What The Oscars Mean, And What They Don't The Oscars are coming up this weekend, but do they matter anymore? Bob Mondello talks about why the Oscars frustrate him, and we search — maybe in vain — for meaning.
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What The Oscars Mean, And What They Don't

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What The Oscars Mean, And What They Don't

What The Oscars Mean, And What They Don't

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

Break out the popcorn. It is two days to Oscar night. Time for the what-were-they-thinking red carpet fashion fails, the faux-humble it's-an-honor-just-to-be-in-this-category speeches. Here are the nine Best Picture nominees, in 30 seconds.


CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: (As Solomon Northup) Well, I don't want to survive. I want to live.


DENIS O'HARE: (As Dr. Sevard) Mr. Woodroof, you've tested positive for HIV.


GEORGE CLOONEY: (As Matt Kowalski) Dr. Stone, detach.

SANDRA BULLOCK: (As Ryan Stone) No.

CLOONEY: (As Matt Kowalski) You must detach.


TOM HANKS: (As Capt. Richard Phillips) We have two skiffs approaching with armed intruders.


SCARLETT JOHANSSON: (As Samantha) What's it like to be alive in that room right now?


AMY ADAMS: (As Sydney Prosser) We've got to get over on all these guys.


WILL FORTE: (As David Grant) So you told the sheriff that you were walking to Nebraska.

BRUCE DERN: (As Woody Grant) That's right, to get my million dollars.


LEONARDO DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) I was making so much money, I didn't know what to do with it.


JUDI DENCH: (As Philomena) I did not abandon my child.

BLOCK: Clips from "12 Years A Slave," "Dallas Buyers Club," "Gravity," "Captain Phillips," "Her," "American Hustle," "Nebraska," "The Wolf of Wall Street" and "Philomena." We've gathered our movie mavens here in the studio for a pre-Oscar chat. Linda Holmes, the host of NPR's pop culture blog Monkey See. Hi, Linda.


BLOCK: And our film critic Bob Mondello. Hey, Bob.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Good to be here.

BLOCK: And Bob, I'm going to expose you. You made a confession to me not long ago - you are not an Oscar fan. You may have said you hate the Oscars.

MONDELLO: Hate is a little strong, but I don't think they mean anything. And it drives me nuts that they're taken so seriously. Let me give you an example. In 1952, the picture that won Best Picture was "Greatest Show on Earth," the circus movie. "Singing in the Rain" was not nominated. What kind of sense does that make?

BLOCK: Outrage.

MONDELLO: Exactly. In 1968, "Oliver!" won Best Picture. Nice musical, perfectly acceptable. "2001: A Space Odyssey" was not nominated. Well, at that point, how can you take this seriously? I don't object to them, really and you know, they do promote pictures. But oh, oh.


BLOCK: Linda, what about you?

HOLMES: Well, you know, it's hard to argue with Bob about the specifics of the awards. I like Oscar season because it is a time when people take a few minutes to sit down and write and talk and argue about mostly really good movies and really good performances, including some in smaller categories - documentaries and foreign films - that they don't talk about the rest of the year very much. So as silly as the awards themselves are - and I don't think there's any arguing that they are very silly - I enjoy Oscar season nevertheless.

MONDELLO: That's fair.

BLOCK: There are always folks who are trying to handicap this; who are trying to figure out what Oscar likes. Are you seeing a pattern there? What does Oscar like?

MONDELLO: Sentiment, importance.

HOLMES: Yeah. I think perceived importance is probably the biggest one. That's one of the reasons why we don't tend to see comedies win the Oscar. They'll be nominated. "Juno" was nominated; "Little Miss Sunshine" was nominated. But you don't tend to see them win very often. And that's partly because, I think, of that sense that everything's supposed to be important.

If you look back at a movie like "Crash," which beat "Brokeback Mountain," I think a lot of people, in retrospect, feel like "Crash" traveled a very long distance on the sense that what it was talking about was very important. It was a movie that talked a lot about race. And I think that sense that its topic was serious and significant may have gotten it over a few hurdles of what people now feel was its level of execution.

MONDELLO: I think this year, people are thinking that that may hurt "Gravity" because as splendid a piece of moviemaking as "Gravity" is, there's some feeling that it's not a particularly important picture. It's simply really terrific moviemaking - right? - and that on the other hand, "12 Years A Slave" is conceivably, for future decades, going to be regarded as an important picture.

