All You Need to Know Before You Watch This Year's Oscars

From the Woody Allen controversy to the chances of a Palestinian Oscar - a guide to the awards ceremony.

Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

To paraphrase Bob Hope, welcome to the 86th Academy Awards – or as it’s known in the Israeli film industry this year, Passover. When the Oscars are handed out on Sunday evening (very early Monday morning, local time), the only Israeli in contention will be London-based Niv Adiri, for his sound-mixing work on “Gravity” (what – you thought it mixed itself?).

Adiri and his colleagues are considered a shoo-in for an Oscar, with “Gravity” on course to pull in all the technical awards – in other words, the bits of the live broadcast that everybody half watches, until the “proper” awards start being dished out.

Except that this year, the awards ceremony is in danger of spinning over the heads of many potential viewers, much like Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in Alfonso Cuaron’s space thriller. That’s if you believe a Reuters/Ipsos poll this week, which revealed that two-thirds of all Americans have yet to see any of the nine movies nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.

It’s a worrying statistic for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, whose earnest efforts to stage the greatest show on earth always seem to be undermined by, well, sound mixing award-winners’ speeches and oddly chosen hosts. (Thanks for your demographic boost last year, host Seth MacFarlane, but please shut the door on your way out and take that anti-Semitic teddy with you.)

For those who have been following movie events these past 12 months, the biggest question this year is whether voters will follow their heads or arts. Will the visually stunning 3-D extravaganza “Gravity” (aka, “The Woman Who Fell to Earth”) triumph over Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” and claim the (most coveted) Best Picture prize?

The British director’s stark drama tells the shocking, true story of Solomon Northup, a black American musician who was abducted in 1841 and sold into slavery. Hilarity does not ensue as McQueen conveys, in brutal detail, a narrative that has long been absent from cinema screens. It’s a movie that’s impossible not to respect or be moved by, but, as with McQueen’s previous works, it’s hard to love.

Experts say it’s too close to call, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see “12 Years” take Best Picture, while Mexican filmmaker Cuaron gets the consolation prize of Best Director.

If you’ve been orbiting the planet these past few months, you may have missed the biggest shadow being cast over this year’s Academy Awards: Dylan Farrow’s repeated assertion that she was sexually abused in 1992, when she was 7, by her adopted father, Woody Allen.

The accusations and counter-accusations were played out in the pages of The New York Times, initially triggered by the Golden Globes’ decision last autumn to honor Allen with a lifetime achievement award. When his latest movie, “Blue Jasmine,” received three Oscar nominations – including one for Allen himself for Best Original Screenplay – things got really ugly, with stars Cate Blanchett and Alec Baldwin having to untangle themselves from the increasingly barbed situation.

Despite the scandal, it’s impossible not to see Blanchett claiming the Best Actress in a Leading Role award for her stunning performance as a modern-day Blanche Dubois, always dependent upon the blindness of strangers (and family) who overlook her troubled ways. Luckily for the Academy, Allen has always been a no-show at awards ceremonies, so no further drama should unfold Sunday night. The incident, however, will have forewarned them about the perils of bestowing any lifetime honors of their own on the 78-year-old writer-director.

Uncannily similar plot

As luck wouldn’t have it, one of the contenders in the Best Foreign Language Film category is “The Hunt,” about an upstanding family man whose life falls apart when he is accused of sexually abusing a young girl at a kindergarten. The powerful Danish drama is vying with films from Italy (“The Great Beauty,” favored to win), Belgium, Cameroon and, famously, Palestine – the latter a second Oscar nomination for both that nation and for writer-director Hany Abu-Assad.

His first nomination was for “Paradise Now” (2005), about two suicide bombers planning an attack on Israel, and the current is for “Omar.” This is a thriller with an uncannily similar plot to the unsuccessful Israeli contender in this category, “Bethlehem” - albeit told from the other side of the separation fence (where “Bethlehem” focuses on an Israeli operative and his relationship with his Palestinian informant, “Omar” is about a Palestinian duped into becoming an informant for an Israeli agent).

Best Foreign Language Film is one of the hardest awards to predict, but if “Omar” does win, the political message – especially given the Academy’s still-strong Jewish membership – really will be a shot heard all around the world.

Of course, the real message the Academy Awards is sending around the world is that, while every nation can make movies, no one else can offer the glamor, glitter and sparkle of Tinseltown. And if you think the Oscars aren’t a celebration of Hollywood first and movies a distant second, take a look at the list of Best Picture winners over the years. It’s no coincidence that the only French winner of the top prize is “The Artist” (2011), a silent movie that pays homage to Hollywood.

This year’s ceremony will be hosted, for the second time, by Ellen DeGeneres. And, tellingly, its main theme will be a celebration of movie heroes, including those superheroes who take over our cinemas every summer.

Indeed, these “four-quadrant” movies (those appealing to all ages, basically) are these days the Hollywood studios’ best – some would say, only – bet for conquering the four corners of the planet. That’s an increasing concern for the Hollywood studios, especially after ticket sales declined in the United States last year, and as China stands poised to usurp America as the world’s biggest movie market within the decade. China currently boasts the second-biggest global market, followed by Japan, and both countries favor locally produced movies over most Hollywood fare. However, the U.S. movies they do see in large droves tend to involve conflicted, caped crusaders and teenagers who’ve been bitten by arachnids.

