Conversation: A.O. Scott Previews the Oscars

BY Jeffrey Brown  February 25, 2011 at 12:05 PM EDT

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Oscar statues being prepared for the Academy Awards. Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images.

The 83rd Academy Awards are Sunday night in Los Angeles, and for a preview of the ceremony and a break down of the nominees, I spoke to New York Times Film critic A.O. Scott:

[A transcript is after the jump.]

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome once again to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown, and joining me today from the newsroom of the New York Times is A. O. — Tony — Scott, film critic for the Times. Welcome to you.

A. O. SCOTT: Nice to be here. Nice talking to you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Before we get to any specifics, how do you think about the Oscars, you who watch movies and movies and movies…

A. O. SCOTT: Who has no choice but to think about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Exactly. What’s the value or lack of value in this annual event?

A. O. SCOTT: I find them interesting in a kind of narrow way. I think of the Oscars as the American film industry’s image of itself. The Oscars are voted on by the voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is fewer than 6,000 people, all of whom are professionals in the world of film. It has a kind of insider quality to it that I don’t think is always clearly understood. That is say, I don’t think that what the academy says is the best picture of the year necessarily is. Often in my opinion, it isn’t at all. You’re getting a snapshot of what Hollywood thinks of itself and what it wants to project to the rest of the world as the image of itself.

JEFFREY BROWN: I see. So what is the image that it seems to want to project itself this year?

A. O. SCOTT: This year I think they’ve gotten kind of lucky. The thing that the academy is often looking for is movies that it can nominate and celebrate and parade on the red carpet that are both respected to some degree not only by critics like me and also popular with audiences. And in past years they’ve struggled a little bit with this. There was the year of “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood,” where there was a lot of concern that the movies that were being rewarded by the academy were getting too small and too specialized and too independent and too artsy and getting away from the kind of the really broad popular movies. So one of the things that they did was start a field of 10 nominees for best picture, which was designed to include some more popular box office hits, movies from the summer time.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is the second year of that right?

A. O. SCOTT: This is the second year of that, and this year you see “Inception” and “Toy Story 3,” the two big hits of the summer in the best picture field of nominees, not really I think seriously in the race. But this year what you might think of as the top five best picture nominees, the ones that probably would have been nominated if they weren’t doing 10, those being “The Fighter,” “The Social Network,” “The King’s Speech,” “Black Swan” and “True Grit,” all of those have done pretty well with audiences. Just about all of them have grossed a $100 million or more, so that makes it a very good year for the academy because they can say, Well, we found the quality movies that the critics have liked and have certain prestige to them that also have connected with audiences.

JEFFREY BROWN: I’m curious about a film like “The King’s Speech,” which is up for a lot of nominations and favored in a lot of categories. It’s the kind of film that does come with prestige and likeability, I suppose, right?

A. O. SCOTT: Yes, there are a lot of things about it that kind of scream Oscar contender:

JEFFREY BROWN: Exactly.

A. O. SCOTT: It’s British, it’s a historical costume drama about aristocratic people, it’s a story of friendship between two very different men — the heir to the throne of England and this Australian speech therapist who helps him out — and it’s a story about a person struggling with a disability and overcoming adversity, and that — if you look at movies like from “Rain Man” to “My Left Foot” — this is a very popular topic. Actors who play those roles tend to get Oscars, and I think that Colin Firth is certainly the favorite right now for the best actor Oscar. And it’s the kind of story that seems tailor made for the academy.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s always the who should win versus the who will win debate. What about for someone like in your position, there must be a zillion what should be nominated that isn’t, who should win that never will win. Are there glaring examples this year of that conflict you see?

A. O. SCOTT: I always have a lot of those. You know, if the Oscars were the way I wanted them to be, I think nobody would watch them, so I don’t hold it against the academy for ignoring my particular tastes. There are a lot of movies, I have to say, in the running that I liked quite a bit. I liked “127 Hours” with James Franco, the Danny Boyle movie about the hiker Aaron Ralston. I liked a lot of things about “Winter’s Bone,” a tough little realistic movie that came out early in the summer. I like “The Kids Are All Right” quite a bit. I think that Annette Bening might have a shot to upset Natalie Portman in the best actress category, but there are other things that I liked a lot too that I was a little disappointed not to see. I wish there’d been room for Tilda Swinton to get a best actress nomination in what was a very strong field for her amazing performance in this Italian movie called “I Am Love.”