HOLMES: As well as an excellent picture.


BLOCK: Leaving aside the mega-stars who can write their own terms no matter what, does an Oscar nomination or an Oscar win help them get better parts, make more money? Linda, what do you think?

HOLMES: It really depends on the actor. These can be very difficult things to suss out because it depends. Are you actually a good actor? Are you choosing good projects? But there is no indication that an Oscar nomination or win, on its own, can fix all of your problems in finding good roles. And I think there's some evidence that that's particularly true for people who have trouble finding good roles anyway.

Perhaps, you know, if you're talking about actors of color or you're talking about women, they may already have a tougher time finding good roles just because of the structural issues that surround the making of large films. Whereas, if you're the kind of person who already is probably going to find a lot of good parts to play once you establish that you know what you're doing, maybe the Oscar is an even bigger bump.

So I think there are certainly cases where Oscars have been very helpful. Jennifer Lawrence being nominated for "Winter's Bone" before she was in "Hunger Games," I think, really helped legitimize her immediately so that she didn't come out and become kind of a franchise actor, the kind of thing that Daniel Radcliffe is still trying to get out of.

BLOCK: Of the "Harry Potter" series.

HOLMES: I think that Oscar nomination meant that right out of the gate, she was both a big box office actress and a serious actress. And she's still following both of those tracks.

BLOCK: You know, one thing we've been chewing over today is the - maybe it's a Hollywood legend, maybe there's some truth to it - the notion that the film that wins for best editing goes on to win best picture...

MONDELLO: I have just...

BLOCK: ...more often than not.

MONDELLO: I have just been researching this and it...


MONDELLO: I'm unnerved to say that it's about 56 percent correlated. I went back five decades just to look at what...


MONDELLO: And by and large, you have about a 50 percent chance of choosing. But I was just talking about this with Linda before we came into the studio; and Linda pointed out that there are five nominees for most of those years, and nine for later. So it's much better than a coin flip, right? I mean, if you get a 55 percent chance of getting it right, that's a substantial thing in a field of nine.

HOLMES: Yeah. I have a theory about that - which is, I think in some of these categories, you have a large body of Academy voters; some of whom are experts in every field, some of whom are experts only in one particular thing, like acting or writing. And I think a certain number of people with some of these awards don't actually know what makes for good editing. So when they're asked to vote for best editing, what they're really doing is voting for the - what they think is the best movie.

BLOCK: The picture they like best.

HOLMES: So I think maybe it's explained, in part, by the fact that people don't differentiate as much if they don't have the expertise to know good editing.

BLOCK: There are nine Best Picture nominees. But obviously, a lot of movies left off that list. Bob, what would be the one from this past year that you think really should have been a Best Picture nominee?

MONDELLO: You know that my top 10 list is always 22 pictures.

BLOCK: It's longer than 10, yes, you...


MONDELLO: So I have lots that I think could possibly...

BLOCK: You're a little elastic in your definition.

MONDELLO: But the one I think that most moved me this year - and I don't know that that means it's the best picture, but I'd certainly wish it had been nominated - is the Iranian picture "The Past," about a marriage that's coming apart. And I just found it enormously affecting.

BLOCK: Is it nominated for Best Foreign Film?


BLOCK: Linda, do you have one nomination?

HOLMES: I would actually have to agree with Bob. Bob and I saw "The Past" at the same time in - at the Toronto Film Festival. And I had the same reaction to it. It is one of those movies where the existence of a film like that, that's not nominated for foreign film or anything else, does kind of increase that feeling that you have that the whole thing is a little bit suspect.

BLOCK: OK. What are your guys' plans for Oscar night? What are you doing Sunday?

HOLMES: Well, Bob and I will both be live-tweeting the Oscars. Bob is on Twitter now.


HOLMES: And so he and I...


BLOCK: Welcome.

HOLMES: You can find me @nprmonkeysee and Bob @bob_mondello. And Bob and I will be live-tweeting the Oscars at the hashtag NPROscars.

MONDELLO: Which means I'll be watching. It's like...


BLOCK: Absolutely.

MONDELLO: ...can't get out of it this year.

HOLMES: We roped him in.

BLOCK: Can't wait. Thanks to you both.

HOLMES: Thank you.

MONDELLO: Thank you.

BLOCK: Linda Holmes hosts NPR's pop culture blog Monkey See, and Bob Mondello is our film critic.


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