Style? …or Substance?

It’s been a little while, but the victory of “The King’s Speech” over “The Social Network” at the Academy Awards in February for Best Picture and Best Director has gotten us thinking: is there such a thing as a ‘style over substance’ bias at the Oscars?

The Academy Award Best Picture victory of “The King’s Speech” (along with Best Director, Tom Hooper, as well as best original screenplay by David Seidler) over its notable competitor “The Social Network,” directed by David Fincher (although “The Social Network”‘s screenplay, adapted by Aaron Sorkin from Ben Mezrich’s book, also won), says a lot about Academy voters. They like an underdog, it seems, even when the Directors’ Guild or the Writers’ Guild feel otherwise. Stylish films (or films which emphasize direction over story) from first-time directors have scuttled Oscar hopes for master director Martin Scorsesetwice. And other great directors (ever heard of Steven Spielberg? Stanley Kubrick?) have had their hopes dashed by ‘flashy’ entrants in the Oscar race.

 

This Year’s Model

It’s not hard to see why “The King’s Speech” won the Best Picture Oscar over “The Social Network,” since Toby Hooper’s ‘Speech’ is playful, studied and gimmicky. Audiences love that in a movie, and the Academy, despite their above-average member age, usually loves audience favorites. Besides, the story behind David Seidler’s truth-based script is practically a movie on its own: a stutterer himself, Seideler got the Queen Mother’s permission to write her husband’s story, on the condition that he wait until after her death to sell it – and she then proceeded to live to the ripe old age of 101! (In the process, Seidler became the oldest winning screenwriter in Academy Award history.)  Sorkin’s adaptation of Ben Mezrich’s book “The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal” served as the basis of Sorkin’s adaptation, “The Social Network,” under David Fincher’s direction. Although both pictures were nominated for Best Picture, screenplay and director, Fincher’s coolly calculated, challenging evocation of the Silicon Valley start-up explosion and birth of Facebook lost out to Hooper’s frenetic and occasionally slapstick historical tale. Although both pictures did well at the box office, it’s a good bet that 20 years from now more people will be citing the influence of Fincher’s work in “The Social Network” (or his previous film “Zodiac,” which similarly evoked a recent period setting with astonishing effect) than will be pointing to “The King’s Speech” and its effect on film. 

Freshman curse?

It sure seems like veteran film director Martin Scorsese has been the victim of this Academy ‘Style vs. Substance’  bias. Multiple times. He finally got his Best Director Oscar in 2007 for “The Departed,” but was nominated (and, of course, lost) 6 times previously. I was at the Academy Awards in 1981 when Scorsese lost to the first of three first-time directors, Robert Redford, who won for “Ordinary People” over Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” (argued by many cinephiles to be the best film of the 80s). Scorsese would go on to lose (with “Goodfellas”) to Kevin Costner and “Dances with Wolves” in 1990, and again to first-time feature director Rob Marshall, whose “Chicago” beat “The Aviator” in 2005. It was only after his 7th nomination, for “The Departed,” that Scorsese defeated this ‘freshman curse.’ Even still, his ‘loser’ films like “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Raging Bull” and “Gangs of New York” are considered ‘winners’ in the pages of film history.

Always the Bridesmaid…

 Martin Scorsese isn’t alone in terms of being a powerhouse director with an empty shelf full of near-misses at the Oscar ceremony. Steven Spielberg has been nominated 9 times, and won three of those Oscars (he won for Best Picture and Best Director in 1994 for “Schindler’s List,” but in 1998 had to settle for Best Director only for “Saving Private Ryan”). The Oscar for Best Picture of 1998 went to John Madden’s “Shakespeare in Love,” which many in Hollywood attributed to a savvy “For Your Consideration” Academy Award trade publication advertising campaign. Again, regardless of “Shakespeare in Love”‘s wit and frothiness, its importance to film history is bound to be overshadowed by its losing Best Picture competitor “Saving Private Ryan.”

How about Light versus Dark?

Although 2010’s Best Picture battle underscored the ‘style versus substance’ debate in Hollywood, it’s really nothing new. The Academy has been choosing between light entertainment and heavy drama since its inception. In 1951, Elia Kazan’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” lost to “An American in Paris” at the box office. Vincente Minnelli’s popular musical film beat Kazan’s gritty drama that year (although Kazan – and ‘Streetcar’ star Marlon Brando – would win golden statuettes a few years later for their work together on “On the Waterfront” ). A similar situation would arise 14 years later when “My Fair Lady” faced down “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb” as Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 1965. Despite its vaunted place in film history (and multiple Oscar nominations), Stanley Kubrick’s apocalyptic black comedy lost to George Cukor’s refined adaptation of the Lerner and Loewe classic, which practically swept the 1965 Oscar ceremony. Even still, I don’t know of many people whose ‘desert island movie collection’ would leave out ‘Dr. Strangelove.’ Can’t say I know a lot of people who would include ‘My Fair Lady,’ either, but that’s just me…

Doesn’t visionary count? 

Finally, one of the more obvious ‘style over substance’ choices for Best Picture has to come from 1976, in which heavyweight Hollywood dramas “All the President’s Men,” “Bound for Glory,” “Taxi Driver” (there’s that hapless Scorsese again!) and the late Sidney Lumet’s classic “Network” (from Paddy Chayefsky’s original Oscar-winning screenplay) all lost to John Avildsen’s “Rocky,” which clealy struck a chord with underdog-lovers everywhere. A tremendously-successful independent film, “Rocky” spawned five sequels.  “Network,” on the other hand, predicted the rise of reality TV, ratings wars and global media, not to mention airwave-hogging ideologues. So there is that

Who says it’s just style or substance?

While discussing the subject of style versus substance, a friend asked an intriguing question: “Why is it that so many writers or filmmakers do their best work at a young age?”

So – coming up next: ‘Nature versus Nurture: Creativy or Experience?’ 

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