12 YEARS A HUSTLE: The Globes Define The Oscar Race

And then there were two...

On Sunday the Golden Globes help perpetuate the image conflict Hollywood is having this awards season…and it’s not a new one.

While, as usual with the Globes, there were some truly inspired surprise winners, like Spike Jonze’s Best Screenplay win for Her and Matthew McConaughey’s Best Actor victory for Dallas Buyers Club, the overall theme of the night was picking the favorites. Alfonso Cuarón deservedly won for his extraordinary work on Gravity. Oscar front-runners Cate Blanchett and Jennifer Lawrence also took home awards as did Leonardo DiCaprio and Amy Adams in the comedy category (but neither of them have a chance at the Oscars).

It was a fun night and delivered a few shocks, but what Sunday night ultimately did was reiterate the mantra that has been implicitly coming from the Guild nominations this year: The big Oscar showdown of 2014 will be between Globe Best Picture winners American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave. This isn’t news. It’s been the case for about a month now. But what’s interesting is that it’s a perfect film vs. film matchup to help define the conflict of how those in Hollywood want the public to perceive them and their industry.

The Golden Globes are a strange beast in this regard because every member is outside of Hollywood However, that doesn’t mean they don’t have an effect on Hollywood and Oscar voting. For a recent example, look at the 2009 Globes. That year Avatar won Best Drama and James Cameron won Best Director. It was the toast of Hollywood and becoming the new face of the industry. Gaudy praise was given to Cameron and his film for forever “changing the way we watch movies.” You remember all that? That was only four years ago, but it’s already kind of a big joke, right? It was the Oscar favorite up until the week of the awards show when chatter around town was that The Hurt Locker and Kathryn Bigelow were going to usurp it and take home the Academy’s two big awards.

It did and, in the process, Academy members made the public take notice as they celebrated an underachieving, independently-financed, but groundbreaking and critically-acclaimed war film over the Hollywood studio mega-blockbuster that became the highest-grossing film of all-time. Now, we’ll never truly know if this was a conscious decision by Academy members to make its community seem more embracing of non-commercial film, but I think it was and, if I’m right, it was definitely cemented with Avatar’s win at the Golden Globes.

Fast forward to today’s race, which is different than 2009 because both co-frontrunners, Hustle and 12 Years, won Best Picture, so there is no underdog, but it’s the same in terms of the Academy having the opportunity to help Hollywood frame itself into how it wants to be perceived by the public. Hustle is the fun pick and a definite, what I call, “movie movie”; it has a self-reflexive, postmodern style that makes its presence as a movie impossible to ignore. It has an all-star cast, is made by a respected director with a fantastic B.O. record over the past few years, and is loved by the critics. It’s the full package that delivers on all fronts and celebrates its overt, movie-centric sensibility.

Compared to it, 12 Years feels like an obligatory piece of historic cinema. It’s a movie you “need to” and “should” watch, while Hustle is one you “want to” watch. 12 Years is technically and artistically great, but it’s far from any conventional definition of entertainment. Last year the Academy found a perfect antidote to dealing with this problem with Argo because it was entertaining, but also serious. This year Hustle ratchets up the entertainment to 11 and 12 Years makes Argo feel like a 3rd-grade history lesson. Where Argo was the safe bet for Hollywood, this year, like 2009, is an all-in type of deal.

This also isn’t a dissimilar race to 1998 when Shakespeare in Love ultimately beat Saving Private Ryan in a heated contest. That year had the Weinstein wildcard, which I think was a big reason Shakespeare won, but it also has to do a lot with how Hollywood wanted to be perceived. That win proved that as much as the Academy wanted film to be taken seriously as a high art form, they also have a love affair with themselves. And movies like Shakespeare in Love, which plays like a thinly veiled satire of the industry, was a perfect fit. It was about Hollywood and had the prestige of Shakespeare without all the harsh drama. Saving Private Ryan was technically great and historically significant, but it felt like a movie you “had to” see instead of one you “want to” see.

Now, 15 years later, the Golden Globes have made sure that Hollywood faces the same identity crisis again. It will be interesting to see which side wins out.