Wednesday, January 25, 2012

And none for Harry Potter

This morning I turned on the Today Show as per my usual morning routine of lying in bed for an extra half an hour listening to Matt Lauer dole out left-handed compliments to everyone he interviews. But as I was beginning to wake up following the sound of the weather report and Al Roker's loud proclamation of "That's what's going on around the country, here's what's happening in your neck of the woods," I heard something that I had forgotten was happening so soon: the Oscar nominations were coming out.

Now I'm not going to waste another five minutes of your time making you read evaluations of the films nominated or predictions of what or who will win each category. Though, of course, I do have my opinions on which films deserve what, my attention was drawn to a much bigger issue this morning by none other than my father.

As I called my dad up at 8:30 am (6:30 his time, sorry Dad), I decided to proceed with a long rant, reciting off the names of the nominees, saying how excited I was to know that Woody Allen was getting recognition for Midnight in Paris and how neat it is that one of my favorite books has its adaptation up for Best Picture (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close). And as I started reading the Best Art Direction nominees, my dad mentioned something I had not thought of: why didn't Harry Potter get more than three nominations?

Or as my dad put it, "Why isn't Harry Potter nominated for Best Picture?"

A photo of mine from the London Harry Potter
and the Order of the Phoenix premiere.
Earlier this year I wrote an article about how Steve Carell was snubbed at the Emmys for the sixth consecutive year (his sixth nomination for The Office). While my dad was going on a half-asleep tangent about what a travesty it was that The Lord of the Rings, a movie neither he (nor I) can help sleeping through, was nominated for Best Picture three times and won once when Harry Potter has not won a single Academy Award, I started thinking about what kind of place Harry has in our pop culture, whether he is worthy of an Oscar nomination and if the snub is something to really get steamed up about.

My initial response to my dad was something along the lines of "Well yeah, I love Harry Potter, but I didn't expect it to get a Best Picture nomination." But then I started to ask myself, why not? Why shouldn't I expect Harry Potter, a series that is basically an institution of the quintessential '90s and 2000's era childhood, to receive recognition as one of the best films of this year?

So I looked up statistics.

Only six of the eight Harry Potter films have even been nominated for Academy Awards. And of those nominations, none have been among the most notable categories. While most children's movies are restricted to nominations in Best Animated Feature Film or similarly lowbrow categories, it is reasonable to expect a different kind of respect for Harry Potter. But in the last decade, our dear HP has only been nominated for art direction, costume design, original score, visual effects and cinematography.

But why? Why after ten years of box office-topping film interpretations of some of the bestselling kids' novels in a century, has Harry still not received enough renown from the Academy to warrant even a nomination among the nine other Best Picture films?

The problem is that Harry Potter's biggest strength is also its downfall. The film and book series that has captivated children, adults and children who became adults since 1997 thrives on its place as a family series. But the Oscars, already seemingly hesitant about giving recognition to any films outside of the heavy-handed drama, black comedy/drama, random artsy fartsy film and inspirational animal movie genres, are not ones to accept the alleged children's film as a viable Best Picture option.

Harry, however defined by its wide appeal spanning countries, continents, age groups and numerous other social determinants, does not comfortably fall under any of the pre-determined Oscar-bait categories. And though a film like Toy Story 3 last year was able to squish its way into the ten Best Picture nominations, new policies changing the ten nominations to a range of five to ten may have knocked Harry out of the running.

The truth is that a visually-inspiring yet slightly sleepy phenomenon like The Lord of the Rings or even lame cinematography-driven efforts like Avatar has a much stronger chance of being accepted by the Academy as a Best Picture nominee. And in the former's case, for some reason it warranted a single year 11 Oscar sweep, receiving a win in every category in which it was nominated for The Return of the King.  

It's something difficult to understand, but it just has to be accepted. We grieve and we move on.

So where does that leave our lovely boy wizard?

In a similar vein to my position on the Steve Carell snub of last year's Emmys, the real loss here is the Academy's. A phenomenon such as Harry Potter deserved better treatment, better recognition these past ten years. But just because we never got to see Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuaron, Mike Newell or David Yates walk the steps to the stage of the Kodak Theatre to be recognized as directors of the series or just because we never saw David Heyman, champion of the Harry Potter film franchise and producer of all eight films, make the same walk if HP were to miraculously win Best Picture, does not mean that they have not made an impact.
As much as we like to perceive the Oscars as this sort of infallible marker of quality in cinema, the truth is that the best films do not always receive the recognition they deserve. In 1941, Citizen Kane, now considered one of the best films of all time and number one on AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies list lost to How Green Was My Valley. Now I'll be so bold as to say that most film classes in this country, not to mention most casual film watchers, would be more likely to screen Orson Welles' renowned masterpiece than one of director John Ford's lesser known films (his others including The Grapes of Wrath, The Searchers, etc.). This is not to say that the Oscar wins are irrelevant, but that perhaps they grow in irrelevance as the years go on and other factors surface in how people judge the "movies of our time."

Harry Potter may not be recognized by the Academy as being among the greatest movies of the year or decade, but because it is an institution within itself - regardless of its reputation among critics and people in the industry - it will far outlive most (if not all) of the films that are nominated for Best Picture in 2012.

Now you may say that this particular film in the series was not deserving of a Best Picture nomination simply on the grounds of it not being the best in the series. And it is with you that, despite my inherent prejudice, I tend to agree. There are several very great films nominated this year and this last installment in the HP series is not the best. But by the mere fact that Harry has not won a single Oscar, or even had one of its seven previous films nominated for Best Picture, speaks to a lack of awareness of the cultural landscape of this decade.

Yes, if The Artist (a favorite among Oscar predictors) sweeps this year, we may remember the feat for a few years to come like we did The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003 or Titanic in 1997. But ten, fifteen, even twenty years down the road, when the current younger generation of Oscar voters is among the older generation and those of us who grew up with Harry Potter are becoming the adults of this world, when we think of some of our greatest experiences in film in the 2000's and 2010's, we are not likely to remember The Artist, The Descendants, The Tree of Life or otherwise.

As we pace through our living rooms deciding on a movie to watch on whatever cutting-edge home entertainment system we possess, our minds will wander back to that film series that originated from that book series when we were kids. That one that may not have been as critically-acclaimed as The Artist, not as visually stunning as The Tree of Life, not as heart-wrenching as Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. But it was the most significant to us. It was Harry Potter. And it was ours. 

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