When 72-year-old actress Ruth Gordon, with half a century of show business behind her, collected her Oscar for "Rosemary's Baby" in 1969, her wry acceptance speech -- "I can't tell you how encouraging a thing like this is" -- did more than bring down the house.
Gordon expressed, likely without even meaning to, a fundamental truth about the Oscars. Often derided for the endemic silliness that inevitably surrounds them, the Academy Awards validate, they authenticate, they put an authoritative stamp of approval on people and films. More than anything, they powerfully encourage the work of the winners.
Paradoxically, it's often the people outside the Hollywood system who understand this best. People like the great Polish director Andrzej Wajda. As the maker of elegantly serious films such as "Kanal," "Ashes and Diamonds" and "Man of Marble," Wajda should be immune to Oscar's charms. Yet it was crystal clear, when I interviewed him in 2000 on the occasion of his honorary Oscar, that this award meant an enormous amount to him because of the recognition it conveyed, not only for his work, but also for an entire nation's cinema.
So when I look over this year's best picture nominees and think about which film I want to win tonight and why, I am doing more than indulging my personal taste. As Wajda understood, each film represents more than itself, it represents a way of working in the movie world. When studios or their specialty divisions decide which serious films to splurge on, when they greenlight ventures that have little chance of having a "Meet the Spartans" kind of opening weekend, they want to feel that at the very least they have the zeitgeist of the community and the respect of their peers behind them.
In a trend that has grown more marked over time in prestige categories like best picture, the present and former Hollywood employees who decide on the nominees display a genial disregard for the bread and butter pictures like "Pirates of the Caribbean" that pay the bills and keep the studios afloat. Especially noteworthy this time is that many of the best picture nominees are actually among the best films of the year. So making a choice among this year's candidates is especially difficult because it means deciding among different kinds of good things.
What they represent
There are even good things to be said about "Juno," though they don't involve the film's smug and fatally self-satisfied original screenplay. Although it is the weakest of the five candidates, a victory for this film would validate the notion that small, unheralded pictures can still make themselves heard in both the marketplace and the battle for cinema's biggest prize. Going as far back as "Marty's" victory for 1955 and the original "Rocky" for 1976, a triumph for the little film that could is a powerfully encouraging thing. Look what it did for Sylvester Stallone.
No one who's seen "There Will Be Blood" can have the slightest doubt as to what a best picture Oscar for it would be supporting. Though star and likely best actor winner Daniel Day-Lewis is the film's irreplaceable public face, this film stands in plain sight as a tribute to the cinematic virtuosity of writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson.
Anderson, a modern cinematic visionary, is happiest when he is out on the aesthetic edge, using a ferocity of approach to involve audiences in disturbing, difficult narratives. If "There Will Be Blood" were to win, it would validate the "one genius, one film" approach to moviemaking that goes at least as far back as Orson Welles and "Citizen Kane."
Similarly, a victory for "Atonement" would strike a blow for a very specific and easily recognizable kind of filmmaking: the full-bore, British-accented romantic epic. A rich, old-fashioned love story spun out of modern psychology and post-modern storytelling, "Atonement's" decades-long, war-torn examination of love, pain, betrayal and, yes, atonement, has the kind of expansive sweep that brings antecedents such as "Doctor Zhivago" and "The English Patient" to mind.
Though audiences claim to long for this kind of film, they don't always patronize it, and "Atonement's" disappointing under-$50-million domestic gross is a case in point. A best picture victory would legitimize serious romantic cinema at a time when its existence is in jeopardy as well as encourage slackers in the audience pool to get on the case.
Perhaps the most interesting point to be made about "No Country for Old Men," generally considered the favorite to take home the best picture prize, is that it is hard to say exactly what voters would be supporting if they picked it. It's a career achievement vote for the gifted and hard-working Coen brothers as well as a vote for old-fashioned filmmaking craft, for a picture that is such a model of faultlessly constructed, implacable storytelling that you can't stop watching it even though you very much wish you could.