By Blake Baxter
This weekend is the 86th Academy Awards ceremony; an occasion long awaited by opinionated film fans, snarky Twitter users and Ellen DeGeneres enthusiasts alike. The movie industry will aim to celebrate the work and accomplishments of various actors, filmmakers, screenwriters, and of course, itself as a whole. It is supposed to signify what movies and performances and scripts, etc. were objectively the best over the course of a somewhat arbitrarily selected period of time. Really, though, it is just the collective opinion of a specific group of anonymous people. When put that way, the whole thing sounds kind of silly, but that doesn’t mean it’s weightless.
Academy Awards, more commonly known as Oscars, can change individuals’ careers. In many cases, a movie’s success in pleasing a select group (the Academy) can influence the type of movies that studios finance in the future just as much as the box office. The types of movies that the Academy favors can influence the type of choices a filmmaker makes in the future. Basically, the Academy Awards mean nothing and everything at the same time.
In reality, awards (and not just The Academy Awards; any major award) are less effective in truly marking achievement than they are in serving as a snapshot of how something is perceived in a given moment. It’s impossible to assume than an award denotes objective greatness, because how we perceive things is constantly shifting, no matter how slightly. The same could be said for criticism of any form. For example, the praise that was recently heaped upon Kanye West’s debut album The College Dropout for the 10-year anniversary of its release dramatically differs from the way it was perceived in 2004. An example from recent Academy Award history: In 2011, Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech won Best Picture. At the time, many believed David Fincher’s The Social Network should have ran away with the award. I suspect that would be the case if there was a revote in 2014, but that isn’t the way these things work. There is one vote, and that’s that.
The Best Picture category is the most prestigious and pivotal award of the Academy Awards. It measures the sum of each movie’s individual components and compares them against one another. It is meant to denote which movie is of the highest quality overall, but somewhere along the way, during an exhaustingly long awards’ season, it inevitably becomes political. Your personal Best Picture preference tends to mean one of two things. It either means that you truly believe said movie is objectively the best or it means you identify the most with the message and meaning of said movie. Both of these things could be true at the same time and you might realize this or you very well might not even be aware of it all. People (Academy voters included) are always trying to run away from their inherent biases, but as history has shown, it’s easier said than done.
When it comes to Best Picture, some find this perfectly okay. After all, if the award is a reflection of an attitude of a specific time, shouldn’t it reflect that time? That is one line of thinking that partially explains people’s preference for The Social Network over The King’s Speech. Both are distinctly directed, well-acted and technically well-crafted films, except The King’s Speech spotlights a bygone era, whereas The Social Network reflects life in the 21st century. What has more worth, what’s nostalgic or what’s current? Which film should be more relevant? That is not the only argument outside of the actual overall quality of a Best Picture candidate, but it is one of the most pertinent when considering Alexander Payne’s Nebraska.
This year’s Best Picture field is made up of nine movies, each with their own distinct appeal. It is commonly agreed upon that at this juncture there are three front-runners that have separated themselves from the pack, Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, and American Hustle. The appeal of Gravity stems from the film’s spectacle; its stunning visuals are cinematic proof that the movies lend themselves to a magnitude that no other medium can produce. Voters, critics and audiences are attracted to 12 Years a Slave’s for its unflinching emotional truth in depicting the horrors of a very ugly time in our country’s history. American Hustle is a frontrunner because it’s clever, it’s funny, it’s flashy, it features terrific and memorable performances, and it’s the least polarizing. In other words, it’s a hard movie to dislike, not unlike last year’s Best Picture winner, Argo.
Nebraska is one of this year’s Best Picture nominees, but it’s not a favorite and it’s definitely not going to win. However, it’s one of the most relatable films out of the nine nominees, and you could make an argument that that makes it the most relevant. Nebraska isn’t a visual masterpiece, though it is very striking, it’s not a period piece, though it is, in many ways, about the past, and it’s not packed with stars, though it does feature great performances. It was a film festival darling, but it was only offered in limited theaters. For many, they couldn’t go see it even if they wanted to. It has only brought in $16,088,873 at the box office, a fraction of Gravity’s total ($268,428,128). All of which is to say that it makes sense that it has managed to snag a handful of award nominations (six Academy Awards), while still managing to largely fall through the cracks.
