An Honor To Be Nominated: The Blind Side

THE CONTENDER: The Blind Side (2009)

Number of Nominations: 2 – Picture, Actress (Sandra Bullock)

Number of Wins: 1 (Actress)

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences increased the number of Best Picture nominees from five to ten back in 2009, it was supposed to increase the likelihood of audience-pleasing blockbusters getting into the race. It was a move intended to boost the ceremony’s dwindling viewership by giving Joe Sixpack and Suzy Chardonnay a horse in the race. It wasn’t necessarily a terrible idea, although it hasn’t really worked out that way in practice. This year’s highest-grossing nominee, The Martian, was only the 8th biggest hit of 2015. That’s certainly respectable but not the kind of fanbase that inspires the Titanic-level passion AMPAS was counting on. Viewership for last February’s telecast was down from last year, ranking as the least-watched Oscar ceremony since before the rule change went into effect.

But the new rule did actually seem to have the desired effect that first year. Viewership went up, with almost 42 million Americans tuning in (as opposed to about 34 million this year). The year’s highest-grossing movie did indeed secure a Best Picture nod (although, to be fair, Avatar probably would have received it anyway), as did Pixar’s Up, which is still one of their biggest hits. But arguably the biggest beneficiary of Oscar’s bigger tent that year was the feel-good smash The Blind Side.

Movies like The Blind Side very rarely get nominated for Academy Awards. On the surface, this belongs to the subgenre of inspirational real-life sports dramas that became increasingly popular in the 2000s. Disney practically created an algorithm dedicated to cranking them out, from The Rookie (also directed by Blind Side’s John Lee Hancock) to Miracle to Glory Road to the more recent Million Dollar Arm. As much as Oscar is a sucker for a good biopic, it doesn’t seem to have a lot of use for sports movies (unless that sport happens to be boxing for some reason).

Even more unusual than its subject matter, however, is its politics. People have complained about Hollywood’s “liberal agenda” for so long that it’s no longer even a cliché. It’s now simply an assumed fact. But The Blind Side is unabashedly a Red State movie, even if its politics are more implicit than explicit. The closest the movie gets to party politics is a moment when Kathy Bates, interviewing for the job of tutor to Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), cautiously tells Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) that she’s a Democrat as though she were confessing that she’s a convicted felon.

Hancock never foregrounds the movie’s conservative nature, an approach that works for the most part and is often refreshing. The Tuohy family’s Christian faith is neither denied nor overly emphasized. Too often, movies treat religious belief in either a condescending manner or, in the case of the increasing number of faith-based features, as a means to proselytize. Here, it’s simply an inherent part of their lives, as it is for most people of all faiths.

Even a later moment that invokes a more contentious Republican issue works in context. Leigh Anne responds to a threat from a street-level drug dealer (Irone Singleton) by warning him, “I’m a member of the N.R.A. and I’m always packing.” That line is a lot more loaded today than it was even seven years ago. But in the context of the movie, it works. It’s less a pro-gun sentiment than an anti-bullying one, displaying Leigh Anne’s protective, maternal instincts. It’s an important, effective moment precisely because of how underplayed and matter-of-fact it is. Standing up to this guy is not a big deal or a supreme act of courage for Bullock’s character. It’s simply the way she goes through her life every day.

The Blind Side does a lot of things well, especially in its depiction of Leigh Anne Tuohy and her family. And that’s great but it also ends up turning Michael Oher into an observer to his own story. A lot could be said about where this movie fits in to the long history of “White Savior” films. But the fact that this is based on a true story makes that a trickier landscape to negotiate. I have no doubt that Michael Oher loves his family very much. But I’m also quite confident that his rise to football stardom wasn’t just the result of genetics and a puppy-dog-like devotion to protecting the people he cares about, which is essentially what the movie suggests.

Quinton Aaron plays Oher as a sweet, shy, instantly likable guy. With his soft eyes and wounded expression, he may be the least intimidating 6’8” giant in movie history. And for all the adversity and hardship Oher had to overcome as a kid, almost none of it is actually in the movie. Literally everybody likes him to some degree, even the dealers and addicts in his old neighborhood. They only threaten him after he loses his temper on them defending his new adopted family. If The Blind Side has any bad guys, it’s just the abstract concepts of Ignorance, Poverty and Racism.

In many ways, race is The Blind Side’s blind side. Apart from Aaron, practically the only people of color are the people who live below the very clean and art-directed poverty line on the other side of the tracks. Which is odd, considering that Oher is brought to Wingate Christian School by an African-American mechanic trying to enroll his own son as well as Big Mike. The school’s board of admissions quickly approves the other boy but he’s never seen or heard of again. The film goes to great, almost absurd lengths to isolate Michael when it really doesn’t need to. What it ought to do instead is put us in his head so we can feel the drive and survival skills he clearly possessed. He’s far too passive for too much of the film.

But the filmmakers clearly decided early on that they weren’t making The Michael Oher Story. This is The Leigh Anne Tuohy Story but even there, it’s only marginally successful. Sandra Bullock’s nomination (and win) for Best Actress was considerably less of a surprise than the movie’s Best Picture nod. Here was a very well-liked movie star in a juicy role that played to all of the strengths and attributes that made her an audience favorite in the first place. The Oscar was practically a foregone conclusion. But it’s a bit of a curious role in that it doesn’t really have a dramatic arc. Bullock nails the character and is extremely effective and moving in moments tamping her emotions down beneath her all-business exterior. But when one of her ladies-who-lunch friends comments, “You’re changing that boy’s life,” her response (“No. He’s changing mine.”) feels more like it was dictated by the Screenwriter’s Bible than a genuine reply. By the end of the movie, she seems like pretty much the same person she was to begin with, only now she has an adopted son.

