Tonight, Hollywood officially turned its back on its king. Again. The triumph of Argo in the Best Picture race, snatching victory from the jaws of Lincoln brings Steven Spielberg’s win-loss record to a dismal one victory in seven at bats for entertainment’s biggest prize. And tonight, not only did he lose out on the Best Picture prize that once seemed his, but the consolation prize of Best Director, the category in which Argo’s Affleck was not even nominated, was also snatched away and handed to Life of Pi’s Ang Lee.
For a man who is widely considered Hollywood’s godfather — who is in his unbelievable fifth decade at the top of the heap, who has reigned untouchable since before many of today’s young directors were born — facing up to yet another defeat at the hands of his people starts to look like a clear and consistent rebuff.
Worse still, Spielberg’s films are not just distant also rans. Most of his seven nominated films were at some point in their campaigns considered favorites to win the whole thing, making Spielberg the Academy’s Charlie Brown, forever having the football pulled away. This year in particular. for a brief moment between the Oscar nominations being announced and the Golden Globes, Spielberg’s Lincoln looked like a shoo-in to win the prize. Only to see Argo stage a last minute surge and steal its thunder again.
So to what do we attribute this ongoing snub? Chalk it up to Hollywood’s love/hate relationship with its greats. The number one thing Hollywood hates is failure. The sad fates of those who have fallen beneath the C list demonstrate every day how little empathy the town has for those who can’t soar with the eagles. But the number two thing Hollywood hates is success. Praying for the downfall of its mighty is practically the industry’s official religion.
Spielberg these days is such a venerable figure that one can easily forget his historically troubled history with the Academy. After receiving one for a Best Picture nominations for his first outing — Jaws, but then being denied for nearly a decade that followed, Oscar finally broken down and ponied up nods for E.T. — when it became the day’s highest grossing of all time — and Color Purple. But both those films still lost out on the grand prizes, and to add insult, he was shut out in Best Director category throughout the 70s and 80s as well.
After the Color Purple loss, Academy officials were so alarmed by the serial snubbing of Hollywood’s most successful director that they took the unheard of step of bestowing upon Spielberg at age 40 the Thalberg Lifetime achievement award, until then reserved for septuagenarians at the end of their careers. It wasn’t until seven years later, when he made a three hour holocaust film that Oscar finally couldn’t deny giving him their grand prize for Schindler’s List. But since then, it has been a 20 year sea of also-rans.
Of course, he hasn’t gone completely unrecognized. Eight Best Picture nominations is something most directors will never even dream of. Add to that, two Best Directing awards making him the most awarded director since William Wyler in the 1950’s.
But still, somehow the Best Picture prize keeps sliding from his grasp, and for a man at the top of Hollywood, to be the town’s perpetual also-ran in its biggest contest has to be galling.
In a town with — despite the disruptive presence of the internet — a fixed number of studios and a shrinking number of major releases, entertainment remains a zero-sum game. Celebrating the achievement of the man with a permanent position on top is never entirely in one’s best interest (unless you’re doing it to his face). And in a place where, as WIlliam Goldman famously put it, “no one knows anything” and everyone knows that they don’t know anything, seeing the mighty stumble does even the chaotic playing field a bit.
But even more to the point, as big a business as entertainment is, even as it stands as America’s #1 export, the residents of Hollywood still need to think of themselves as scrappy outsiders, the oppressed souls who fled the closed minds back in their small towns and came to a place where at last they could breathe the air of artistic freedom. The fact that this is the story of almost no one in modern Hollywood, dampens its power not a bit. Even as they drive their $50,000 hybrids paid for by CGI-explosion fests, Hollywood’s need to think of itself as The Oppressed Outsiders holds an undying power.
In choosing their Best Picture each year, the members of the Academy choose what story they want to tell the world about Hollywood. First there is the story the film tells on the screen; and in recent years these have become trended heavily towards the edgier, hipper end of the dead center of middlebrow filmmaking; Oscar has ceased awarding the schmaltzy Braveheart’s and Driving Miss Daisy’s that paint the industry as a place of uptight squares in favor of Slumdog Millionaire’s and Hurt Locker’s. Even a thriller like Argo is animated by a minimalist aesthetic that speaks to restrained, hipster sensibilities far more than the genre winners of a decade or two ago.
But more than the story on the screen, Oscar likes to tell a good story off the screen about the making of a film. And however contorted and difficult the journey of a Spielberg film to get to the multi-plex (and Lincoln did take thirteen years) in the end, “Billionaire Hollywood Titan Makes Good Movie”, is not a tale to inspire the unwashed masses.
On the awards trail this year, Ben Affleck ran circles around Spielberg playing up the gracious, just-happy-to-be-allowed-back comeback story. He showed up at all the events, was warm and self-deprecating. People who remembered how far he fell post-Gigli could not help but be touched by his redemption story. And when the empire seemed to be rubbing it in by shutting him out of the Best Director nominations, they rallied to his side. In contrast, Spielberg, as he always is when he gets into an Oscar race, went into a heavily managed bunker posture, limiting his appearances, keeping his interviews to few, appearing handled and protected at every turn.
The fact of the matter is that a heavily guarded, insulated oligarch is much closer to the true face of Hollywood than a vanquished actor giving one more chance to redeem himself, as an artist. But its not about what story is true, it’s about what story projects the way Hollywood would like to think of itself.
The shame of it is, the real Spielberg on the rare moments when he emerges from behind the palace gates is a wonderful story and a wonderful story teller. He has had a career like no other of his generation, has in his time taken enormous risks both as an artist and producer that have led to be triumphs and disappointments. He is responsible for a busload of films high and low destined to stand the test of time. And when he submits to interviews, he is warm, gracious, avuncular, undefensive and endlessly fascinating with five decades of filmmaking stories under his belt.
However, he is also, as this race shows again, all too willing to play the mighty mogul on high. And in the end, the fear that position inspires might keep him at the top of the industry, but as he has discovered once more, it doesn’t make Hollywood see him as its ambassador to the world.