The front-runner in this year's Oscar race is, by a narrow margin, "The Artist," a stylish French-made drama about a silent movie star at the dawn of the talkies that has virtually no dialogue and is shot in black and white. If it wins the Oscar for best picture, it will join a bevy of recent winners, such as "The King's Speech," "The Hurt Locker" and "Crash," that earned their statuettes for being the epitome of what Hollywood's ruling class of academy voters viewed as high art.
The academy is so obsessed with artistry and seriousness of purpose that some of the best-made films of the year -- "Super 8," "Contagion" and "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" -- aren't even remotely considered serious best picture contenders, despite representing Hollywood filmmaking craft of the highest order. It's hardly a stretch to say that every moment of David Fincher's work on "Dragon Tattoo" is as vivid and absorbing as anything he did on best picture nominee "The Social Network" last year, yet "Dragon Tattoo," largely because of its subject matter, has none of the Oscar buzz of "Social Network."
What's going on here? To understand how the Oscars went from rewarding craft to celebrating art, we need to take a time machine back to the earliest days of the awards. The Oscars were invented as a way to highlight the importance of craft and good workmanship in movies. This intent was especially clear at the first award ceremony in 1929, when separate Oscars were handed out, one for best picture, which went to William Wellman's "Wings," and one for most unique and artistic picture, which went to F.W. Murnau's "Sunrise."
Wellman's film, a box-office smash, was crammed with rousing flyboy action, whereas Murnau's was full of hauntingly beautiful images. They were so radically different that the academy felt it could do them justice only by handing out separate awards. Needless to say, this never happened again. In 1930, as the country slid into a grim Depression, the only statuette for best picture went to "The Broadway Melody," a lighthearted backstage romance.
It's no surprise that the best artistic trophy was a one-time deal. At a time when moviegoers looked to showbiz for succor, the industry quickly decided to celebrate its strength -- its often wondrous craft. For years, critics have marveled at the bevy of brilliant films made in 1939, including "Stagecoach," "Only Angels Have Wings," "Ninotchka" and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," to name a few. But the Oscar? It went to "Gone With the Wind." Fabulous craft and spectacle easily trumped artistry.
If you asked critics today to name the greatest film of 1956, it would be, hands down, John Ford's "The Searchers." But it was roundly ignored at Oscar time, when the best picture contenders included such handsomely made but totally forgettable fluff as "The King and I," "The Ten Commandments" and (the eventual winner) "Around the World in 80 Days."
And then everything changed. By the late 1960s, the studio system had collapsed as the counterculture swept the nation, finally infiltrating Hollywood, which was suddenly populated with young pot-smoking, Nehru-jacketed hipsters. The pivotal year was 1969, when "Midnight Cowboy," a seamy, initially X-rated walk on the wild side starring the young Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight, swept the awards, beating out the likes of "Hello, Dolly!" and "Anne of the Thousand Days." All of a sudden, art was more highly valued than craft, largely because, to a new generation of auteurs and rebels, it represented a clean generational break with the cobwebby craft of studio elders.
Today we take it for granted that art is everything. But for the first 40 years of Oscardom, craft was king. Today, if a film is viewed as a big-budget entertainment, it doesn't have a hope of scoring any gold outside of the technical awards, which is why even a film as dazzling as "The Dark Knight" was shut out of the big picture race.
I guess that's why it's hard to imagine any award season glory for "Dragon Tattoo" or "Contagion." If a film doesn't wear its Oscar pedigree on its sleeve, at trophy time, it is surely doomed to go home empty-handed.