To regain populist footing, Oscars need a hero

January 16, 2009 6:08:39 PM PST
The Oscars are at a crossroads and Batman is standing right in the middle of the road. Like the Scarecrow says in "The Wizard of Oz" (not "the Scarecrow" in "Batman Begins"), the Oscars can go this way, or they can go that way.

In recent years, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has increasingly honored independent films that haven't exactly done huge box office business. At the same time, moviegoers have been most interested in coming out to see blockbusters - particularly superhero films.

Enter "The Dark Knight."

Christopher Nolan's latest Batman installment grossed $531 million, second only to 1997's "Titanic." Not only was it an enormous hit, but it also drew largely glowing reviews, ranking among many critics' top ten lists. The same could also be said for "Iron Man" and "WALL-E."

But if the academy can't get behind a movie like "The Dark Knight" that resonated throughout both culture and critics, will it ever rediscover common ground with the mainstream?

"Last time I looked, it's a commercial art form," said Peter Guber, chairman of Mandalay Entertainment and producer of the 1989 "Batman." "If a film is very successful, it shouldn't be automatically relegated to the minor leagues."

"It's not a popular vote - it is artistic," added Guber. "But the reality is, `The Dark Knight' and `Iron Man' were the most popular, the most successful and - arguably by me - maybe the most interesting films this year. And they were also the least acknowledged by the artistic community."

Many Oscar prognosticators believe "The Dark Knight" will squeak in with a best picture nomination Thursday. Many, though, peg it for the fifth and final spot. The logic is that the big Golden Globes winner "Slumdog Millionaire" is a shoo-in, and will be followed by "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "Frost/Nixon" and "Milk."

That leaves "The Dark Night" to vie with "Gran Torino," "Doubt," "The Wrestler" and many more films. Neither "Iron Man" or "WALL-E" - each acclaimed and extremely popular - are expected to figure in the major categories.

Given the way awards season is breaking, Heath Ledger is likely to be posthumously nominated for best supporting actor. Nolan may be nominated for best director and best adapted screenplay, along with his co-writer Jonathan Nolan.

The slickly made film also stands to do well in technical categories, which would boost its overall nomination count - and possibly give it the most of all contenders.

Tom O'Neil, a columnist for the awards Web site, believes we're ultimately headed for a David and Goliath face-off between "Slumdog Millionaire" and "The Dark Knight." There are about 5,800 members in the academy, and O'Neil believes Batman will have strong support from technical craftsmen.

"The film editors, the cinematographers, the sound mixers - those guys are real guy guys, who Harvey Weinstein likes to call `the steak eaters,"' said Tom O'Neil, a columnist for the awards Web site "You could just see them picking a `Dark Knight' because it's a technological achievement. It's a big movie with all the razzle-dazzle."

"The Dark Knight" has recently gained in Oscar momentum thanks to largely positive showings from the various guild awards, whose memberships make up much the academy voters.

The Producers Guild gave it producer of the year, the Directors Guild picked Nolan for director and the Writers Guild nominated the screenplay. The British Academy Film Awards doled out nine nominations for the film, but didn't pick it for best picture.

However many Oscar nominations it gets, to be seen as a real heavyweight, "The Dark Knight" will need that best picture nomination.

Many crowd-pleasers have often been honored by the academy. "Star Wars" - the third biggest grossing film of all-time, and the movie that ushered in the blockbuster era - was nominated for ten awards in 1978, including best picture. "Rocky" took home best picture the year before that.

And of course, "Titanic" practically swept the 1998 Oscars, winning 11 statues. Not coincidentally, it was one of the highest-rated Academy Awards telecasts in recent years, drawing 55 million viewers.

Recent best picture winners have included "No Country for Old Men," "Crash" and "Million Dollar Baby." Though there are many variables, Oscar telecasts are generally thought to be better rated when there's one, dominate film to root for.

Last year's show was watched by 32 million viewers, the smallest Oscars audience since Nielsen began keeping those records in 1974.

"I don't think the academy is trying to become the People's Choice Awards," said Scott Feinberg, an Oscar blogger for the L.A. Times and editor of "That's not even a consideration for voters."

Feinberg points out that any quandary the academy might have over "The Dark Knight" could be a kind of last stand against summer blockbusters. Many of the boutique divisions of studios have shuttered this year, meaning in the future, academy members will be increasingly pressured to vote for blockbusters.

Let one superhero in, and others might follow.