“The Academy Awards were basically created by the industry to promote pictures. They weren’t really to acknowledge the performances. Then it became sort of this great popularity contest….” — James Cromwell
When you didn’t see the word “probably” in the title of this article, you must have thought I was arrogant… or foolish. But if you’re an odds-maker, you either took a more charitable attitude, or saw through the game. I have an 88.9% shot (8 out of 9) at being right.
Still, of the nine nominees for Best Picture this year, why did I single out Nebraska as a loser, even before emcee Ellen DeGeneres kicks off the Oscar extravaganza on Monday, March 2nd, 2014? Why am I risking the possibility of egg on my face, if producers Albert Berga and Ron Yerxa are called up to the podium to accept a Best Picture Oscar for this slim jewel of a film?
Well, for one thing, money. Legend has it that when bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he replied “because that’s where the money is.” To label a film with a production budget of $12 million “low budget” is to make a serious understatement. Nebraska pulls off its magic through great direction and a marvelous script, and stars Bruce Dern, one of America’s national treasures. But there are none of the pyrotechnics, no ornate cinematography, no grand symphonic background score to help boost Nebraska to Best Picture status — all the great film assets that money can and invariably does buy. And unlike Hurt Locker, the Best Picture surprise winner for 2008, it lacks a high-concept statement to compensate for its small budget.
Occasionally, film budgets can be deceiving. Although American Beauty (1999) was made with a $15 million budget, once it was nominated, DreamWorks Pictures threw all kinds of money at the publicizing of the film. As a result, it won an Academy Award for Best Picture. Every now and then, the Academy offers a nod to eccentricity. But it usually does so through categories other than Best Picture. American Beauty and, for that matter, Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) are notable exceptions — dark horses, really. But if you scan the winners for Best Picture since the Academy began issuing the award in 1928, you’ll find that America has a Willie Sutton or blockbuster complex. The Indie and Sundance phenomena are Johnny-come-latelys in the American film business.
For now, American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave, or The Wolf of Wall Street, for their larger themes, stand a much better chance to snatch the Best Picture award. The producers of a smaller film like Nebraska, with its delightful story of an ordinary man — a lost soul, actually — might just have to content themselves with a Best Actor award for Bruce Dern, or Best Actress in a Supporting Role for June Squibb.