Had it been released a year earlier, The Blind Side would probably not have received a Best Picture nomination (although Bullock would certainly still have been a contender in her category). While it’s hard to argue with the movie’s crowd-pleasing success, John Lee Hancock isn’t a particularly inspired or challenging filmmaker. There are important issues to deal with inside The Blind Side but the movie itself is uninterested and incapable of addressing them. And maybe that’s OK. After all, there are plenty of other movies capable of taking a more nuanced look at these themes and ideas. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with a movie that simply wants its audience to be a little bit more compassionate toward each other.

The Blind Side is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Home Video.

An Honor To Be Nominated: A Serious Man

THE CONTENDERA Serious Man (2009)

Number of Nominations: 2 – Picture, Original Screenplay (Joel Coen & Ethan Coen)

Number of Wins: None

For all their talk about the grand tradition of the Oscars, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has never been shy about shaking things up. Many people don’t realize that there were essentially two Best Film categories at the very first ceremony. The Best Production award, what we know today as Best Picture, went to Wings. The Artistic Quality of Production award was given to F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. It seems that even in 1927, voters didn’t entirely understand the difference between the two categories. It would be the first and last time the Artistic Quality of Production award was given.

In 2009, the Academy announced that the number of Best Picture nominees would increase from five to ten, returning to a system that had been abandoned, presumably for a good reason, back in 1944. Most everyone viewed this as a shameless grab for ratings and a response to the perceived snubbing of The Dark Knight in the category the year before.

A few populist favorites did get nominations that first year, including Avatar and The Blind Side. But critics complained that the rule change allowed movies to sneak in that didn’t deserve to be there. So after just two years, the Academy changed the rules again. Starting in 2011, there would be no fewer than five and no more than ten nominees in the Best Picture category.

During the 2009 awards season, one of the films most commonly considered a beneficiary of the ten-film rule was Joel and Ethan Coen’s A Serious Man. It received just one other nomination, tying it with The Blind Side as the least-honored nominee of the year. Most critics were impressed with the film but it was a far cry from the popular favorites the Academy had unofficially hoped would benefit from the new arrangement. Indeed, even by the Coen Brothers’ standard, it remains one of the most divisive movies of their career.

The Coens have never been easy to pin down, which is exactly what makes them such vitally important filmmakers. They have never courted popularity but popularity has occasionally agreed to meet them on their own terms. Movies like Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou? go against every commonly held belief of what a mainstream success should be, yet that’s exactly what they were. Occasionally, audiences need time to catch up to their work. The Big Lebowski is now one of the biggest cult movies of the last quarter century, but critics and audiences alike didn’t know what to make of it in 1998.

A Serious Man is unlikely to ever reach that level of pop culture ubiquity. But dismissing it entirely is a mistake, especially for anyone looking for a deeper understanding of the Coens’ entire body of work. This is one of their most personal films, although you shouldn’t necessarily mistake “personal” with “autobiographical.” Like Fargo, A Serious Man is set in their home state of Minnesota, but I would argue that the fundamental difference between the two is that Fargo is based on what they observed while growing up, while A Serious Man is rooted in what they lived.

Stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg stars as Larry Gopnik, a physics professor in 1967 Minnesota. His wife has been having an affair with Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) and is demanding not just a divorce but a get so she can remarry in the Jewish faith. His troubled brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is facing criminal charges. Larry is also up for tenure, but the voting committee has been receiving anonymous letters slandering him. With the stress piling on, Larry turns to his faith for guidance and meaning but the various rabbis he meets with confuse him even more.

The Coens are famous for ambiguous endings, as in Barton Fink and No Country For Old Men, but A Serious Man infuriates even their most devoted fans. Here, both the opening and closing scenes are open to interpretation. The movie opens with a completely unrelated prologue about a dybbuk set in a Polish shtetl fifty years earlier. The Coens are notoriously coy in interviews but they’ve said this prologue really doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of the movie other than to set the tone. But it’s hard not to read more into it. Is it a parable or part of Larry’s ancestral back story or simply an elaborate bit of misdirection?

As for the ending, Larry receives some bad news from his doctor while at the exact same time, his son Danny faces down a massive tornado that’s barreling toward his school. The end. Not only do you not get any answers, you’re not even entirely sure what the questions are supposed to be. And that, I believe, is exactly the point.

A Serious Man has its roots in the Old Testament, particularly in the story of Job. But to me, it’s not so much a religious movie as it is a movie about religion. It’s the Coens’ interpretation of what it felt like to grow up Jewish in the Upper Midwest. Larry feels alienated from everyone, Jews and Gentiles alike. Judaism is as much a mystery to him as any other belief system. He was taught that it should provide meaning and solace, but instead it’s a baffling, closed-off labyrinth of puzzling stories and arcane traditions.

It probably is true that A Serious Man would not have received a Best Picture nomination under the five-film rule. Based on this year’s snubbing of Inside Llewyn Davis, it probably wouldn’t have even been nominated under the current five-to-ten setup. Even so, I believe A Serious Man absolutely deserved its nod. This is a dense, difficult film. It’s dark, funny, and deeply philosophical in its own strange way. The Coens have never been particularly interested in meanings. Instead, they’re fascinated by the search for meaning and how it affects people differently. It’s a recurring theme in their work and A Serious Man may well be their most heartfelt expression of it. It disappoints me to see how many Coen fans have dismissed this extraordinary film. I’ve returned to it again and again, each time finding myself thoroughly engrossed and fascinated over the endless questions it raises.

A Serious Man is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.