Tim Grierson on the Six Ways That the Oscars Are Actually Better Than Political Campaigns


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Now that the presidential election is finally over, we can turn our attention to another never-ending campaign: Academy Award season. As we move closer to Thanksgiving, some of the potential Oscar front-runners have already been released — “Argo,” “Lincoln,” “The Master” — with a bunch more coming very soon. I’ve mentioned before that, despite the many reasonable objections to the contrary, I remain a fan of Oscar season, and as I reflect back on the political campaigns that have been waging over the last several months, I’ve noticed several instances in which Oscar campaigns are far more tolerable than the buildup to elections.

Let’s be clear: I’m not trying to minimize the importance of elections. As opposed to Oscar handicapping, they’re actually a meaningful part of our democracy that can shape the future of our country. But after enduring months of political ads and televised debates, I recognize that certain elements of awards season aren’t nearly as toxic. For that, we can be grateful.

Here are six ways in which the Oscars are better than elections:

1. They almost never go negative.

Most political campaigns, presidential or otherwise, spend a fair amount of time attacking the other candidate’s positions. You and I can grumble all we want about the mudslinging, but there’s a simple reason why both Democrats and Republicans keep doing it: Going negative works.

By comparison, Oscar campaigns almost entirely are based on the merit of a particular film or performance. The Academy Awards may be a tiresome parade of self-congratulatory fluff, but at least the trades and Oscar sites aren’t filled with ads where, say, Warner Bros. tries to pump up Ben Affleck’s Best Director credentials for “Argo” by bashing “Life of Pi” filmmaker Ang Lee. At least on the surface, there’s an appearance of civility about the whole thing. (And the times that there hasn’t, it’s been a bit ugly. The backers of “A Beautiful Mind” had to confront a whisper campaign that alleged that their movie wasn’t a worthy contender because its subject, mathematician John Nash, wasn’t the heroic figure that he was portrayed in the film. It ended up not working: “A Beautiful Mind” won four Oscars, including Best Picture.)

2. There’s not a two-party system.

Every election cycle, observers wonder if there will ever be a time when a viable third-party candidate challenges the two major, deep-pocketed political parties. But aside from the stray independent — like Angus King, who won a Senate seat in Maine — you’re normally stuck with just two choices when it comes to President of the United States.

Money matters in Oscar campaigning as well, of course — studios can spend much more than small indie companies — but at least the little guys have a chance in the major categories. In 2011, “Winter’s Bone” (from Roadside Attractions) benefited from there being 10 Best Picture slots, just like “Precious” (from Lions Gate) and eventually winner “The Hurt Locker” (from Summit) benefited in 2010. Granted, these smaller companies are still competing with the big boys — even so-called indies like Fox Searchlight and Focus Features are part of larger studios — but at least their movies get to be part of the conversation. If movies were like presidential elections, those smaller films would all be Gary Johnson, a third-party candidate who ran for president and got almost no attention.

Not that the Academy Awards aren’t narrow-minded in their own way. While Pixar has helped break the bias against animated movies for Best Picture, it’s still incredibly rare to see an action movie or a comedy in the running for the big prizes.

3. They don’t make you hate the thing they’re supposed to be covering.

Despite the importance of presidential elections, the ceaseless campaigning can’t help but foster a cynical attitude toward politics and politicians. That doesn’t happen with the Oscars. Like I’ve argued before, the Academy Awards may be little more than a popularity contest, but they still do stir debate about what constitutes great films. You may end up hating who wins the Oscars, but it doesn’t turn you off from the art form as a whole. (If anything, it maybe just makes you hate the Oscars.) But even then, there’s still a place for you: Perhaps you’re someone more closely aligned with the Spirit Awards or the different critics’ prizes. Political elections can inspire people to turn apathetic and become disinterested in the democratic process. By comparison, if you’re mad that the Academy loved “The Artist” so much, you’re not going to stop watching movies because of it.

