February 7, 2011
My Academy ballot arrived a few days ago. Reviewing the nominees, I responded the same way I do every year. First, I was both surprised and amused by the fact that I take voting so seriously. Then, I said “what the heck,” and began to consider each choice as though a great deal is actually at stake.
Ranking all manner of things is a mainstay of popular culture. In sports we have Most Valuable Players, Super Bowl Champs, Major League Champs, NBA Champs, Heavyweight Champs, Hall of Famers and more. There are Emmys in television, Grammys in music. And now we live in a world of Survivors, Idols, Top Chefs, even Best Moms and Dads. So it’s natural for members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to reward our highest achievers.
We do so even though we know that, as Cervantes wrote, “comparisons are odious.” (Or as Dogberry says in Shakespeare’s "Much Ado About Nothing,” "comparisons are odorous.”) So why do we do it? Because the Academy Awards, for voting members, are less about picking craftspeople and movies we believe are better than all others and more about promoting awareness of cinema and filmcraft. It’s good for us and good for film appreciation in general when, one evening a year, a billion viewers think about the fact that the motion pictures they love are written, directed, performed, lit, photographed, designed, edited, scored and made with actors in costumes and make-up. That there are documentaries (feature length and short), and shorts (animated and live action). That movies are made all over the world in all languages. And that we care about their quality.
To convince Academy members that their films are award-worthy, distributors take out “for your consideration” ads in industry trade papers (Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, among others), send out dvd “screeners” to the membership and schedule promotional exhibition of the pictures (often accompanied by stimulating Q&A sessions with filmmakers) in plush screening rooms. Also, Academy (or guild) card holders are admitted free to neighborhood moviehouses showing movies in contention for the Oscar. Presumably, then, voters are aware of all the pictures and filmmakers eligible for the industry’s highest honor.
Of course, the system is imperfect. When my ballot arrived, I realized I hadn’t seen all of the contenders. Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s “Biutiful,” for example, had flown under my radar. LD Entertainment, the film’s distributor, used its limited resources to campaign solely on behalf of lead actor Javier Bardem. Since members of the Academy’s editors branch only nominate Best Picture and Best Editing, we didn’t receive “screeners” of this deeply affecting picture. And that’s too bad.
Javier Bardem’s portrayal of an overburdened mid-level criminal is, indeed, brilliant. And as I’ve pointed out in earlier posts, great performances are carefully constructed from excellent raw material during post production. Thus cutter Steve Mirrione, A.C.E., whose credits include “Oceans Eleven,” “Babel” and “Traffic” (and with whom I served on an A.C.E. panel last week while still unaware of his work on “Biutiful”) should have gotten an Oscar nomination. So, too, should the film itself, along with Maricel Alvarez, who gives what could be a career-making performance.
To be sure, larger studios try to allocate their Oscar campaign resources as frugally as small indies do. Consequently they don’t inundate members outside the writers branch with scripts, nor do they send score and and song cds to non-music branch voters during the nominating process. Such promotional materials reach the full membership only after AMPAS’ final ballots are announced.
Yesterday, I received David Seidler’s screenplay for “The King’s Speech.” Reading it, I immediately noted something that all filmmakers know: while a film of lasting power cannot be made from a poor text, the script is never brought to the screen without, literally, hundreds of changes. A film is so different from its screenplay -- there are so many re-writes during pre-production and principal photography, as well as deletions, changes in structure and additional shooting during "post" -- that it’s hard to tell what version of a writer's work members actually peruse.
The published text of a stage play matches what its opening night audience sees after a period of rehearsals and previews, during which there is much editing and rethinking. This may be the case, as well, with published screenplays. Academy members, however, judge a hybrid of a film’s original shooting draft and its final cut. With “The King’s Speech” voters received an incarnation that contains only scenes which are in the theatrical release.
But when a film is as good as director Tom Hooper’s story of the stammering Prince of York, I guarantee you, there were countless dialogue deletions as well as cuts of whole scenes. While assembling a movie, a director and editor must be sensitive to ways in which brilliant actors express with a gesture what a page of words might only approximate. They must be aware of how quickly viewers comprehend a point of plot or character without all the scripted talk. We test movies in screenings for friends and strangers. And we always learn the same thing: if we didn’t make cuts -- even in motion pictures made from superior texts -- audiences would become worn out rather quickly.
What’s more, even in the case of the David Seidler screenplay sent to Academy members -- all its scenes still in the film, all in scripted order -- there is still a world of difference between what’s on the page and what’s on the screen. Right atop page 1, the title card is not the one in the movie. The BBC News Reader’s theatrical preparation for his broadcast is largely absent from the text. So, of course, are the wide angle lenses which show Bertie’s horribly distorted world (a bold choice by Mr. Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen)! There’s no horse whinny exacerbating the awkwardness of 100,000 hushed listeners at Empire Stadium in Seidler’s script; that was likely the idea of Mr. Hooper, editor Tariq Anwar or the picture’s sound designer.
It’s fair to ask, if the finished film diverges so much from the original (or adapted) screenplay, how can voters choose “the best?” The answer, really, is that whatever a viewer feels is the Best Picture was made from the best script. A text that inspires the director, cast and crew to make the most moving, lasting film is, itself, superlative. Writing that gives the director and editor raw material from which they shape the best movie is the best writing. Yes, with that standard, a voter really needn’t look at scripts studios send to Academy members for consideration. True. But the good screenplays are so much fun to read.