The huge success of Slumdog Millionaire at last night’s Oscar ceremony is not only a triumph for Danny Boyle and the British Film Industry, but also a triumph for the judgement of the Academy voting panel. A film showered with Oscar success is all too often nothing more than a big slice of Hollywood confection – that is, a film which is by no means bad but is all too interested in the apparent fascination of a flawed main character, (stand up Forrest Gump and A Beautiful Mind), or the hammering home of a particular social message (take a bow Ordinary People and Crash), or in a general style-over-substance (give it up for Titanic and Lord Of The Rings). You’ll not find a more back-handed compliment in film than the term ‘Oscar-worthy’.
But every now and then, the Academy gets it just right and chooses to praise a film on its own artistic merits, even if the film is not traditional mainstream fare. When Midnight Cowboy clinched the Best Picture and Best Director statues in 1969 it became the first (and only) X-rated film to achieve this accolade. A brave choice for an academy that only the previous year had given the Best Film Oscar to Oliver!, a great film nevertheless and incidentally the only G-rated film to get the award, but a clear demonstration of the Academy’s varied approach to prize-giving. In the 1970′s, Best Picture nominations for A Clockwork Orange, Deliverance, The Exorcist, Chinatown, Taxi Driver and The Conversation, as well as wins for The Godfather and The Godfather Part Two, show the Academy at least recognising the unsparing attitudes of the American New Wave film-makers. In fact, the only two movies to claim the full set of five major awards (Film, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay) in the last 60 years are One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and The Silence Of The Lambs (1991), films that could hardly be described as lacking ambition.
The choice of American Beauty for five awards in 1999 was the last time until 2007 that the Academy went for broke with a film that challenged and attacked the American way of life, rather than praising it. Last year’s Best Picture and Director trophies for the Coen’s No Country For Old Men showed a return to a bold selection from the voting panel, after years of frothy and unconvincing choices (the flashy Chicago, the dull Million Dollar Baby, Scorsese’s The Departed, not bad but not his best film by some distance). This year, Slumdog Millionaire surpasses all previous decisions by being possible the most audacious award tally at the Oscars, with the film garnering no fewer than 8 trophies.
Slumdog is no gentle ride and certainly not the ‘feelgood movie’ the advertises seem to have labelled it as. It’s a tough, uncompromising film that allows for a feelgood ending only by subjecting the viewer’s emotions to all the pain, suffering and heartache of it’s characters. For a film with a comparatively low budget entirely financed in Britain, a bleak tone and a harsh subject matter, and many sections in subtitles, it’s all the more miraculous that it should dominate the awards in such a way. Any other year, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button would have swept the board. It’s not a terrible film but it’s perfect Oscar fodder – it has the flawed character, the syrupy message and the style. But this isn’t any normal year and thankfully Slumdog Millionaire has tapped into the international mood. It’s a film for the moment and for prosterity and undeniably the right choice at the Oscars.
Although having said that, I was rooting for Frost/Nixon.