4. They don’t reward the same people over and over again. (Well, maybe not quite as much.)

Like a lot of fields, politics definitely has a bias toward name recognition: George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush; Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton; Ron Paul and Rand Paul. It doesn’t guarantee you victory, but it definitely doesn’t hurt your chances. And it goes beyond famous families: Members of Congress are voted in again and again because their constituents are familiar with them, even if Congress gets abysmal approval ratings.

This familiarity goes on in Hollywood as well. A respected actress like Meryl Streep and an acclaimed screenwriter such as Woody Allen have been nominated plenty over the years. And being the daughter (Sofia Coppola) of a celebrated filmmaker (Francis Ford Coppola) has its advantages. But I’d argue that there’s more turnover in Oscar nominations and wins than there is at the polls. For one thing, once an actor or director wins an Oscar, they tend not to win ever again. Sure, Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, and Kevin Spacey and others have two for acting. And, granted, Steven Spielberg has two for directing. But when Oscar prognosticators start making their predictions, they tend to factor out nominees who have previously won, figuring that Academy members might want to reward a new face.

With that said, though, the Academy can still be a pretty complacent bunch, especially when it comes to technical fields. Sandy Powell and Colleen Atwood have each won three Oscars for Best Costume Design, and they’ve won all theirs within the last 13 years. Rick Baker has won seven Best Makeup Oscars in 30 years.

5. You can’t Nate Silver-ize them.

This year, one of the biggest stories in the presidential campaign was about Nate Silver, whose FiveThirtyEight blog had been stunningly accurate in predicting 49 of the 50 state outcomes in the 2008 election. Using a sophisticated mathematical analysis that took in to consideration different state polls, weighing their party bias and polling methods, Silver gave Barack Obama the edge to win this year’s election, despite considerable pushback from conservative commentators who argued that he was relying too much on statistics rather than intangibles such as gut feelings about each campaign’s momentum. (Additionally, they argued, polls don’t matter.)

Silver’s model was ultimately vindicated, but those who dismissed the statistician would probably love the Oscar horse race. Because the Academy doesn’t publish a list of its almost 5,800 members, it’s hard for news agencies to poll these individuals to see who they’re voting for. (Around the time of the broadcast, Entertainment Weekly will ask members of different branches of the Academy to reveal their ballot anonymously.) So, unlike Silver’s rigorous approach to crunching data, a lot of Oscar handicapping is an absolute crapshoot. Sure, there are patterns you can follow to make informed guesses — Silver did that himself a few years ago — but without much information about who these members even are, you can’t be sure exactly which way they’re leaning. (Plus, we never find out what the final vote total is.) We’re all going with our gut when it comes to picking the Oscars, and it does make for an exciting evening. Even if we think we know which performances and films will be crowned, there are always surprises.

6. In the end, the outcome doesn’t have any bearing on the real world.

When politicians run for office (or reelection), we the people decide who wins. (If we vote, that is.) That brings with it a responsibility that none of us should take lightly. You could argue, in fact, that it’s the most important thing we do as citizens.

By comparison, we have no control over the Oscars at all — unless, of course, you’re an Academy member who’s reading this. With a presidential election, you have a certain stake in the outcome, but when it comes to the Academy Awards, it’s all sport. That powerlessness is something of a relief, frankly. When the winners are announced on February 24, 2013, your and my life won’t change in any significant way. We’ll wake up the next morning and go about our day as we normally would. Having just gone through a contentious presidential election will hopefully give us all some perspective as Oscar season starts ramping up: There are bigger, more important contests going on in the world, and while art absolutely has its place, the handing out of little gold trinkets doesn’t mean all that much. Honestly, we’re lucky to live in a society that allows us the luxury of obsessing over such things as Oscars for months at a time. We should never take it for granted.


Road Trip!

Comedy Crib Offers a Few Ideas For Your Next Road Trip

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In Comedy Crib’s new series Does Dave Know We’re Here?, the gang arrives at Dave’s house and texts him to let him know that they’re waiting outside. Weirdly, though, he doesn’t come out to meet them. To kill time in the car until he’s ready, they decide to play a game. That’s when things get crazy.

