Business as Unusual

The New York Times’ Oscar amnesia.

Among movie obsessives, this week brings with it a cherished holiday tradition: The New York Timesproclamation that the forthcoming Oscar race is an anomaly, in that it is too close to call. This swallows-to-Capistrano ritual is fulfilled by Rick Lyman’s Dec. 31 story headlined, “In a Muddled Year, Many Films Have Reason for Oscar Dreams.” Here’s the opening of Lyman’s piece:

By mid-December a year ago, it had become quite clear that while Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” was the film to beat for the Academy Award, a spirited battle was still likely involving Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic” and Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” The year before, it was even earlier in December that Sam Mendes’s “American Beauty” had acquired its sheen of Oscar inevitability.

Lyman goes on to note that there is nothing “clear and inevitable” about this year’s race, except that “some movie” will win Best Picture. What’s odd about this story is that, if Gladiator and American Beauty really were the clear front-runners in years past, Lyman saw no reason to share that information with his readers. Last year, for instance—in a story nearly identical to this year’s—Lyman proclaimed on Dec. 20:

[T]his is widely regarded as one of the strangest and most unsettled Oscar races in years. Normally, by early December, there would be putative favorites in at least a few major categories, and the cognoscenti would be able to rattle off the names of most of the films and actors expected to get nominations. Not so this year, when the race is bizarrely wide open.

The year before, in a story that ran Jan. 7, Lyman wrote, “It’s often easy to look at the accumulation of year-end critics’ awards to get some idea of what is likely to dominate when the Academy Awards are handed out. But this year, that’s almost impossible.” Or, in other words, “In any other year, I’d be able to tell you who’s going to win. But not this year. Sorry.” It’s not hard to figure out why Lyman keeps writing that the Oscar race is wide open—because, in late December, it almost always is. It’s not until early February that the front-runner really becomes apparent. (Even when there is a clear front-runner, such as a Schindler’s List, there’s absolutely zero upside to definitively naming the movie you think is going to win—if you’re right, nobody will remember; if you’re wrong, everybody will.)

But if it’s nearly always difficult to call the Oscars in December, why does Lyman keep insisting that it isn’t—that this year’s an exception to the rule? I can think of two possible explanations. The first is basic psychology: With the benefit of hindsight, previous years’ winners take on auras of inevitability. Looking back, it does seem like Gladiator and American Beauty were the leading contenders all along, and if you’re looking for an angle for a story about an annual event, the sense that this year’s race is unusually wide open is a pretty good one. I, however, am partial to my second explanation: Lyman’s serial amnesia is a clever and elaborately well-planned homage to one of this year’s possible nominees, Memento. The only way to confirm this hypothesis, however, is to wait a full year, till next December, and see if Lyman does it again.