In the Academy’s eternal battle between whether to embrace commerce (and attract more viewers to the show by nominating big hit movies) or art (and maintain its somewhat compromised integrity but risk being branded as elitist and out of touch, while viewers ignore the annual telecast because they’re unfamiliar with the nominated films), the voters seem to have split the difference with this morning’s nominations. Benjamin Button is a safe, middlebrow choice, and its $100 million-plus gross means enough viewers with rooting interest in it might actually watch the awards show. Indie darlings Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) and Melissa Leo (Frozen River) got some much-deserved love, but not in the Best Picture categories where they might do some damage. And Dark Knight got several noms but only one (Heath Ledger’s) in a major category, which is usually how Oscar pays respect to genre movies that are enormous hits. Sorry, Chris Nolan; Ledger’s astonishing performance apparently directed itself.
My big gripe is with all the attention for The Reader. (Did Stephen Daldry steal Nolan’s director nod?) I’m mystified by all the acclaim for this movie, especially over that other, higher profile Kate Winslet movie, which was supposed to be a lock but was all but shut out. I can’t believe the Academy fell for such a piece of Holo-kitsch. I gather that the novel, which I haven’t read, is a meditation on collective guilt, and more specifically, what moral responsibility, if any, the generation of Germans who came of age after World War II bears for the previous generation’s sins of omission and commission that resulted in the Holocaust. Winslet et al may have thought they were making a movie that thoughtfully addresses that issue, but what they’ve actually made is a steamy sex pic given artificial weight and artsiness by being tied to a horrific historical event. The result trivializes the latter without really elevating the former out of the bubble bath.
In the first episode of Ricky Gervais’ brilliant Extras, Winslet (playing herself) acts in a Holocaust drama and openly admits she’s doing it in the hopes of ending her Oscar drought. Gervais alluded to this at the Golden Globes when he toasted Winslet’s Reader victory. Cynical? Maybe (this year’s other big piece of Holo-kitsch, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, got nada), but it looks like it could play out that way this time. Winslet should have won an Oscar long ago; it’ll be a shame if this is the piece that finally wins it for her.