The Academy Awards are like that valued guest who always comes late to dinner. No matter how behind everyone else they are, they always manage to make an entrance. By the time the Oscars arrive cinema-goers have already been served numerous ways of assessing a film’s success. Critical acclaim and alternative awards abound, not to mention the all-important box-office receipts. Yet each year the industry’s eyes turn to the doors of the Kodak Theatre awaiting the arrival of this final commendation.
What do the Academy Awards commend? Clearly not ability … well, not ability alone. If Oscar was a talent-scout, he’d be the one with the thick-rimmed glasses badly in need of a new prescription. The octogenarian Academy Awards have been notoriously blind for years at time. Steven Spielberg didn’t receive Best Director until he delivered Schindler’s List in 1993, despite already having the stunningly successful Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Indiana Jones series in his catalogue. Similarly Martin Scorcese was left clapping at the dinner table for 26 years until The Departed came along. Never mind classics like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas.
No, the Oscars are more about recognising, rather than rewarding. The American writer Mark Harris has observed that for long-suffering artists the ‘It’s time’ narrative is a powerful selling point when it comes to award campaigns. The same can be said for themes the Academy chooses to annoint. Each year the Oscars indicate what the establishment considers to be worthy of attention in the sea of stories that lap at the edge of our cinemas. And this year everywhere Oscar turned it seemed that losers were winners.
The heady fragrance of redemption permeated the 2010 Academy Awards. Best Actor and Best Original Song went to Crazy Heart, the story of the rebirth of a drunken country and western singer. Best Adaptation and Best Supporting Actress went to Precious, the wrenching tale of young girl lost in obesity, abuse and ignorance. Best Screenplay, Directing, Editing, Sound, Sound Editing and Motion Picture of the Year were awarded to The Hurt Locker, and its conflicted bomb disposal sergeant in a war gone wrong.
All three films dealt with the stumbling rise of a character above the conditions that sought to crush them. Sometimes their circumstances were of their own making. Crazy Heart’s Bad Blake, played by Jeff Bridges, had nosed dived into a bottle and was slowly drowning every relationship he had. “When I die,” he tells a reporter, “my tomb stone will have my real name on it. Until then I’m going to just stay bad.” Others like Precious’ Clareece Jones found themselves at the bottom through no fault of their own. “Love ain’t done nothing for me,” Precious sobs. “Love beat me. Love raped me. Love made me feel worthless.” And in the case of The Hurt Locker’s Staff Sergeant William James, no matter how much he tells people, “I just don’t think about it,” his days and nights are filled with carnage created by other people’s hate.
Each character manages to find a slender thread of meaning that leads them out of the mire and places their feet on the path to redemption. For Blake it is a relationship, for Precious it’s motherhood, for James, his purpose: standing in the path of cold-hearted bombers. “When you get to my age,” he tells his infant son, “You realise there are maybe only one or two things you love …maybe only one.” And in each case their ‘love’ refines their characters and raises them beyond the reach of the thing that once hurt them.
This is not the first year that Hollywood has honoured redemptive tales. In fact redemption stories are a perennial favourite because filmmakers and watchers alike want to believe that there is a way to rise above our circumstances. 2009 has for many been a year of extreme political, economic and environmental suffering. Hollywood hasn’t manufactured our longing for redemptive love it simply taps into it. Sadly our own resources tragically limit Tinsel Town’s solutions. We can only lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps for as long as our strength sustains us, and in practice that is not very long. In our own feature-length lives we constantly discover limitations to our love and so our redemption. What every filmgoer needs to discover is a source of redemptive love that surpasses our past, present and future needs. That is why Paul prays for a different end to the redemption story – that we,