving performances by each actor. And we can be obsessive, struggling to get even a mere word from one take into the final cut (if the utterance is extraordinary). Thelma Schoonemaker and Martin Scorcese will work to get a syllable they like into the picture.
A few years ago, a generous and sensitive director called a colleague of mine on the day nominations were announced. One of her picture’s performances had received a best acting nod, but there was no Academy acknowledgement of superior film editing. “That nomination was actually yours,” said the director.
There still seems to be a sense, even among film afficionados who parrot the truism that “films are made in the cutting room,” that an editor’s job is to delete gaffes. Directors and editors know that our job is to refine and elevate the story we’re telling... to tell it in the best possible way. In order to accomplish that goal, we mine hundreds of hours of film for gold -- outstanding moments of performance, camera work... moments of true movie magic -- and we do whatever it takes to work them into the film gracefully. So I can only assume that, had there been 10 best editing nominations, the editors of best picture nominees, “The Kids are Alright,” “Winter’s Bone, “Inception,” “Toy Story” and “True Grit” would have been named along with the equally deserving editors of “The Fighter,” “The Social Network,” “The King’s Speech,” “127 Hours” and “The Black Swan.”