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Technically, they decide to play lots of games and that’s when the show starts to feel like the modern day answer to Waiting for Godot. Will Dave ever come out? You’ll have to watch and find out. Now if you’ll excuse us, we’re going to learn how to play “Father Father Where’s Your Spoon?” for our next road trip.

at arrivals for PORTLANDIA Second Season Premiere on IFC, The American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY January 5, 2012. Photo By: Eric Reichbaum/Everett Collection

Carrie Loves Madonna?

5 Things We Learned About Carrie Brownstein From Her Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl Q&A

Get the scoop on Carrie's live book release event.

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Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl is out on shelves both physical and digital, and the book tour kicked off with a Q&A session for fans at the metal bar Saint Vitus in Brooklyn. Questlove from The Roots and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon joined the Portlandia star on stage to moderate a conversation before a huddled crowd holding their plastic cups filled with draft IPA. “It’s familiar to both of us,” Brownstein joked. “There’s no bathroom backstage…it’s very humbling.”

From Madonna to Portlandia, check out some highlights from the Brownstein-Questlove extravaganza.

1. Carrie and Questlove Are Now BFFs

Portlandia pregnant

After the Portlandia funny gal read a passage from the book, which follows her life in music with the band Sleater-Kinney, Questlove remarked how surprised he was to hear he would be accompanying her for this event. “I don’t know if growing up we’d be best friends, but I know that we’re the same person,” he said. As proof that they would totally be Bffs, Brownstein continued to say how the first thing they bonded over backstage was the TV series The Affair, which she said is so unrealistic because both stars are British. “Half of The Wire is British,” Questlove said.

2. She Has a Major Madonna Obsession

Carrie call me

Some of the topics discussed were Brownstein’s band experience, absorbing feminism through punk rock, taping pictures of Dennis Quaid and Mel Gibson to her wall, and — more impactful — her obsession with Madonna. “I remember sitting on my bed and crying because I’d never be friends with Madonna,” she said of her 10-year-old self. Brownstein still hasn’t met her, though Questlove only hesitated a moment before bragging about how the “Material Girl” is “kinda” his manager. Guess we know what to get Carrie for her birthday.

3. She Went Incognito at Traffic Class

Portlandia driving

You know that traffic class you have to take after you get a ticket? No? Well, Brownstein does, because she had to take one. Not only that, but she took it just after the season 2 premiere of Portlandia. As she said, this wasn’t even season 1 when most people didn’t know her name. She was quite recognizable at this point, so to ward off unwanted attention at driver’s ed she tried to disguise herself as best she could.

4. Music Is Her Lifeline

Portlandia cat nap

Things got a bit real when Questlove asked Brownstein whether she would be okay with the possibility of her acting career overshadowing her musical endeavors. He likened the subject to how most people recognize him as “Jimmy Fallon’s drummer” instead of everything else he does with The Roots or his writing. The short answer is yes. She said she wouldn’t do anything creative — music or otherwise — if she didn’t want her named associated with it. That said, music has and always will be her “lifeline.”

5. Shocker! She’s Not a Ben Carson Fan

Portlandia what are you

Things got even more real when a fan asked a question about politics. Brownstein said that the fact that Ben Carson, and many other presidential candidates, came out against abortion and Planned Parenthood is “madness” and also shared her thoughts on racism and police brutality. She also noted “a collective voice of dissent” and “people starting to be more connected,” especially on social media. To lighten the mood, Carrie then joked, “Let’s have another clothing question.”

For more Carrie quotes, check out her Tumblr Q&A and our live-tweet of the Brooklyn event.

Source Code Michelle Monaghan

Michelle Visits CB!B!

5 Michelle Monaghan Roles We Love

Michelle Monaghan stops by Comedy Bang! Bang! tonight at 11P ET/PT on IFC.

