The Artist harks back to the golden age of silent cinema; Midnight In Paris is set in a romanticised version of 1920’s France, and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo has been described as a love letter to early cinema. Indeed, all of the films that have been nominated for this year’s Oscar for Best Picture are set in the past, apart from The Descendents, Moneyball and Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close. While L.P Hartley claimed that “the past is a foreign country”, it is anything but for the Academy voters. The past actually seems to be where they feel most comfortable.
Last year, The Academy’s predisposition towards the past was exhibited when The King’s Speech triumphed over The Social Network. You do wonder why the Oscars have a tendency to shy away from nominating films of any contemporary interest. It isn’t the case that films with relevant subject matter weren’t eligible for nomination this year. Steve McQueen’s Shame; an examination of a life consumed by sex addiction is as relevant to 21st century audiences as Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend was to audiences in 1945. David Fincher again delivered a stylish and cutting edge film with his version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, but both of these were overlooked. This is especially dispiriting when lightweight fare such as The Help and War Horse were deemed more worthy of nomination.
In an age where cutting edge technology such as 3D and motion capture are said to be the future of cinema, academy voters’ tastes seem to have become more conservative. It brings to mind the question of who actually decides which films win at the Oscars. The answer is an incredibly convoluted one. The group of 6,404 voters include figures as divergent as Rupert Murdoch, Sasha Baron-Cohen and, most bafflingly, a fully ordained Roman Catholic nun.
The common belief is that the majority of the 6,404 members are octogenarians living in the Hollywood hills. Despite the largest group being actors, accounting for 22 per cent of the vote, guilds for crafts including costumes, effects, editing and sound are a powerful section. Oscar campaigners coined the term ‘steak-eaters’ to describe this group of largely male craftspeople due to their conservative tastes. They are often cited as the reason why Ang Lee’s gay cowboy drama Brokeback Mountain was shockingly beaten by Crash at the 2006 Oscars.
It is easy to see how leaders of the pack, The Artist and Hugo would appeal to the ‘steak-eaters’. Both are solidly-crafted, well-told stories that are in thrall of early cinema. While it is easy to criticise the Oscars for not highlighting films that say something about the issues of today, and being too eager to go for films set in the past, when The Artist does eventually walk away with the Best Picture statue, it might not be because of the voters pedestrian tastes. The reason is more likely to be that The Artist was actually the best film released this year. Despite many inexplicable Best Picture wins in the past, and a curious panel set-up, they do get it right sometimes.