This increasing need to showcase Hollywood blockbusters was one of the driving forces behind the decision, in 2009, to increase the number of Best Picture nominees from five to as many as 10 (the last two years have seen nine nominees, although none could be described as a true blockbuster). Although that decision hasn’t widened the appeal of this year’s nominees (as those polled Americans earlier tend to confirm), it has helped to champion the overall health of the industry.

Regarding this year’s nominees – “American Hustle,” “Captain Phillips,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Gravity,” “Her,” “Nebraska,” “Philomena,” “12 Years a Slave” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” – most critics would probably agree that 2013 was a good year for film (especially when you consider that the likes of “Blue Jasmine,” “Inside Llewyn Davis” “All is Lost,” “Fruitvale Station,” “Rush” and “Prisoners” were all overlooked).

Of course, contrast those with the most-viewed movies of the year – the ones that sound like a particularly good soccer game: “Iron Man 3,” “Fast & Furious 6” – and you can see why many people support the notion that movies, frequently rated in terms of their relatively lowbrow, mainstream appeal, have been superseded by television as the most artistically creative medium of our time (although if this really is a golden age for television, why are there so many Kardashians on our screens?)

What U.S. cable and satellite companies (the Internet, too, if you include Netflix) have done in recent years is offer a home to the talent that previously worked on the type of movies Hollywood isn’t interested in making any more: the bigger budget movies aimed at smart audiences that are a hard sell overseas and, increasingly, at home, too. For example, David Fincher worked on the $100 million Neflix series “House of Cards” after directing the $90 million movie “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” based on the first of trilogy of books by Steig Larsson: The former has just been renewed for a third season, but a big question mark hangs over the sequels to the latter.

All this has worked in the actors’ favor. When academy members vote for Matthew McConaughey as Best Actor in a Leading Role for “Dallas Buyers Club,” they’re probably also factoring in his sensational performance as Rust Cohle in the HBO series “True Detective.” If he beats British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (“12 Years a Slave”) to the Oscar, it’ll be his body – of recent work – that voters are celebrating.

Yet the TV/movie divide still remains. Out of the 20 actors nominated this year, it’s interesting to note that only two made their mark in television – Jared Leto in “My So-Called Life” and Bradley Cooper in “Alias”

Out of the 20 actors nominated this year, it’s interesting to note that only two made their mark in television – “Dallas Buyers Club” star Jared Leto in “My So-Called Life” and “American Hustle” costar Bradley Cooper – although, in all fairness, you may spend half of “The Wolf of Wall Street” trying to recall what series you’ve seen its supporting cast in (“The Walking Dead,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Raising Hope” and “Pan Am,” among many others). The other nominees are, for the most part, “movie actors” who only appear on small screens when you watch them on your iPhone.

Most of the presenters at the ceremony will be Stars with a capital “s” – Brangelina, De-Lewis (which is how we would have to refer to Robert De Niro and Daniel Day-Lewis if they ever surprised us with a civil union), Bill Murray (ask your parents), Kim Novak (ask your grandparents). And funnily enough, two of the biggest breakout TV stars of recent years – Kerry Washington (“Scandal”) and Benedict Cumberbatch (“Sherlock”) – will also be in attendance, because there’s no better way of boosting your international profile than appearing at the Academy Awards. (Not always for the better, as James Franco learned when co-hosting with Anne Hathaway in 2011 – or as comedian Jeff Ross later put it, “The Academy should have known that when you combine Anne Hathaway and James Franco, you get Anne Franco, which makes sense since you should have gone into hiding after that.”

There will be some very poignant moments on Sunday, especially given the recent death of Philip Seymour Hoffman from a suspected drug overdose. Expect an outpouring of grief from his peers. Another sad moment will arrive if, as expected, “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life” wins Best Documentary Short. Malcolm Clarke’s touching 40-minute film is about Alice Herz-Sommer, the world’s oldest living Holocaust survivor who died earlier this week, aged 110.

An estimated 40 million U.S. viewers are expected to watch on Sunday evening (an impressive number, until you remember that 57 million watched in 1997, the year of “Titanic”). Some will be tuning in to see U2 and Pharrell Williams perform live, others to see how new[WHY NEW?] “queen of daytime” Ellen DeGeneres compares with Golden Globes hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, and still others to see if “12 Years a Slave” defies “Gravity.”

Your correspondent, however, will be watching mainly to see how they manage to find family-friendly clips of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” a three-hour tale of debauchery featuring almost as many lines of cocaine as lines of profanity-strewn dialogue.

The 86th Academy Awards will be broadcast on HOT Gold and Yes 1, live from the red carpet at 2:00 A.M. local time, with the ceremony beginning at 3:30 A.M.

An Oscar statuette is displayed at the "Meet the Oscars" exhibit at Grand Central Station in New York in this February 23, 2011 file photo.Credit: Reuters

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