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Photo: Summit Entertainment/Courtesy Everett Collection

Here’s an interesting tidbit you might not know about Michelle Monaghan: when she was growing up, her parents also took in foster kids to their Winthrop, Iowa home. They raised a solid dozen of them over as many years, and we can’t help but think that being exposed to different people from so many circumstances helped Michelle build the empathy and eye for character that has made her one of our favorite actresses.

To get you ready for Michelle Monaghan’s appearance on this week’s Comedy Bang! Bang!, we put together an extremely biased list of her five best roles. Sorry, Pixels doesn’t make the cut.

5. Harmony Lane, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Shane Black’s demented Hollywood noir is on our short list for most underrated flick of all time. Not only did it bring Robert Downey Jr. back to the big screen as petty criminal turned unwitting detective Harry Lockhart, but it features possibly the best post-Iceman Val Kilmer performance of all time. The third player in the film’s triangle is Michelle Monaghan as Harmony Laine, Harry’s childhood friend all grown up. Harmony is the motor that drives the twisted story of lust and revenge, and she does a bang-up (pun intended) job walking the tightrope between small-town innocence and Los Angeles sleaze.

4. Diane Ford, Trucker


Plum Pictures

The 2008 indie Trucker might have flown beneath your radar, but you should check it out on Netflix because it’s one of Michelle Monaghan’s finest performances. She plays Diane Ford, a long-haul driver who finds her screwed-up life of getting blitzed and having one-night stands upended when her 10-year-old son comes back into her life. It’s a story that could easily get obvious and cliche, but first-time director James Mottern dodges dramatic pitfalls with the aid of his incredible lead, instead producing a deft character study that is very worth watching.

3. Maggie Hart, True Detective

Season one of the acclaimed HBO crime drama was aided by an incredible cast of actors, including Michelle Monaghan’s Maggie Hart. As one of the key female figures in a very male-dominated show, Maggie has to carry a lot of weight. When we found out halfway through that she’d cheated on her husband (Woody Harrelson) with Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle, it served as a new lens to examine their twisted relationship. It’s a challenging role that Monaghan rises to with aplomb.

2. Christina Warren, Source Code

Source code

The premise for the 2011 thriller Source Code is pretty ridiculous — a top secret military project gives Jake Gyllenhaal the ability to travel back in time and re-live the last eight minutes of somebody’s life over and over like the world’s worst Groundhog Day — but the end result is a damn fine film. Michelle Monaghan provides an important emotional anchor as Christina Warren, who Gyllenhaal’s character builds a deeper and deeper connection with every time he loops back. Without her, the whole premise would collapse, and the actress rises to the occasion ably.

1. Julia Meade, Mission: Impossible III


Paramount Pictures

Playing the romantic lead in a Tom Cruise-led spy actioner is a pretty thankless job, but director J. J. Abrams gave Monaghan plenty to chew on as Ethan Hunt’s fiancee Julia Meade in the third Mission: Impossible flick. Initially Julia starts out as a clueless damsel in distress, captured by arms dealer Owen Davian to compel Hunt to steal some Macguffin or other. But by the end of the film she’s up to speed with her fiance’s covert career, saves his life with an electric shock and even pops a cap in the ass of IMF traitor John Musgrave.


Wild Gigi

Gigi Goes Wild in a Video That’s Too Hot for Facebook

Catch Gigi uncensored Mondays at 10:30P on IFC.

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You may have heard of Bad Grandpa, but this video of Gigi uncut and uncensored would shock the dentures right out of his mouth

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Gigi may be a grandmother, but she’s not the stay home and knit doilies and bake cookies while sipping weak tea type. As anyone who has watched Gigi Does It can tell you, she’s more likely to knit a gimp mask and woo the dad jeans off of every grandpa in Boca without a thought for what the retirement community will think. She has a mouth that would make a sailor blush and isn’t afraid to use it.

Watch this supercut of Gigi’s finest bon mots and bad deeds, but be warned– Gigi is NSFW and Not Safe For Facebook, so crank up the volume at your own peril.

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