Oscars Conversation With David Thomson

BY Tom LeGro  March 5, 2010 at 1:51 PM EST

Oscars; David Thomson

The 82nd Academy Awards takes place this Sunday, and in an effort to lift sagging ratings and reach a wider audience, there are 10 movies nominated for best picture, ranging from the mega-blockbuster, big-budget “Avatar” to the smaller-budget, critic-favorite “The Hurt Locker.”

I spoke with film critic and historian David Thomson by telephone about the awards show:

A full transcript is after the jump.

David Thomson has written for numerous publications and is the author of ‘Have You Seen…?’ and “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film.” He joined us recently for a conversation on the decade in film.

Editor’s note: On Thursday’s NewsHour, Jeffrey Brown talked to Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday and Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, about the controversy surrounding “The Hurt Locker.”

There are also conversations about “Avatar” with writer Rebecca Keegan here and linguist Paul Frommer here.

And you can read about all of the films nominated for best documentary feature here.

JEFFREY BROWN: David Thompson, thanks for joining us again.

DAVID THOMSON: It’s my pleasure.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so the Oscar ceremony this weekend.

DAVID THOMSON: Is it this weekend?

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s this weekend, yes. Well, shall I start with the biggest of all? “Avatar” shows that — I guess one thing it shows is that big movies keep getting bigger.

DAVID THOMSON: Well, they do and it’s an important question this year for the Academy. They are in a tricky condition because they have been losing viewers for the Oscar shows steadily now for several years, and the show is their biggest source of income, so it’s very important for them. And this year in an attempt to enlarge the pool and get more viewers, you will notice that they have 10 candidates for best picture.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

DAVID THOMSON: And the weird thing is that without them sort of planning it in advance, along came a picture that would become in time the best selling picture of all time: “Avatar.” And “Avatar,” normally, I would have said would be a shoe-in for best picture. But something weird is going on because the Academy members — and it’s only about 6,000 people — they are saying to the Academy, well you think I’m sucker, you think I’m just going to vote for a big popular picture to keep the Academy floating when I believe “The Hurt Locker” is a worthier picture and a better picture.

JEFFREY BROWN: And now it’s been set up as the David and Goliath thing, but there’s more going on behind the scenes as to the psychology of all this.

DAVID THOMSON: T,here’s a lot more because there is the marital history of the two directors of those films. So it’s really I think a very interesting puzzle this year. I would have said a couple of months, and I think I actually did say to you in this show, that I thought “Avatar” would win best picture. I am not so sure now. I think that “The Hurt Locker” has got a great chance, and of course if it does the Academy will have a lot of egg on its face. It will be one of those two films I think.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think of the Oscars as telling us about the movie business or what are they rewarding? How do you watch it?

DAVID THOMSON: I think the Oscars are an increasingly archaic concept. I think more and more people are asking profound questions — well, semi-profound questions — like, why do we have the Oscars? Do we really care? For instance, I would argue that a film that is up for best foreign picture this year, “A Prophet,” is far and away better than either “Avatar” or “The Hurt Locker.” Why do we assume in the allocations for Oscar that foreign picture is just off to the side? Why don’t we have a special area for best American picture, for which there would not be too many candidates, and let foreign pictures in all together? As you saw in the New York Times, there’s an op-ed piece that says, why do we distinguish between actors and actresses when more and more people don’t? They just call them all actors or players or whatever. I think the institution of the Oscars is coming apart. I suspect that it’s not going to last in its present form for very long.

JEFFREY BROWN: But is the institution tied to the larger industry in some way, in other words the kind of things you are talking about for the Oscars as an institution, does that somehow tell us something more about the larger way of making movies?

DAVID THOMSON: Yeah, I think it does and I think the real problem is that at some stage quite awhile ago now, America last the knack of making major entertainment films that were also very good. I mean, a film like say “Chinatown.” Now you think back about “Chinatown.” Clearly it was a very, very entertaining picture. A lot of people went to see it. A lot of people enjoyed it. A lot of people remember it. But it’s a very good picture. It’s what used to be regarded as a kind of Oscar level picture. Now Hollywood makes very few of those pictures anymore, and I think that’s why there just aren’t enough candidates, homegrown candidates demanding the Oscars. You’ve got a year now where a lot of these pictures are small outsider pictures, like “A Serious Man,” like “An Education,” “The Hurt Locker,” “District 9.” “The Blind Side” and “Avatar” are the only two pictures that have really made a lot of money.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you, you mentioned “A Prophet.” Are there are movies among the nominations that you really like or that deserve more attention that we are sort of distracted by “Avatar” and all this other stuff?

DAVID THOMSON: Well, I like “A Serious Man” very much. I think it’s very funny and very serious and a sign that the Coen brothers are getting better and better. I really liked that film very much. I think there was some candidates up there this year; I mean for instance I have been fan of Jeff Bridges for 20 years at least. And I’ve been saying that he’s a much better actor than the people credit, but it’s very sad, I think, that he might get the Oscar — and I think he will — for “Crazy Heart,” which really is not a very good film.

JEFFREY BROWN: I’m laughing because I saw that recently and I will agree with you.

DAVID THOMSON: You know, I think he’s made maybe 10 films in life that are markedly better than “Crazy Heart.” I’m glad to think that he might get an Oscar because he’s a deserving person.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well it sounds like, I mean, is this something you look forward to every year?

DAVID THOMSON: Yes, I do because, you know, for people who sort of in the business it’s some kind of way, it’s usually an opportunity for a party, and it’s a pretty funny occasion because there is a great deal of back chat, some stories come out sometimes about people who know people who are up for awards. So, yes I look forward to it. I don’t think the general public does in the old way, but a lot of people will still be watching and I’m sure there will be some nice sentimental moments.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, David Thompson. Nice to talk to you about the movies and the Oscars. Thanks so much.

DAVID THOMSON: OK.