1. To know the Oscars is to loathe the Oscars…
Every true movie fan has had their heart broken by Oscar at least once — most more often than that. The short version is that, well, they are very often wrong, giving prizes (particularly Best Picture) to films that are clearly inferior to their fellow nominees, or movies that were left out entirely. Crash winning in 2006 (over Brokeback Mountain, Capote, and Good Night and Good Luck) is the easy go-to example of Academy incompetence, but you can dig deeper than that. Dances with Wolves over GoodFellas in 1991 and Ordinary People over Raging Bull in 1981 always work, and that pair of Scorsese snubs can lead to a snitty off-hand comment about great directors never getting their due (Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Charles Chaplin, Howard Hawks, Stanley Kubrick, and Robert Altman never won it all). But if you’re gonna do it, go deep: trot out How Green Is My Valley’s Best Picture win over Citizen Kane in 1942, or The Greatest Show on Earth over High Noon and The Quiet Man 11 years later.
2. …but to still know lots of arcane trivia about them.
Those complaints made, being an Oscar buff is kind of like being a Cubs fan — you may live in a state of constant disappointment, but you still know all the stats. Here’s a few good ones to have in the chamber this year: If Argo wins Best Picture (and it’s looking more and more likely that it might), it will the first film in 23 years to win the big prize without its director getting a nomination in that category, and only the fourth film to do so in the entire 85-year history of the Oscars. (The other three were Wings, Grand Hotel, and Driving Miss Daisy.) One of the other un-nominated directors was Zero Dark Thirty’s Kathryn Bigelow, which is a good excuse to talk about the Academy’s execrable record with female directors— Bigelow’s 2009 win for The Hurt Locker was the first time it went to a woman, and she was only the fourth female nominee for the prize, ever, after Lina Wertmüller, Jane Campion, and Sofia Coppola. (No African-American filmmaker has ever won it, and only two have even been nominated. Big category for white dudes!) Also, all of this year’s Best Supporting Actor nominees are previous winners, and the Best Actress category includes both the oldest (Emmanuelle Riva) and youngest (Quvenzhané Wallis) nominees for the prize — you probably already knew that. But did you know that the last movie to score Silver Linings Playbook’s quadruple play of acting nominations was Reds, clear back in 1982? Or that Amour is the first movie since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2001 to get nominations for both Best Picture and Best Foreign Film? Or that John Williams’s richly undeserved nomination for Best Score (for Lincoln) is his 48th? Learn this stuff — the test is Sunday night.
3. Know your producers. And we’re not talking about the producers of the nominated movies — though hey, fun fact, if Argo wins, George Clooney (who produced the film with Ben Affleck and Grant Henslov) will be one of those accepting the little gold guy. No, a real Oscar expert knows that the producer of the evening’s telecast is one of the key factors in determining whether it’s insufferable or merely overlong. This year’s producers are Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, whose primary background is in musicals (they produced the recent Broadway revivals of How to Succeed in Business and Promises, Promises, and executive-produced the film version of Chicago), and as Meron told The Hollywood Reporter, “it will be an evening that celebrates the music of the movies.” So yep, brace yourselves, it’ll be an evening filled with musical numbers, which are always the best part of the Oscars. If those song-and-dances tank, you’ll have an excuse to drop the name of Alan Carr, the eccentric Grease and Can’t Stop the Music producer who was in charge of the 1989 ceremony and its notorious Rob Lowe/Snow White duet. Last year, Brian Grazer stepped in after Brett Ratner dropped out (remember that mess?), and his play-everything-super-safe sensibility meant that Billy Crystal came back for yet another wheezy round as host. And while we’re on that topic…
4. Always complain about the host. The decision to slot in Ted director and Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane as emcee for the evening had us wondering what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was smoking, but in fairness to MacFarlane, coming up with an acceptable host is always a tricky proposition. That’s part of why Crystal got the call again last year; other comics who’d done the job in years after and between his nine shows tended to divide the older Academy membership and the younger viewers at home. This has led to left-field picks like Hugh Jackman and Frankaway, while those old enough to remember will still insist that Johnny Carson and/or Bob Hope were the only ones who knew how to do it right. But movie geeks know their own well enough to presume that nobody liked those guys at the time either. (If you really wanna buck conventional wisdom — which movie geeks love to do — swear up and down that David Letterman was a terrific Oscar host in 1995. Your film editor genuinely believes this. Most people don’t agree!)
5. Know your Honorary Oscar recipients. It never hurts to do a little research on the industry favorites who are getting the three honorary Governors Awards and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Awards. Here’s a good summary of all four on The Playlist; mainly, you’ll just need to remember that Hersholt honoree Jeffrey Katzenberg was CEO of Disney when it turned itself around, after which he left to start Dreamworks SKG with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen (he’s the “K”); D.A. Pennebaker is one of the most influential documentary directors of all time, the guy behind Monterey Pop, Primary, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, The War Room, and everybody’s favorite Bob Dylan movie, Don’t Look Back; George Stevens Jr. is the founding director of the American Film Institute; and legendary stuntman Hal Needam also directed a whole mess of Burt Reynolds’s lesser action/comedies, meaning that, at long last, the director of Stroker Ace and the Cannonball Run movies is an Oscar recipient.
So there’s your cheat sheet for Sunday night.”