THE UNACKNOWLEDGED REALITY OF THE BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY OSCAR RACE
Why was I projecting that the best cinematography Oscar would go to Wally Pfister (“Inception”) rather than Roger Deakins (“True Grit”) even before this evening’s announcement that Pfister had topped Deakins to win the American Society of Cinematographers’ ASC Award? For one very simple reason: neither Pfister’s nor Deakins’s name will actually be on the Oscar ballot.
Over the years, Deakins, who is one of the greatest living cinematographers in the eyes of his peers, has been criminally overlooked by the Academy, accumulating nine Oscar nominations — for “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994), “Fargo” (1996), “Kundun” (1997), “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000), “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001), “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007), “No Country for Old Men” (2007), “The Reader” (2008), and now “True Grit” — but not a single win. Many people hope and believe that voters will correct that this year, but that is assuming two things that I do not believe to be true:
(1) That most voters will realize that Deakins was the cinematographer on “True Grit” when they fill out their ballots.
Most people assume that the Academy lists on the Oscar ballot the names of the nominees in all categories next to the names of their respective films, but this is true only for five categories: best director, best actor, best actress, best supporting actor, and best supporting actress. Therefore, voters will not be reminded that a vote for “True Grit” is a vote for Deakins.
(2) That they will care one way or the other.
If they did, he wouldn’t have lost eight previous times! Sure, Deakins is a legend to his fellow cinematographers and a lot of us film nerds (who would know without prompting that Deakins lensed “True Grit” along with virtually every other Coen brothers film), but he is — as one might expect — much less of a household name for the rest of the world (including, understandably enough, makeup artists, sound editors, visual effects technicians, and others who get to vote for the best cinematography Oscar).
It has always struck me as bizarre that Academy members are only considered to be qualified enough to vote for the nominees in their specific field (i.e. only members of the art directors branch of the Academy vote to determine the best art direction Oscar nominees) and best picture, but somehow “become” qualified enough to vote in every category during phase 2 of voting. This, to me, offers a clear explanation for why people like Deakins (who was nominated for two different films in the best cinematography category three years ago but failed to win for either of them) and Kevin O’Connell (a sound mixer who has been nominated for a sound-related Oscar a record 20 times without actually winning) get nominated so frequently but never win: their peers appreciate the magnitude of their accomplishments, but the rest of the Academy does not and instead votes rather ignorantly.
When it comes to the best sound mixing category, most members vote for either the loudest film (because who other than sound mixers really know what sound mixing entails?) or the film they are also backing for best picture (coattails). And, when it comes to the best cinematography category, most members vote for either the “biggest” film (big-budget sweeping epics look to the layperson like they demand the toughest camerawork) or — you guessed it — the film they are also backing for best picture (coattails).
For these reasons, I’m inclined to predict that the best cinematography Oscar will, once again, go to someone other than Roger Deakins… most likely Pfister for his fine work on “Inception,” or, if Academy members really like “The King’s Speech,” Danny Cohen for that film.
Photo (top): Roger Deakins, wearing the white shirt, on the set of “True Grit.” Credit: Paramount. Photo (bottom): A scan of part of a real Oscar ballot. Courtesy: Steve Pond (The Odds).
Tags: Danny Cohen, Fargo, Inception, Kevin O'Connell, Kundun, No Country for Old Men, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Roger Deakins, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The King's Speech, The Man Who Wasn't There, The Reader, The Shawshank Redemption, True Grit, Wally Pfister