Academy members vote with their hearts, critics with their heads

Par for the course on Oscar nomination day, critics are lambasting the academy for overlooking such gems as “The Rider,” “Leave No Trace” and “Private Life,” all directed by women, while nominating such odd bedfellows for Best Picture as “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Vice,” the Marvel sci-fi fantasy “Black Panther” and even “A Star is Born.”

As both a film critic and a journalist covering the Oscars for decades, I get their frustration but have only this to say to them, you don’t get it.

There is kind of an assumption that because members of the academy work in the industry that their tastes would be more refined than the person sobbing at the end of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “A Star is Born.”

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Yeah, many of them do have critically refined tastes and there are plenty of past Oscar nominees and winners to prove the point. But what critics of the system don’t understand, or just don’t believe, is that most academy members – like their ticket-buying customers — filter pictures through their hearts and not their heads.

I saw “Bohemian Rhapsody” long after it had been panned by critics for its superficial account of Freddie Mercury’s life and its failure to address the AIDS issue more directly. But when the movie ended, with a virtual dramatic recreation of Queen’s 21-minute set at the Live Aid Concert in London, I knew it was going to be nominated.

You can watch Queen’s actual Live Aid performance on You Tube, but for most people, they are seeing it – lipsynched and physically impersonated by actors – for the first time in the movie and it is emotionally exhilarating. Whoever conceived the idea of ending the film on that note sealed its box office and Oscar fate.

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If an enduring love of Queen and rock legend Mercury lifted the film above its pandering hagiography, something like hate earned the freakishly uneven “Vice” its bounty of eight nominations, including in virtually every major category. It could win this thing.

From the day it was announced that Adam McKay, an Oscar nominee for both writing and directing “The Big Short,” was going to make a political send-up of the Bush administration and its resident Dr. Evil, Dick Cheney, it was high on every Cheney hater’s watch list.

Like many critics, I was disappointed in the result. Christian Bale’s phenomenal portrayal of Cheney aside, the movie leaps from drama to farce to political commentary to Saturday Night Life sketch comedy like a cricket with sore feet. And that really undermines its own mission – to shine a light on the vice president who would be king.

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It’s hard to assess performances when there’s really nothing to them other than caricature. The only explanation for Sam Rockwell’s cocktail party impersonation of Bush getting nominated over just about everybody else mentioned is that, in this story and in most Hollywood folks’ memory, a supporting actor (Rockwell to Bale) playing a supporting actor (Bush to Cheney) was just too rich to ignore.

As for the critics’ pets that were shut out, it’s a case of samo-samo. With occasional exceptions, academy voters consider the movies they’ve heard or read most about, not from critics sending up smoke signals from yonder bluff, but from their peers in the guilds, in the ads in their trade papers, and in the award shows parading across their OLED TV screens.

It’s a perennial reminder that the Academy Awards were created to promote Hollywood movies, and though what defines Hollywood movies has expanded from “studio” pictures, academy voters still know one when they see it.

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