When I joined the Motion Picture Academy in the 1980s, many were the perks offered us members to gain our Oscar votes. My favorite was the annual party at the French consulate. In pursuit of the Best Foreign Language Film award for France, our hosts would ply us with endless quantities of their best cheese and paté, washed down with all the Dom Pérignon you could drink. Then along came some bluenoses at the Academy who pronounced such events off limits, claiming they constituted bribes. What nonsense. I didn’t vote for Truffaut more than seven times!
But I’m happy to report that after a long hiatus, corruption is back at the Oscars. On December 17, Warner Brothers hosted a lavish party for Academy members at the Los Angeles five-star restaurant Lucques in honor of Gravity, starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock and directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Was this legal? Strictly speaking, yes, because such events are only proscribed after nominations have been announced, and they haven’t been. I would guess, though, that Gravity—already the co-winner of the Los Angeles Times Film Award for this year—has a lock on several nominations.
Anyway, I went. I like Lucques, and I like free designer drinks even more. But is Gravity now more likely to get my vote? No way. I had already seen the film, an adventure about astronauts stranded in space. I found it fun to watch but scarcely Oscar-worthy, except perhaps in technical categories (special effects, sound, etc.). I doubt that cocktails and hors d’oeuvres at the swank eatery swayed many of my fellow voters, either. Frankly, it would take a lot more (maybe a BMW) to corrupt the Academy. It’s the wrong demographic.
And just what is that demographic? The Los Angeles Times broke it down a few years ago, when there were 5,765 members. At that point, 54 percent of us were over 60, 77 percent were male, and 94 percent were white. This might have changed a bit in the interim, but hardly enough to assuage the Jesse Jacksons or Gloria Steinems of the world. Most of us rich geriatric white guys continue to live either in Malibu, Beverly Hills, Brentwood, or the Hollywood Hills, with a few outliers in Montecito, Aspen, the West Village, and Hampstead—the tony neighborhoods of successful motion-picture makers, but hardly of their audiences.
And, you might ask, what percentage of us is liberal, since political persuasion may have more effect on how one votes than the most posh of parties? No one knows for sure, but my guess is close to 80 percent, especially given the age of many members who became active in film in the seventies, when leftism was not merely a convention, but orthodoxy. (Libertarianism is beginning to creep into today’s younger Hollywood, as it is everywhere else.)
So it’s no surprise that the frontrunner for this year’s best picture is Gravity’s co-winner of the L.A. Times award: 12 Years a Slave, the devastating tale of a middle-class black musician kidnapped into slavery in the 1840s. What’s more surprising is that it deserves to win. Slave is a coruscating film on a significant subject and, of this year’s crop, only the Coen Brothers’ homage to the early folk scene—Inside Llewyn Davis—is arguably better made. (Davis also produced the best freebee for members: a meticulous and amusing faux issue of Sing Out! magazine, replete with essays by Robert Christgau and Sean Wilentz.) I say this even though I wasn’t keen on seeing Slave. Though a veteran of the civil rights movement, I don’t enjoy being lectured to about race in the Age of Obama. I have long felt that the best cure for racism is to try to forgive and move past it. Conversations about race only make things worse. But Slave, based on a memoir, is so powerful in its authenticity and its execution that you are pulled back in and made to rethink your assumptions. Plaudits and awards have gone to director Steve McQueen, writer John Ridley, and to the actors, notably Chiwetel Ejiofor in the starring role of Solomon Northrup. The Academy is almost certain to feel similarly.
Nowhere near as authentic is Lee Daniels’s The Butler, an often cheesy retelling of the civil rights movement through the eyes of a White House butler that has a “Made in Liberal Hollywood” air about it. That the film is peppered with movie stars (Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, Robin Williams as Ike, Forest Whitaker as the butler, Oprah Winfrey as his wife) only adds to the general aroma of phony self-congratulation. It’s so obvious even Oscar will ignore it.
But the Academy won’t ignore the man who always ignores them: Woody Allen. Famous for having the good taste to stay home to watch the Knicks while the rest of the industry walks the red carpet, Allen has garnered umpteen Oscar nominations. This year will be no exception. Cate Blanchett is a certainty for best actress in her lead role as a mega-neurotic divorcee in Blue Jasmine. Between them, Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers are making an argument that cinema as an art form is still alive.