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Countdown to Oscars

Monday, February 14, 2011
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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.

and

(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).

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  • Hassann_X

    I don’t know, according to Anne Thompson, there was a big applause for Roger Deakins in the room during the luncheon and he did win the BAFTA. Plus, his work meshes with AMPAS tastes really well. They look for postcard images, and that’s well worth it.

  • http://twitter.com/robert_hamer Robert Hamer

    One thing that may give the edge to Deakins this time is that the “prettiest” film of the year can have an edge over the competition.

    That’s not to say that most of Deakins’ films aren’t drop-dead gorgeous, but unlike the sole nominations (The Man Who Wasn’t There), vote-splitters (No Country for Old Men *and* The Assassination of Jesse James), or Oscar-juggernaut victims (Fargo) of his past failed nominations, True Grit is a box office smash hit with ten Academy Award nominations. Add in that it’s the most picturesque of the nominees, and you might have most members ignorantly voting for the overdue legend.

  • nt

    before avatar the last sci-fi-film that won best cinematography was close encounters. movies like master&commancer, memories of a geisha, pans labyrinth, aviator, road to perdition and legends of the fall won for best cinematography. they award big and pretty pictures, long ago and/or far away nearly every year. for me that sounds like true grit, not like inception. doesnt matter if they know roger deakins shot it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gil.lima Gil Lima

    The thing is, Inception has proven to be a failed attempt at the Oscars. With Nolan missing out the Academy has shown that they care little for the film and only nominated it because they had to. Honestly at this point I only thing that they will score a couple of tech and the best effects award. Remember Avatar last year was better received, did score more nominations, did score a best director nomination and only won 3 awards. This is not the year of the sci-fi.

    • http://ScottFeinberg.com Scott Feinberg

      Gil,
      The Nolan snub is irrelevant for the reasons described in this article — only the directors branch determined the best director nominees, so Nolan’s snub in that category is not a reflection of how the overall Academy feels about the film — the best picture nod is. It’s certainly something to keep in mind, though, as is the best editing snub.

      • Guest

        I agree that the Best Picture nod is an indication but they had ten slots to fill. I think that Nolan would have easily made it in with 10 directing slots.

    • David

      8 nominations incl Best Picture and Screenplay (two nods for Nolan) is hardly showing little care. I predict 4 wins for Inception – art direction, visuals, sound editing, sound mixing (i would have liked Zimmer to win score) but feel it more likely to be Reznor or Desplat.

  • http://twitter.com/marshmeli Mike

    The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and No Country for Old where both 2007 release and nominated during the 2008 (80th) Oscars.

    • http://www.scottfeinberg.com Scott Feinberg

      Typo corrected. Thanks.

  • David

    I just can’t help thinking of Randy Newman and his was it 15th or some outrageous number of unsuccessful Oscar nods before he finally got one. I didn’t realise that only some categories list the principal nominee that is being considered. I do think that Deakins has received so much press about this being his 9th, that like Newman, and plenty of others before them, the Academy occasionally does throw a career Oscar into the circle.

  • Evan

    I don’t know whether Deakins will win or not, but I think it’s besides the point that his name won’t be listed under True Grit’s nomination for cinematography. If someone cares enough about Deakins to vote for True Grit solely because he worked on it, don’t you think they’re already going to know that he worked on that film? You act as though Deakins has some large fanbase who’ll need reminding that he worked on the project (and on top of that, that his fans are so out-of-touch that they haven’t noticed one of the hundreds of articles and blog posts that already mention the fact that he’s 0 for 8 and is now nominated again for his most recent work. Oscar voters are out-of-touch with mainstream America, but surely they read Variety.).

    • http://ScottFeinberg.com Scott Feinberg

      I’m not sure that I understand what you’re saying.

      • Evan

        I’m saying that someone who’d vote for Roger Deakins because he’s overdue doesn’t need his name to be listed under True Grit’s cinematography nomination. If they’ve been following the Deakins narrative at all, they’ll already know that he worked on the film.

        Whether anybody actually cares about him is another (completely valid) question…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1432110058 Samuel R. S. Coffey

    I’ve been thinking this for a few weeks now. And the ASC and Oscars have been on and off the last decade or so. To we Oscar-watchers, it seems like Deakins’ “time,” but to the rest of the real voters…is it?

    I think, though, one thing in his camp is that he’s likely the best “bone” a voter can throw at the 10-time nominee True Grit. Unless the film goes by way of Gangs of New York–which is could–then I think voters will remember the picturesque landscapes and vote for the film there.

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