It’s a new year, but most of the movies you hear mentioned over the next two months will probably be last year’s films. Why? Because we’re in the thick of Awards Season. You know Awards Season – the time of year where everyone gets dolled up and strolls down the red carpet looking fabulous (or freakish) so they can receive accolades for their work on notable films such as Norbit or My Cousin Vinny. It’s also the time of year where bloggers and movie buffs start clawing each others’ eyes out over the merits of Brokeback Mountain over Crash. It’s the most glamorous, yet most argumentative time of year.
Already Awards Season has me in a tizzy and not for the reason regular readers might expect. I’m not upset over The Social Network receiving the accolades it’s gotten, appearing on the Best Films list of most major critic groups if not winning Best Picture completely. I’ve made my opinion on the movie heard, and I stand by that opinion. People forget I also gave the movie a very positive review, so it’s not like I’m out for blood over its recognition. It’s a very good movie, just not an eternal one, and not the year’s best (in my humble opinion) when compared to several other movies out there.
No, my disagreement with this year’s Awards Season is one of categorization. It’s actually a problem I tend to have many years, but this year there are more examples of why categorization bothers me then usual. It’s what’s on my mind this week, and I’m vowing to do better about making this column a weekly one, so it makes sense to write about it, even if I’ve already been told to reconsider my position on it elsewhere.
Several organizations have given recognition to The Kids Are All Right, a movie about a family headed by a lesbian couple who have to deal with the fallout when their kids seek out their biological father (or sperm donor). The matter gets even more complicated when one of the women winds up having a tryst with the sperm donor, shattering an already fragmented family further. In many ways it’s a tragedy about a family falling apart and trying to come back together, yet it is receiving recognition for being one of the best comedies of the year. Yes: a family’s pain and division equals one of this year’s best comedies.
A family splintering has definitely been the source of comedic material before. Just look at the Griswolds in any of the National Lampoon Vacation movies. The families in Little Miss Sunshine, Death at a Funeral, or When Do We Eat? bring about great laughs despite tragic circumstances, so what is wrong with The Kids Are All Right being labeled a comedy? It’s more in the delivery. Watching the Annette Bening / Julianne Moore movie, the tone isn’t that of a comedy. Sure, there are a few laughs, but there are a few laughs in the best dramas – laughter is a way of breaking up moments of sorrow. Little Miss Sunshine strives to make the audience laugh through the family’s antics and hopes the audience will find a part of themselves in the movie they also can laugh at. The Kids Are All Right shows that heartbreak and disappointment isn’t strictly limited to heterosexual couples, but there’s more dramatic tension and emotional gravitas then giggles and guffaws. It certainly isn’t something I would put on just to feel good.
One of our forum regulars, wordforge, tossed in an interesting counter to my position: The classic definition of a comedy depends on the ending. This is an idea that goes back to Shakespeare’s day. Happy ending equals comedy; sad ending equals tragedy. It’s a good argument. Without spoiling anything I would say The Kids Are All Right has an ambiguous ending at best. Does that make it a tragicomedy?
Regardless of my opinion, The Kids Are All Right is being recognized as one of the year’s best comedies. Drama or comedy, it’s not like the studio is going to complain about the identification. After all, Awards Season buzz leads to recognition. Recognition leads to sales. Sales means dollars which means more movies. Does it matter to the studio whether the artist’s intent is foiled by the categorization? Probably not, but it seems to me that we’re doing artists a disservice by miscategorizing their work.
An even bigger issue in my mind is the disservice that’s being done in the case of Hailee Steinfeld. For those who don’t recognize the name, Steinfeld is the young actress who plays opposite Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon in True Grit as Mattie Ross, the young lady who is in pursuit of the villain Tom Chaney. The two differences between the versions of True Grit that I’ve heard just about every film buff point out are that the Coen Brothers center their story around Mattie Ross instead of Rooster Cogburn, as intended by the original novel, and that Steinfeld’s performance as Mattie blows away the original movie’s portrayal.
A stronger portrayal at the center of the story and this is a supporting performance?
Now, I can understand a little bit of the logic here. Steinfeld only plays one aspect of Mattie Ross – the on-screen character. Part of centering the story around Ross is conveyed through narration by an older version of Ross, which is performed by a different actress. Together the two create the character, so to that end I can see that Steinfeld is only part of the equation. She’s the bigger part, however, with a stronger and more memorable presence then the adult voice over. Shouldn’t this be considered a leading performance, with Elizabeth Marvel’s adult portrayal the supporting element?
I suspect part of the reason Steinfeld is being considered a supporting actress by most organizations is because of her age, not her role or the skill of her performance. By relegating the fourteen-year-old to supporting status, that leaves organizations the room to recognize more seasoned actresses for leading roles. Again, any recognition is good recognition, but wouldn’t it be better to also recognize that Steinfeld was at the heart of the movie and not a supporting player?
In neither of these cases, nor in the many others that occur each year, is anyone likely to complain. Recognition is recognition, and it is nice to be recognized for one’s work. As was pointed out to me, ultimately these are a reflection of the subjective nature of film. A viewer watches the movie and decides whether they as an individual identify what they’ve seen as a comedy or a drama. What is funny for some may not be funny for others, and performances that seem essential to some may be less memorable for others. It’s more then a little OCD for me to wish everything categorized itself cleanly into different departments, but I can’t help think how I would wish my picture or my performance to be assessed if I was the artist behind the product.
As a final note: Every year our superfan Tony does a fantastic job of tracking all the major award nominations and winners on our forums (thanks Tony!). It’s something we’ve made a conscious choice not to frequently report on within the main site, but it’s a great collection of information for the Awards Season curious. Head over to our 2010 Oscar Waffle thread to stay up to date on Award Season happenings.