Nebraska, directed with artistic ambition by Alexander Payne, is the story of a family struggling to deal with the decline of its patriarch. Woody Grant, played by the indefatigable 77-year-old character actor Bruce Dern, is a surly, stubborn old man on a mission. Early in the film, Dern misinterprets a magazine sweepstakes letter, which he believes has awarded him $1 million. This obviously isn’t the case – it’s a ploy to sell magazines – yet that doesn’t stop Woody from trying to walk from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize. Woody is by all accounts a remarkably unpleasant bastard, but it’s hard not to feel bad for him. He’s old, he’s losing his memory, his health is failing him, and he doesn’t seem to have a lot to live for in general. Woody’s adult sons, David and Ross (former funnymen Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk) and his wife (June Squibb) quickly become frustrated with Woody’s insistence on going to Nebraska. However, it is younger son David who has the most sympathy for the old man – and the least going for him. Whereas Ross appears to be a somewhat successful local TV anchorman, David is a lowly stereo salesman. And so, he agrees to make the quixotic journey to Lincoln with him, fully aware of what the outcome will be when they reach their destination.
Along the way, David has to deal with his father’s erratic behavior and his increasingly frequent mishaps. Woody’s problems are both general in that many of these things – falling and cutting his head open, losing his teeth, etc. – are (unfortunately) consistent with growing old, and specific in that much of the strife between him and his family members is due to his past failings as a father, a husband and a man. At one point, much to David’s dismay, Woody wanders into a bar and encourages David to have a drink with him. David wants no part of it – he’s seen the negative affects of alcohol firsthand – but he wants to be closer to his dad even though he’s never understood him. “Have a drink with your old man. Be somebody!” his father ridiculously says without a hint of irony.
The film really picks up steam when they arrive in Hawthorne, Nebraska – Woody’s former hometown. There, they visit Woody’s extended family, with whom he has long lost touch. They prove to be more interested in Woody’s supposed winnings than they are in catching up with him, and perhaps rightfully so. We know that Woody has never been the most reliable sort, so it’s not a surprise when old lenders line up, asking for handouts. David remains protective of him, even though it’s hard to connect with a man when old wounds of the past are constantly being opened up, all the while new ones are being exposed for the first time. Nevertheless, there’s a very lived-in feel to the way that Woody and David and Woody and the rest of his family interact. There’s a hysterical scene in which Woody and around six of his similarly aged brothers stare at a football game on TV in silence. They don’t have anything to talk about unless one of them brings up some minor – and probably misremembered – detail of their shared past, which of course, they do.
The story gets even more entertaining when long-suffering wife Kate and older brother Ross join them in Hawthorne. Whereas Woody is blunt but often short, Kate is an old woman with plenty to say and no use for a filter. The family tours the town together as Kate hilariously tells everyone How She Really Feels, whether people want to hear it or not. She’ll tell her son who wanted to get in her pants back in the day; she’ll speak ill of the dead; her brazen honesty knows no bounds. At a cemetery, she and David have this exchange:
Grant: There’s Woody’s little sister, Rose. She was only nineteen when she was killed in a car wreck near Wausa. What a whore!
Kate: Nah, I liked Rose, but my God, she was a slut.
Kate: I’m just telling you the truth!
You can’t argue with her about that.
The visit (and the trip in general) feels like something of a victory lap, only no one in the party knows what they’re really supposed to be celebrating. But that doesn’t stop the well-intentioned David from trying to let the old man have some dignity, even if he doesn’t understand what he really plans to do with the fortune. Although Nebraska isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea – it’s in black and white after all! – it’s a bittersweet and moving story that anyone familiar with generation gaps, familial differences and small towns will find relatable. Its understated style likely won’t bring it home too many awards, but its universality gives it a timelessness that makes the film seem as if it would feel relevant and current in any era.
Maybe that’s what really matters.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently covers the Carolina Panthers for Football.com, as well as the Chicago Bulls for Yahoo Sports, and previously covered college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time in the near future.