The Oscars Formula

The Oscars are not given to the best films but those which fit the formula- will it happen again this year?

The Oscars Formula

The Oscars are undoubtedly the most prestigious film awards we have. Every year, the Academy has its own set of criteria that decides on what films should be honoured above the others. However, the Oscars commonly get it wrong and this goes beyond personal opinion into the realms of what critics somewhat hysterically describe as “travesties.” I am one of those critics. Historically, we have some of the famous travesties such as ‘How Green was my Valley’ beating ‘Citizen Kane’ in 1941 and Art Carney winning the best actor award in 1974, beating Al Pacino, who’s groundbreaking portrayal of Michael Corleone in “The Godfather 2,” is still considered one of the great performances of the modern era. I’m going to discuss some recent mistakes and why I think they were made; they did not abide to the Oscar formula.

2009: Sean Penn beats Mickey Rourke for Best Actor.

Sean Penn seems to be treated rather oddly by the Oscars. He missed out on the gong for ‘Dead Man Walking,’ which is an incredible performance of an inmate on Death Row, showing that despite someone being evil, capital punishment remains an inhumane practice. I defy anyone to watch it without being genuinely moved by his portrayal. Yet he won for his over the top performance in ‘Mystic River’ and his rather lightweight performance in ‘Milk.’ Not to say he didn’t perform the role admirably, but when compared to Mickey Rourke’s performance in ‘The Wrestler’, there really isn’t much of a comparison.
Rourke appears in almost every scene and draws on his experiences of his personal downfall in the 90s to convey such complex emotions that the film becomes difficult to watch. The viewer feels guilty about watching the collapse of the wrestler’s world around him and empathises towards his attempts at apologising to those he has hurt and his eventual redemption, providing entertainment to the crowd he loves.
I hope I don’t sound like Bill O’Reilly when I say this but the reason for Rourke missing out is probably because of liberal Hollywood. A biopic about a gay American hero is one difficult to ignore, especially as it did not stand a chance at Best Picture with it being a reasonably strong year for films. Milk, dare I say it, is not a particularly good film and suffers from the strain of a director desperately trying to portray the seemingly black and white nature of politics at the time. Milk suffers from a bland script but still fails to inject any brilliance into the role. This was a poor decision from the Academy.

2011: King’s Speech beats The Social Network.

‘The Social Network’, is, in my opinion, the best film of our Century. The impeccable script by Aaron Sorkin transcends the subject of Facebook and becomes one that examines greed and power with devastating accuracy. Whether the script reflects accurately what really happened is irrelevant, because these are themes that have resonance with us all. David Fincher manages to create the perfect atmosphere from simple camera tricks, which is why he is the first director film students study at film school (at least in my experience).
‘The King’s Speech’ is a good film too. Colin Firth delivers a very good performance, deserving of his Oscar. Yet the film is not spectacular. Normally, Oscar winning films aren’t spectacular but I have an issue with it winning when it beats such a film. It is essentially a stately biopic about a man overcoming adversity and forming a friendship with the person who helps him through. “Beating the odds” movies are foolproof when it comes to Oscar voters. How else could ‘Rocky’ have beaten ‘Taxi Driver’? The King’s Speech is one of those films where we know what’s going to happen after reading the back of the DVD case, and not just because it’s a biopic but because of the rigid constructs of the plot. Like many other rather overrated British films, it is very well-acted and is shown at a slow but steady pace leading us to a satisfying conclusion.
I watched Cool Runnings the other day. Basically, what happens is some sprinters fail at trials. They decide to try get to the Olympics by running in the bobsledding team. They form a tight friendship with their coach. They get to the Olympics and prove everyone that they could beat the odds, making their country proud. And back to the King’s Speech. George fails at speech. George decides to try and make better speeches. George forms a tight friendship with his coach. George becomes King and delivers a speech that proves everyone he could beat the odds and makes his country proud. The film is nothing new and not deserving of particular recognition yet it abides to the Oscar formula and therefore won. I wonder why Cool Runnings didn’t win?

So with a liberal Hollywood that loves stories of overcoming the odds, what could win this year? I think it’s between ‘The Descendants’ and ‘Hugo’. The Descendants is by an excellent director, Alexander Payne, who has been overlooked in the past. It has some interesting themes and the story is sufficiently family based to cater for the sort that loved ‘Ordinary People’ enough to declare it better than ‘Raging Bull’ in 1980. A decision that still gives me shivers. On the other hand, Hugo is all about the love for cinema, which is a subject that resonates with the Academy. Added to that, it is a truly excellent film, probably better than the Descendants. I don’t think ‘The Artist’ will win because the Academy is not ready for such an unusual film to win. I have not seen it but have heard it is excellent but its concept could be described as rather gimmicky by some of the more traditional members of the Academy.

I will stick my neck out and say the Descendants will win, although it is probably not the best film to come out this year but because it abides more closely to the Oscar formula.


  1. You make some good points here, but I like Milk, I’m told its a good source of calcium. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Nicolas Cage sneaks in like a thief in the night to win Best Actor for his performance in ‘Drive Angry 3D’. He’s won it before; who is anyone to say he won’t win in again?

    Only time will tell…

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  2. Mickey Rourke more or less played himself.Rourke plays a guy who punished his body, burned bridges and then made a come back, which Rourke did. In Milk, Sean Penn plays a gay, conservative New Yorker who moves across the country and becomes a gay activist politician. I think the Oscar went to the right person.

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  3. 2 Feb ’12 at 3:31 pm

    Stephen Thorne

    Inception should have won best picture last year. Genius originality needs to be rewarded even if it is a big blockbuster.

    Since Titanic won 11 Oscars there has been one film that has monopolised the Academy awards each year. Since then the King’s Speech won 4 (2011), Slumdog Millionaire won 8 (2009) and LOTR: Return of the King won 11 (2004).

    I also reckon Casino Royale should have won something in 2007.

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