Momentum momentum moment. “True Grit” has none. Or at least, not enough.
A year ago when “True Grit” was announced, it seemed like a surefire Oscar contender. “No Country For Old Men” was a darling of the awards circuit and three years later stands as one of the few times movie buffs consider the Academy to have “gotten it right,” whatever that means. After their flagrantly uncommercial “A Serious Man” and Jeff Bridges’ turn in “Crazy Heart” became Academy favorites, most were predicting the Academy to respond strongly to this math equation equaling a bushel of Oscars.
If the early award indicators are anything to go by (and they are, as the same type of assholes participate in these organizations), “True Grit” isn’t exactly panning out as an awards favorite. The film was roundly ignored by the Golden Globes, and the mighty Screen Actors Guild felt the actor-friendly Coen Brothers weren’t worth honoring as an ensemble (though Bridges and Hailee Steinfield earned mentions). What contributed to this?
-The movie itself. The Coens have set a high standard, as nearly every time out, they’re making a masterpiece. But their diminished work stems from collaborations with studios: both “Intolerable Cruelty” and “The Ladykillers” were pooh-poohed by critics and ignored completely by award groups, though “Cruelty” is an often-savage subversion of romantic comedy formula, and “Ladykillers” sports a spirited, demented showcase turn for Tom Hanks.
“True Grit” was as studio as you could get, a rip-roaring western that was both star-studded and a remake of a well-known catalog title. Moreover, the original “True Grit” was both honored by the Academy (John Wayne won a belabored, undeserved Best Actor statue) and considered by many to be a fairly dull picture, a picture no one would consider a classic. So expectations could be surpassed, no?
As it turns out, “True Grit” is a mostly successful formula picture, owing to the genre more so than the considerable Coen body of work. The film is a straightforward revenge film showcase, focusing less on the Coens’ colorful sense of humor (which remains present) and hewing closer to the source material. As is, “True Grit” is stately where people expected dynamic, bald-faced where viewers counted on slippery and morally questionable. There are depths to plumb in “True Grit,” but they are considerably shallow when (unfairly) measured against the Coen oeuvre. That being said, it easily ranks as a film just as strong as a number of pictures currently receiving greater critical accolades, so one can assume this isn't the only factor at play.
-The Hollywood Foreign Press. Perhaps there’s a chance “True Grit” rises above and earns a Best Picture nomination. Momentum is hard to judge when the Academy now bestows 10 Best Picture nominations, with a chance to spotlight films otherwise passed over by major critic and award organizations (“District 9” was only a faint possibility to last year’s prognosticators).
But the lack of attention paid to 'Grit' was puzzling when measured against, say, the three nominations earned by “The Tourist” for the glad-handling, Johnny Depp-loving Hollywood Foreign Press. There could be a number of factors, but amongst award people, the Golden Globes should always be considered the shadiest. There’s no shortage of dubious choices made by a committee that feels the need to segregate films as dramas or comedy/musicals, as if people only make two or three of the same type of movies over and over again.
Moreover, this is a foreign organization, and the period western is a distinctly American genre. The last major Golden Globe-honored western was “Unforgiven,” starring a global brand in Clint Eastwood. Granted, it hasn’t been the most active genre in the last two decades, but considering the nominations tossed out for fare like “Burlesque,” you’d think decent middlebrow stuff like “Open Range” or “3:10 to Yuma,” both with huge international superstars, could bust through.
-No One Has Seen It. When a film hasn’t been released to the general public yet, you have to do the legwork to get it out to award and critic people. In the case of “True Grit,” you know producers reached out to all relevant parties. But there needed to be effort involved, and why leg it out for a dusty western when you can just keep nominating empty Johnny Depp movies? Chances are, the Globe guys didn’t nominate “True Grit” because they didn’t even SEE it. We forget that these committees are made up of PEOPLE with JOBS. It would be a charmed life if they could see all these movies, but they frequently can’t.
Which, of course, is ignorant, considering you should do everything in your power if you can see a Coen Brothers movie (for free!). The studio can only schedule so many screenings before the award groups realize they need to hustle to catch these movies. Just imagine how apathetically some of these voters treated “Mother and Child” screeners.
Moreover, there’s been some category screwery going on with “True Grit.” Like “Another Year,” another potential awards season favorite that hasn’t received the love many expected, there has been some debate as to whether the notable lead female is the actual lead of the film. One could argue that Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent are the leads of “Another Year,” but Sony Pictures is confident enough in Lesley Manville (in the film’s showiest, most tragic role) that they are campaigning her in the far more competitive Best Actress slot. Meanwhile, nearly every scene in “True Grit” is occupied by Hailee Steinfeld as the film’s lead, Mattie Ross.
Steinfield has received acclaim from the SAG Awards and the Toronto Film Critics Association as a Supporting Actress candidate. Manville, meanwhile, has been campaigned as a lead actress, but took home a Best Supporting Actress from the San Diego Film Critics Society despite showing up in the lead Actress category for associations like the Chicago Film Critics Association. Both “True Grit” and “Another Year” gradually are beginning to lose that treasured momentum in the Oscar race. If only it were for reasons having to do with the content of the films.