November 24, 2010 / 2:18 AM / 8 years ago

Documentaries aim to make Oscar history

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - In the 82-year history of the Academy Awards, no documentary has been nominated for best picture.

Director and writer Davis Guggenheim is interviewed at the premiere of the documentary "Waiting for 'Superman" during the Los Angeles Film Festival June 21, 2010. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Instead, since 1942, documentary features have been recognized in their own category, separate from the balloons and confetti showered on the best picture contenders. Technically, any doc that completes a one-week qualifying run in a Los Angeles County theater also is eligible to compete for the big prize, but somehow, when it comes to best picture, Oscar voters have consistently tuned documentaries out.

This year, though, several documentaries — among them “Inside Job,” Charles Ferguson’s autopsy of the 2008 financial crisis, and “Waiting for Superman,” Davis Guggenheim’s failing report card on the nation’s school system — are positioning themselves to make a run at the big prize. Their camps are preparing to send out screeners, arguing that their respective films are worthy best picture contenders.

Good luck. Any documentary hoping to score a best picture nom still faces a daunting, uphill battle. Six years ago, Michael Moore decided to challenge the odds. Having already won a feature documentary Oscar for his anti-gun diatribe “Bowling for Columbine,” he was riding high on the firestorm surrounding “Fahrenheit 9/11,” his blistering attack on George W. Bush’s post-9/11 march toward the invasion of Iraq.

The movie had won the Palme d’Or, the top prize at Cannes — the first documentary to take home that honor in 48 years. It was on its way to grossing $119.2 million domestically, making it the top-grossing documentary of all time.

So Moore decided not to submit in the documentary category — he was eager to air the film on TV in hope of influencing the 2006 election, and the proposed broadcast ran up against documentary-category rules. But while Moore claimed, “For me, the real Oscar would be Bush’s defeat on November 2,” he also reminded Academy voters that they still could nominate his movie for best picture.

Moore struck out on both counts: Bush was re-elected, and “Fahrenheit” didn’t turn up among that year’s best picture nominees.

This year, though, the chances of a documentary breaking through are better — though still slight. By widening the best picture race to 10 nominees, the Academy opened a door, however narrow. And the genre is ripe for recognition. Documentary filmmakers have been busy, turning out an eclectic array of movies, training their cameras on everything from infants (“Babies”) to Facebook friendships (“Catfish”), from showbiz survivors (“Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work”) to political scandals (“Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer”).

While the studios have retreated into escapism, documentary filmmakers have been tackling hot-button issues that often resonate with the more politically engaged members of the Academy. “Waiting for Superman” and “Inside Job,” two of the year’s highest-profile titles, have gotten the kind of outsize attention that belies their modest box-office returns ($6 million and $1.6 million, respectively).

Both documentaries, while relying heavily on standard interview techniques, also inject plenty of drama into the mix. And both movies made the shortlist of 15 films being considered for best documentary feature honors. But they could go beyond just that category.

“Superman,” backed by one of Participant Media’s trademark social-action campaigns, premiered in Washington, where it injected itself directly into a heated debate over the city’s sweeping efforts at school reform. It also drew a sharp rebuke from the American Federation of Teachers — the film treats the teachers union as something of a villain — whose president, Randi Weingarten complained, “It is insulting and counterproductive to suggest, as the film does, that the deplorable behavior of one or two teachers is representative of all public-school teachers.”

Meanwhile, New York Times columnist Frank Rich has championed “Inside Job” — with its rogues’ gallery of reckless financial executives, feckless academic economists and their government enablers — saying, “It’s hard to imagine a movie more serious, and more urgent.”

Those type of attacks and endorsements should be enough to attract the attention of Academy voters. And if there’s an added reason to invite a documentary into the best picture circle, it’s that documentary filmmakers have, on more than one occasion, provided the Oscars with some of their most contentious moments.

When Moore won in 2003, just days after the beginning of the Iraq War, he launched into an attack on the president for starting a “war for fictitious reasons” that met with applause and boos from the Oscar audience.

But that paled compared with the acrimony that surfaced in 1975, when producer Bert Schneider used his acceptance speech for the winning Vietnam documentary “Hearts and Minds” to thank the anti-war movement and send “greetings of friendship” to the Viet Cong. An enraged Bob Hope responded by pushing Frank Sinatra onstage to disavow Schneider’s remarks.

But if documentaries can be so attention-getting, why hasn’t the Academy given one the full embrace of a best picture nom? In part, it’s because once a separate category for docs was created, some voters felt they’d done their duty. It was the same type of thinking that kept animated movies out of recent best picture contention until “Up” broke through at the previous Oscars.

Also, within the Academy, documentaries have the smallest constituency. The relatively new documentary branch has just 151 members; by contrast, the dominant actors’ branch has 1,205 members. The challenge for any nonfiction film, which by definition involves nonactors, is getting the actors in the Academy to pay attention to something other than themselves. By that measure, “Inside Job’s” best claim to a best picture nomination might be the fact it’s narrated by Matt Damon.

Finally, in the contest for awards-season attention, documentaries suffer because most documentary filmmakers are accustomed to fading into the background — Moore being the larger-than-life exception that proves the rule. In movies like “Job,” “Superman” and “Client 9,” their directors are heard — as off-screen voices, interrogating their subjects — but not seen. One film, “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” was even made by a director — graffiti artist Bansky — who, though no stranger to publicity, vigilantly maintains an aura of mystery and anonymity.

Because they avoid taking center stage, those directors might serve their films well but not their films’ best picture prospects. When it comes to courting Oscar, self-promotion is the name of the game.

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