Martin Scorsese’s lavish 3-D fantasia Hugo hasn’t made much of a mark at the box office, grossing a mere $55 million domestically. The chipper silent-film homage The Artist was widely expected to be this year’s unexpected breakout smash — think Crouching Tiger or Slumdog Millionaire — but with a mere $12 million in its coffers so far, it’s looking more like the little crowd-pleaser that couldn’t. Nevertheless, those two movies lead the Oscar pack by a mile, with 11 nominations for Hugo and 10 for The Artist.
What gives? Let’s put aside actual quality for a second, because as with every year, some great films were not nominated and some of the questionable ones were. So why did Hugo and The Artist fare so much better with the Academy than at the box office? It’s simple: Both films are abject love letters to movies and the people who make them.
The Academy has a long history of nominating films about the performing arts. In particular, movies about acting tend to play well with the Academy’s massive Actors’ Branch — which is how most Oscar experts explain Shakespeare in Love‘s infamous 1999 upset victory over Saving Private Ryan. (You could arguably make the same case for all the love showered on last year’s Best Picture winner: The King’s Speech is essentially about a guy who fights the Nazis with acting lessons.)
And it’s not hard to understand why Hugo and The Artist might strike a chord with members of the Academy. On a basic level, the two films each speak to very different demographics. The Artist is, in part, a retelling of the classic “A Star Is Born” myth, with Bérénice Bejo as the ingenue who becomes a star. Hugo, conversely, is about a filmmaker in decline: Ben Kingsley’s Georges Méliès is an old man forgotten in his own time, a man whose life’s work has been literally melted away.
But the films are also linked by a profound nostalgia — a yearning for an earlier era of cinema, and a melancholy sense that the fun times are over. And that yearning, I think, speaks volumes about Hollywood’s perspective on itself. Movies have become a globalized business. Film production has fled Los Angeles to warmer climes with more generous tax credits: New Orleans, Vancouver, Sydney. Big-budget movies are shot in front of a greenscreen. The life of a major Hollywood actor has come to resemble George Clooney’s traveling businessman in Up in the Air, always on the move. Members of the Academy who came of age in the ’60s and ’70s have essentially witnessed the economic and artistic demise of the Hollywood they once knew. And, for the last 10 years, all anyone has been talking about is how much better television is than the movies.
It’s easy to graft all those modern concerns onto the anxious, epoch-shifting plotlines of The Artist and Hugo — and it’s easy to see how both films might clean up at the Oscars for the same reason. But the fact that neither movie has won over the non-moviemaking population speaks volumes about the schizophrenic divide in the Hollywood establishment. In a year when the top 12 grossing movies were all big-budget digital-spectacle sequel-spinoff-remakes, the two most-nominated films are odes to the most old-fashioned form of moviemaking. It’s worth asking: Does Hollywood hate itself?
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