JEFFREY BROWN: That was almost an operatic performance as I recall. The whole film, the way it was shot

A. O. SCOTT: Yes, it was sort of over the top melodrama, and she was acting — she was playing a native speaker of Russian and the whole performance was in Italian.

JEFFREY BROWN: Which added to some kind of effect.

A. O. SCOTT: I would say so. I mean, it’s very impressive that Colin Firth can stutter the way he does in “The King’s Speech,” but try doing it in Italian as a native speaker of Russian if you’re a British actor — that’s just kind of mind boggling. I also was a great admirer of Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere,” a movie that a lot of people did not like. I think I got more angry letters about my review of that than any other this year.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh really? Because a lot of people just don’t like her style or thought she was repeating herself?

A. O. SCOTT: Well, I think a lot of people found it slow, a lot of people didn’t find much to relate to in the characters, there’s almost no dialog in the movie, they’re very long — it’s a movie that makes you work a little bit to get inside it, but I thought it was really beautiful and well done.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you about one other category — there are too many
categories to go through — but just my own interest, I guess, is the foreign language films because they just don’t get much attention. The category here that I’m looking at, the nominees, and I must say other than “Biutiful,” they have not got much attention at all.

A. O. SCOTT: The foreign language category has its own very peculiar rules. It’s the only category where a theatrical release in the 12 months of the previous year is not required. So a lot of the movies that are nominated hope that they’ll get more attention if they win or are nominated and will be released in the next few months. So, yeah, “Biutiful” came out at the end of last year and got a nomination for Javier Bardem in his lead performance, as well. “In a Better World” is going to come out in a couple of weeks, that’s the Danish film by Susanne Bier. I think if it does win, “Outside the Law,” the Algerian nominee, will get another release. It had a very short release. And then there’s this very strange Greek movie called “Dogtooth.” It did come out last year, a really, really interesting movie, and I have to say it’s kind of remarkable that something as weird as that movie got the attention of the academy, which tends to be pretty conservative in this category. But foreign language films, it’s always a source of frustration for me because there are these rules that each country only gets one official submission, and then it comes down to a short list, then there are the five.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sometimes they’re even nominated not even from their country or something. Isn’t that another confusion?

A. O. SCOTT: Right, right. It all feels a little bit arbitrary and political, and some very good movies, like for example “Carlos,” which was disqualified because it was originally shown on French television.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is that right?

A. O. SCOTT: Yeah, it was not allowed. But then another movie like the French film, “Of Gods and Men,” which is opening up this week, a terrific movie based on a true story about a group of French monks in Algeria during the civil war in the 1990s, a very strong, in a way a very timely movie, was shut out of this category. So I always hold out hope that the academy will wake up and start paying attention to the rest of the world, but I also sort of doubt that that’s ever really going to happen.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. So finally, is this something, this Oscars ceremony something you look forward to or you dutifully watch or sit there with your popcorn? How do you watch it?

A. O. SCOTT: This year I’m actually doing some live web video from the Times newsroom with my colleague David Carr, and we’re going to be kind of kibitzing on the ceremony.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, so you can have some fun with it this year.

A. O. SCOTT: Yeah, we can have some fun. I enjoy it. I’ve sort of I think made my peace with it. I used to love to watch it when I was I kid, and then when it became a professional duty I would sometimes, you know, resent it a little bit and just get frustrated with the short comings of the academy. Now, it is what it is: It’s silly, it’s over the top, it can be tremendously boring, it can be frustrating, it can also be fun and glamorous and even sometimes moving and surprising. So I do look forward to it, and I will certainly be watching.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The Oscars through the eyes of Tony Scott of the New York Times. Thanks very much for joining us.

A. O. SCOTT: It was my pleasure. Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And thank you all for joining us again on Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown.