George Clooney has lost Oscar races before. In the past decade, he’s been passed over four times (twice for Best Actor and once apiece for Best Director and Best Screenplay). While he has reigned atop the pyramid of Hollywood glamour as perhaps the most critically praised, most well-liked mainstream actor currently working, Clooney’s trophy case boasts a lone statuette in the leading man’s consolation prize category of Best Supporting Actor (for Syriana).
This year, however, was to have been his. Clooney’s rich and nuanced performance in the critically-lauded film The Descendants earned him raves across the board. Not only that, at the race’s open, the Best Actor field was seen as the weakest of the major categories. Fellow It’s-Their-Turners were up for parts in movies that were perceived as either too light (Moneyball for Brad Pit) or outright disasters (J. Edgar for Leonardo DiCaprio). And so, by Christmas, a consensus had settled among the Oscar punditry that the prize was Clooney’s for the asking--game over, hand the Oscar to George.
A month and a half later, Clooney is the odds on favorite to lose. To a Frenchman whose name even now is unknown to most of Earth, who gave a mannered, non-vocal performance. As the Oscar ballots are being counted, Jean Dujardin is the heavy favorite to win the Best Actor prize. Clooney’s sensitive, complex performance seems like to join his growing list of also-rans in Oscar’s eyes.
So how did this happen? How did Clooney’s Oscar lock collapse in just a few short weeks?
The answer points right back at the question, at the unbearable otherworldliness of the Oscars punditing class that spends half a year attempting to predict the whims of 5000 Hollywood insiders. While fortunes may change, we are faced with the basic truth that two months ago, the people who spend their lives predicting the Academy Awards (this writer included) were unanimously saying that George Clooney was guaranteed to win the award. In a presidential election, fortunes may change, but generally they are driven by events–a new candidate gets a flurry of attention, someone has a poor debate performance, a scandal emerges, a primary is held and somebody wins. Momentum rises and falls responding to the news cycle. And at every step of the way, there are dozens of polls taken to confirm which way the wind is blowing.
In the Oscar race, however, there is nothing: no primaries, no polls, the candidates are forbidden by Academy rules from even campaigning for the awards. In between the time when George Clooney was a lock on the Oscar and when Clooney passed the tipping point to likely to lose the Oscar, exactly nothing has happened and zero hard facts emerged.
So either the pundits were completely wrong two months ago when they said he going to win, or they are wrong now when they say he is very likely to lose. In other businesses, pundits can be and very often are wrong, but they have changing events to point to, unforeseen factors entering the fray that can excuse their shortsightedness. The Oscar race, however, offers very few mitigating circumstances to excuse a pundits’ failure. Grasping at straws is in an Oscar pundit’s entire job description.
While these changing whims of the punditry may seem absurd, their final predictions may also, paradoxically, be correct. While the Academy postures itself as the ultimate arbiter, saying its preferences are not susceptible to grubby campaigning or the influence of interlopers (unlike the Golden Globes), this year’s race makes clear more than ever how susceptible the Academy members are to the changing winds of public opinion, and how those outside events--festivals, other awards shows–may in fact be very capable of herding even the members of the elite Academy down a particular path.
What doomed George Clooney’s Oscar lock was a tidal wave of enthusiasm, growing into a veritable juggernaut, for The Artist, which has become Oscar’s surest thing for Best Picture in a decade. Like a snowball rolling downhill, The Artist gained momentum as the season progressed and a credible challenger failed to emerge; first, it ranked high on the year-end lists of some of America’s most influential mainstream critics, the types who generally fall in sync with Oscar whims. Then it went on to pick up award after award on the circuit, from the BAFTAs to the Golden Globe for Best Musical/Comedy, becoming the absolute prohibitive favorite to roll to victory in the top category.
But along the path of The Artist’s, a funny thing happened in the Best Actor race. Suddenly, in what was supposed to be a cake walk for Clooney, with only token opposition from Brad Pitt, another face appeared. Swept along in The Artist tsunami, its leading man, the heretofore unheard of in the United States Jean Dujardin, began picking up acting awards as well. Little by little, people began to notice that the star of this universally beloved film (in Los Angeles, that is, if little seen anywhere else) was becoming a serious contender in the field, and with his easy charm and good humor adding to the novelty factor, he was becoming one of the most eagerly looked for faces in the crowd and at the podium on these awards nights.
And then the coup de grace: While the predictive power of the widely-hyped Globes has proven inconsistent, the Screen Actors Guild Awards come very close to being an exact predictor of Oscars’ acting categories. For the past seven years, every acting Oscar winner has first taken home the SAG. So when lightning struck on January 30 and Dujardin won the best acting prize, the pundits raced to revise their previous iron-clad predictions and the story turned overnight from a Clooney rout to Dujardin’s unstoppable momentum.
So why, sitting atop the awards pyramid, do the Academy members feel obliged to go along with all this bluster? Why can’t Oscar simply ignore the Globes, the BAFTAs, the SAGs, and the critics and vote for the film or the actor that they just happen to like? In particular, why wouldn’t that happen when the actor is as much a fixture as Clooney, who this year has broken out of his previous aloofness toward the Oscar race and made appearances around town at events, campaigning for the film and the award?
Well, Hollywood, the place where, famously, no one knows anything, is, for all its protestations to the contrary, a town built on hype, and thus more susceptible to hype than perhaps any other community on Earth. Oscar pundit Tom O’Neil put it bluntly, “Hollywood likes to be with the winner.” And more than that, they certainly don’t like to be with the loser. (Underdog, yes. Loser, never.) So when the momentum builds toward a conclusion, the breeze does not have to be that strong to sweep Academy voters along with it. And, unfortunately for George Clooney, signs strongly suggest he is going to have to wait for another year and another part as strong as his in The Descendants for the wind to blow his way.