Eating Oscar Season ‘Cake’

cake9Cake, more brazenly than any other movie in recent memory, reveals that the Oscars are a sport, and—like all sports—they’re won by whoever wants it most (provided the player has deep pockets, as this league has no salary cap),” David Erlich wrote at Slate this week.

With Jennifer Aniston gaining legitimacy as a possible Oscar Best Actress nominee more based on a savvy, well-oiled, and somewhat relentless PR campaign, and less than on the merits of the indie drama (which has received mixed notices at best) or her reportedly raw performance, Erlich believes that “Cake is not a reflection of a system in which films exist for awards more than awards exist for films—it’s a product of it” and it “has epitomized the grotesque caricature that awards season truly is.”

Full disclosure, I have not yet seen “Cake” and can’t speak to its artistic merits, but its awards season traction is less a product of the Oscar system than a picture like “The Theory Of Everything.” Here’s a film that out of the box is calibrated to tick all the right boxes, play things dramatically safe and narratively predictable, resulting in a picture that’s as edgy and easy to go down as a glass of water with lemon. Even before a frame of it was shown at its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, it was touted as an Oscar contender, because it had all the right things going for it: based on a true story, with a romance at the center, and a showy lead role, playing a disabled character, for a rising young actor  — the only thing “The Theory Of Everything” had to do was not be terrible. And while it was hardly great, it came out perfectly manufactured to fit squarely, snugly, and easily into the right, easily sellable box.

And this is the biggest problem with the Oscars: the process most rewards conventional filmmaking. That’s not to say that the Academy doesn’t often recognize adventurous, bold, or groundbreaking moviemaking, but when those kinds of pictures do edge their way into nominations they are seen as admirable exceptions or surprises. They are at the most gestures of acknowledgment but rarely are those films or performances seen as true contenders.

The Oscar season is less sport, than it is politics. It’s a compressed few months where studio marketing teams and PR consultants galvanize into a machine that’s not unlike a run for office, and position their movies and talent accordingly. Parties are thrown, interviews are conducted, advertising is targeted. The “Cake” campaign is remarkable not because it’s a mediocre movie that’s in the conversation, but that it has simply been one of the most effective at elbowing its way into a system where thoroughly average pictures like “The Theory Of Everything” are allowed to automatically pass the caucuses, which should be of far more concern.

But, the Oscars are not a meritocracy, and never have been. The quality of a film has become a secondary matter. When Ava DuVernay‘s hugely acclaimed “Selma” missed out on a nomination from the Producers’ Guild Awards earlier this week, the chatter wasn’t about whether or not deserved to be there — it was accepted that it did. Rather, talk swirled about whether or not the team behind the movie managed to get enough screeners of the film out in time to the voting body.

And this is what the awards season is — electioneering. Whether or not “Cake” or “Selma” or “Boyhood” or “The Grand Budapest Hotel” are deserving of a place at the table is mostly dependent on if they’ve talked with and dazzled the right people. The Oscars are about likeability, which is why films like “The Theory Of Everything” are always a safe bet, or topicality, where voters can feel like they are supporting something “that matters.” It’s also the reason why one of the year’s most stunning cinematic achievements, “Under The Skin,” never had a chance. It’s a challenging, sometimes harrowing picture, with thematic undercurrents that defy easy description. It’s film that requires actual investment and attention, a viewing experience that demands one to submit to its spell and let it wash over you.

But alas, this is not how voters generally view films. They receive piles of DVDs on their doorstep, are invited to an endless number of screenings, and so it’s hardly a surprise only the most digestible pictures, with the most saleable campaign narratives tend to get their attention and time. And it makes it far easier to sit down for a movie when you’ve already been told why it should be “for your consideration.”  Jennifer Aniston may be having her “Cake” and eating it too, but it’s merely the dessert at the end of a long meal that was spoiled to begin with.