Oscar Nominations 2011: Why Does Hollywood Hate Hollywood?

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Christopher Nolan can't get a break from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He directed one of the smartest and most critically acclaimed pure action films of all time—The Dark Knight—and broke box-office records doing it. Surely, if the Academy, which oversees the Oscars, ever needed an excuse to salute an old-fashioned crowd-pleasing entertainment, this was it.

Of course, The Dark Knight, two years ago, wasn't nominated for best picture, and Nolan wasn't nominated for best director, either. And remember, this is the guy who had wowed everyone in 2000 with his second film, the dazzling Memento, and shared a screenwriting nomination for it, so it's not like the Academy viewed him as an outsider.

Nolan, undaunted, did a canny thing: He came up with Inception, a fusion, you might say, of Memento and The Dark Knight—a puzzle of a construct married to blockbuster special effects—and watched it do boffo box-office.

This morning the film got, as expected, a best-picture nomination, courtesy of the Academy's expanded ten-film list.

But Nolan wasn't in the best-director lineup.

Of those ten best-picture nominees, Inception was out-grossed only by Toy Story 3. The Academy didn't nominate Lee Unkrich, the helmer of that, for best director either.

The Academy hasn't given a Best Picture award to a movie without a best-director nomination in decades.

As I noted earlier this month, AMPAS did nominate James Cameron, the director of the blockbuster Avatar, for best picture last year, but seemingly just so that it could give the statuette to his former wife, Kathryn Bigelow, whose Hurt Locker grossed less than 3 percent of what Avatar did.

One of the great things about the Oscars is that while the outcomes always seem pre-ordained in hindsight, you really don't know what will happen. But I think the prognosticators are going down the wrong path if they don't take into account the Academy's plain and growing disdain for commerciality and blockbusters.

In other words, why does Hollywood hate Hollywood?

The quirks remain. Here's an example: You might want to attribute the Best Picture and Director nominations of the enjoyable but cinematically and thematically plain True Grit as a nod to its fine use of Jeff Bridges and its unexpected commercial success.

But then why did the Coen Brothers' last film, A Serious Man, get nods for picture and director when it had no stars, did terribly at the box office, and wasn't as well reviewed as films like The Hurt Locker or An Education?

So the voters (a disproportionate numbers of them, remember, actors) do have their favorites.

But a lot of the other nostrums about the Academy haven't been true for a while.

Oscar is supposed to love high-toned froth like The King's Speech. He sure hasn't recently. Over the past decade best-picture winners have grown increasingly violent and, more to the point, thematically dark.

Oscar is supposed to have a thing for big-time actors, too, but we haven't seen one of those in a best-picture awardee in half a decade—The Departed, with Nicholson and DiCaprio and Damon, in 2007—and the actor and actress lineups this year are very much devoid of larger-than-life icons.

When the most glamorous figure among 20 nominees is the currently career-challenged Nicole Kidman—and the odds-on winner is the one who played the ballerina who spends most of her movie gushing blood—you know you're in trouble.

It's fun to watch this play out in public because the Oscar ceremony is two things. On the one hand, it's a contest, of sorts, with prizes awarded by its players; for better or worse, it's what the industry thinks of what it's doing.

But it's also that annual worldwide TV broadcast, and ratings for that have been shaky of late. AMPAS's caretakers have been fretting about this for years. That's what prompted the big expansion of the best-picture line-up. Last year, ratings rebounded, helped along by the inclusion of Avatar and stars like George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. This year, the voters doubled down again on quality, not commerciality. Fasten your seatbelts Feb. 27; for the Academy, it's going to be a bumpy night.

More awards season coverage from The Atlantic

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Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon.com and National Public Radio.

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