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Oscars’ political spin

 | February 26, 2013

How is it that the Best Director ends up making a film which does not qualify to win the Best Picture Oscar, as we saw this year?


It no longer surprises me that film awards are often political — teased, taunted, pulled and pressured by considerations of statecraft. And one did not need a Sherlock Holmes to crack this “truth” on the big Oscars night on Sunday at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.

Ben Affleck’s Argo, which walked away with the Best Picture Academy Award, is in every conceivable way a booster for American politics of triumph and victory.

Argo, the first movie since Driving Miss Daisy in 1989 to win that Oscar without a director nomination, is inspired by the 1979 hostage crisis in Tehran’s US Embassy.

The CIA helped six Americans escape the embassy, surrounded by revolutionary Islamist students. The other 52 captives had to remain in the embassy for 444 days, a terrifying incident that broke ties between Iran and America.

Hollywood, which shares a very close rapport with the White House, drove the political point even harder when in a highly hush-hush manner got the country’s First Lady, Michelle Obama, to present the Best Picture Oscar to Affleck, albeit via satellite from Washington.

The original plan was to sneak in Ms Obama through a backdoor at Dolby, but she just could not leave the White House that night because of a Governor’s ball. So the remote play was devised with actor Jack Nicholson on stage at Hollywood.

As Asia Times wrote: “Even in his wild, stoned to death, easy rider cuckoo times, Jack Nicholson would never have imagined he would one day tag team with the First Lady of the United States to present an Oscar for Best Picture.

“This is more Hunter S Thompson than Academy territory – and hardly presidential. But it did – beautifully – make the point about the marriage between Washington and Hollywood. If George Clooney marries Sudan (but not Palestine), why not Jack schmoozing with Michelle? What next? Obama sharing intel with Jessica Chastain (playing a CIA agent in Katherine Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty about the 10-year hunt for Osama Bin Laden)?”

Aptly concluded.

If Argo’s success underlined a sense of American upmanship, it angered Iran, which said the trophy implied political motivation rather than artistic merit.

In 2007, Hollywood had provoked Tehran’s wrath for having made a war epic, 300. It was a huge success in the US, a gory tale of Greco-Persian wars which showed Iranians as blood thirsting men.

Washington-Tehran ties seemed to mend a bit last year, when Iran won its first ever Oscar for A Separation in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

Argo has destroyed that. Or, so is the feeling in Iran.

India’s failure, China’s anger

Affleck’s movie – in which he also stars – narrates how a CIA team posing as a film unit fooled rebel Iranians during the hostage crisis, and it seems like poetic justice when the US and the other members of the United Nations Security Council as well Germany are  now discussing whether Iran is hoodwinking them about its nuclear programme.

That movie awards are ever so often political may by now cease to surprise, but I am still amazed by the jury’s decision to separate Best Picture from Best Director.

How is it that the Best Director ends up making a film which does not qualify to win the Best Picture Oscar, as we saw this year?

This year, Ang Lee was crowned Best Director for Life of Pi. Based on Yan Martel’s Booker Prize winning novel, the story revolves around an Indian family living in Puducherry and whose migration to Canada with a menagerie of animals (including a Royal Bengal Tiger) goes horribly wrong after a shipwreck on high seas.

For India, Lee’s victory must have come as some kind of consolation prize – after Bombay Jayashree lost out in the Best Original Song category to British singer Adele for her soulful rendition of the theme in James Bond’s Skyfall.

A nation which makes hundreds of films every year has never been able to mesmerise the 6,000 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters the way it has its billion plus people.

In the long history of the Oscars, only three Indian movies have been nominated in the Best Foreign Language Picture section – Mother India, Salaam Bombay and Lagaan. But none won the coveted the statuette.

So, India probably takes solace from films like Life of Pi, and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, which won eight Oscars in 2009, including those for Best Picture and Best Director. Based on Indian author Vikas Swarup’s Q & A, the plot unfolds in a Mumbai slum and stars Irrfan Khan, Anil Kapoor, Dev Patel and Frieda Pinto, who became an international celebrity overnight.

Lee — whose Life of Pi has Indian actors like debutant Suraj Sharma and Tabu — may be a hit internationally, but has not been a favourite in China. Although his Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which won the Best Foreign Picture Oscar, was hailed in China, his subsequent works angered Beijing. Particularly his Lust Caution, where a Communist agent betrays the party. Lee was forced to make several changes.

Life of Pi is not political at all, and may well repair Lee’s relations with the Chinese authorities.

The Oscars night threw up two surprises though. Austria’s Christoph Waltz, pitted against heavyweights like Denzel Washington, was adjudged the Best Supporting Actor for Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, and Jennifer Lawrence got the Best Actress Oscar for playing a neurotic character in Silver Linings Playbook.

In what was widely seen as an upset, she beat Jessica Chastain, perhaps a political snub for Bigelow whose Zero Dark Thirty portrays CIA’s gruesome torture methods.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is India Editor of FMT, and Chennai-based author, columnist and movie critic. He may be emailed at [email protected]


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