What's the opposite of a guilty pleasure a noble agony? How about "Oscar also-ran"? Academy Awards history is full of powerful, disconcerting films that secure a Best Picture nomination, only to lose to a warmer, fuzzier rival. The King's Speech over The Social Network. Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan. And, of course, Crash over Brokeback Mountain.
This year, 12 Years a Slave is the movie at risk of getting Brokeback'd. Director Steve McQueen's searing drama about a free black man kidnapped and sold into bondage has earned critical hosannas, but those same reviews may have hurt the movie by hyping the violence. Audiences tend to be won over by 12 Years' emotion and resonance, but Academy members talk about the film like it's an upcoming dental surgery. Some have told me they'll wait for the screener so they can fast-forward through the grisly parts. The movie will be, and deserves to be, nominated for Best Picture. Winning is another matter. Fox Searchlight has to convince a much broader swath of people that this film is a rewarding experience, not a punishing one. Studios don't always succeed at that.
12 Years' problem isn't subject matter, it's tone. The Academy gave Django Unchained a Best Picture nod and awarded it the Original Screenplay prize last year, but that film was a revenge-fantasy lark, not a grim social indictment. Brokeback, similarly, didn't lose because of homophobia in 2006: Ang Lee won in the directing category, and the Academy has long been receptive to films with gay themes (think Midnight Cowboy's Best Picture win). Voters were simply split between two movies they loved, and the balance tilted toward the one that was reassuring rather than challenging. Unfortunately, there's nothing noble about that.