Oscar voters always have some surprises up their collective sleeve, and today was no exception. The actors’ branch is especially welcoming to new talent, as witness the nominations of first-timers Demián Bichir, Rooney Mara, Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, and Melissa McCarthy. That such relative newcomers are standing toe to toe with the likes of George Clooney and Meryl Streep is a tremendous achievement—and honor.
The voters expressed their honest sentiments up and down the line: only two songs got nominated, five animated features but no Cars 2 or Adventures of Tintin, five talented directors but no Spielberg. The writers’ branch honored two women for a raunchy comedy (Bridesmaids) and an Iranian filmmaker for a searing screenplay (A Separation, also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film).
It’s not surprising that Hugo walked away with eleven nominations, because the members of every Academy branch (except makeup people) recognized the exceptional artistry and craftsmanship of that film, under maestro Martin Scorsese’s direction.
It’s also not surprising that The Artist did so well, with ten nominations. Academy voters have fallen in love with this fresh, original French film, as they did with another import that had no established stars just a few years ago: Slumdog Millionaire. (According to box-office figures, audiences are following suit as the movie expands to more theaters, week by week—just as Slumdog did.)
That’s why I respect the Academy Awards above all others: despite what cynics say, you can’t buy an Oscar. (You can hype and promote your film, but if the members don’t already like it, you’re out of luck.) and box-office figures don’t count. Whether or not I agree with the selections, year to year, it’s an honest vote by people who work in all facets of the motion picture industry. That’s why it’s the granddaddy of all film awards, the one that really matters.
A few notes about the ritual of Oscar nomination morning: hundreds of working professionals, from journalists and critics to publicists and TV crews, get up in the dark in order to arrive at the Academy sometime between 3 and 5 a.m. The designated parking garage is several blocks away, so you find yourself walking down a deserted Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, wondering what you’re doing awake at this inhuman time of day. Then you open the door to the Academy entrance and walk into a sea of humanity—everyone you know in the media world, it seems—chattering away and pumped up about the impending news. At 5 a.m. we’re allowed to walk upstairs to the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre, where TV crews have already set up their cameras and lights. At precisely 5:30, the Academy president and a contemporary actor or actress step to the podium and read the key nominees, for the benefit of network morning shows back East—and a waiting world. Then the reports and the punditry begin. It’s pretty exciting, especially if, like me, you grew up on the other end of the country, following all of this from a distance. I feel lucky to be part of the Oscar scene.