The fabled “Oscar bounce” — the traditional box office boom for the season’s most nominated films — has barely materialised this year, according to The Big Picture, which offers an interesting analysis of the possible reasons why. It’s partly the economic climate: tough times make grim viewing hard to sell. It’s partly the current Hollywood distribution pattern, which loads all the big fun exploding stuff into the summer, and all the pompous arty stuff into the nomination-friendly winter months.
And maybe too it’s partly that the two have become so separate. There are, broadly speaking, three kinds of movies. There are movies that people enjoy: the traditional Hollywood fare of thrillers, comedies, action movies etc. There are movies that people admire: the traditional Oscar fare of historical dramas, literary adaptations and plays wrenched from Broadway to the screen. And then there are the movies that people love: Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, The Shawshank Redemption. Some of these win awards, but many never trouble a jury until the bandwagon has passed. You can’t set out to make these popular classics — some had the most tortuous production histories in Hollywood — but you can see what they have in common: a relentless narrative drive; a blend of the comic and dramatic; a cheerful embrace of sentiment, if not outright sentimentality; and boldly-drawn characters at a moment of crisis. These films are about people with everything at stake.
At best these things are as true of the Oscar movies as they are of the summer movies. Frost/Nixon, on film even more than on stage, dramatises just how much is at stake for both its lead characters: it’s a far more gripping thriller than the thudding, interminable nihilism of last year’s box office champion, The Dark Knight. But too often it feels as though popular acclaim and critical acclaim have become separate entities, and separate creative ambitions. As a result our summer films have no taste, and our winter films too much. You watch a film like The Reader longing for a spot of vulgarity: something to puncture the stifling politeness of the thing. Like so many literary adaptations, it feels less like a movie than a waiting room, a place for slightly embarrassed people to flick through magazines while trying to avoid eye contact. Even its much-debated eroticism seems like porn for people who hate sex.
All of which is why, if I were voting, I’d want Slumdog Millionaire — the one movie that certainly has had its commercial Oscar bounce — to win tonight. It has all the qualities of a great popular classic; it has become the embodiment of its own underdog spirit; and it points the way to the future of movies, and the reuniting of the heart and head.