So why was Life Itself snubbed?January 21, 2015
By Nina Metz of the Chicago Tribune
CHICAGO — When this year’s Academy Award nominations were announced last week, there were a few notable omissions. On the documentary side, that distinction goes to Life Itself.
A portrait of the life (and final days) of Roger Ebert — a man whose name was synonymous with movies — the film was considered a shoo-in. How did a front-runner get booted from the race entirely? No one saw that coming. It scored a 97 percent approval rating on the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes. And yet: blanked. How…unexpected.
Oscar rejection is familiar territory for the film’s Chicago-based director, Steve James, who has yet to see one of his films nominated. The tally began exactly 20 years ago with the freeze-out of his acclaimed documentary debut, Hoop Dreams. Ironically it was Ebert who went to bat for that film, raging against its exclusion.
In my interviews with him over the years James has had a prepossessing, steady-as-she-goes personality, and in the wake of his latest exile from contention he was characteristically unruffled. “That may be a function of me personally,” he said. “I tend to be a cautious pessimist when it comes to these kinds of things.”
This year, he noted, was first time there was a formalized Oscar campaign for one of his movies, urged on and financed by Magnolia Pictures (the film’s theatrical distributor) and CNN (which began broadcasting the film this month).
“There were people and resources and a desire to really actively get a nomination, and I thought, ‘Well, I think this might be the year,’ you know? I really did. But as soon as I saw the announcement stream live on the Oscar website, I was surprised, but I wasn’t shocked, given my history.”
Three years ago James’ The Interrupters notably got the brushoff as well.
“Look,” he said, “I’m like any other filmmaker — I’d like to get nominated and I’d love a shot at winning an Oscar. But I think you can ask my wife, it’s not like I moped around all day depressed. She’s sitting right here — right, dear?” he called out to her. “‘That’s right,’ she says.”
And yet James is as curious as anyone about why things shook out the way they did.
Before we commence the chin-stroking, this might be a good moment to revisit William Goldman’s nonfiction classic Adventures in the Screen Trade and remind ourselves that (as Goldman so aptly put it) when it comes to the movies, nobody knows anything.
That said: Let the speculation begin.
“The question of why the film wasn’t nominated is one we’ll probably be asking ourselves until the next major snub comes along, because they do happen on a fairly regular basis,” Gold Derby senior editor Daniel Montgomery said.
“In this case, one has to wonder about the relationship between critics and the industry they cover. Were voters reluctant to honor a man who may have spoken unfavorably about their work or their colleagues’ work? I hope not. Ebert was a critic, of course, but he was also a fierce advocate for film, documentaries in particular.”
If a fraught dynamic exists between artists and critics, Ebert often transcended that acrimony. He was a national brand and widely read; his support of small documentaries had a measurable impact. Is it cynical to assume this quality, coupled with a perceived sentimental duty to mark his legacy, should have secured Life Itself a nomination?
Ebert was a towering figure among journalists. That context is worth remembering when trying to suss out what happened here. We in the media steer the conversation and it’s no surprise that we are drawn to a movie about one of our own. (On the same day Life Itself failed to score an Oscar nomination, it won best documentary at the Critics’ Choice Awards.)
But it is also possible we miscalculated the documentary’s stature outside our own circles. Maybe people think the film is overrated. Maybe it is even more banal than that. Perhaps there is less interest in the man at the center of the movie than we media types would have guessed.
“Maybe there was resistance (to Ebert) there,” Montgomery said. “The snub of the filmmaker is much harder to fathom. After Hoop Dreams missed out, there was the strong sense that Steve James was owed some recognition, and it’s very common for the Oscars to try to right past wrongs — just look at Julianne Moore this year, who is the front-runner to win best actress as much for her four past losses as for Still Alice — so it was doubly surprising when they snubbed James for The Interrupters, and now they won’t even nominate his film about the man who championed Hoop Dreams in the first place. If I were him, I might start to take it personally.”
Is it personal? Or something more tangled? Let’s step back a moment and look at how the process works. It’s been a complicated formula nominating documentaries in years past. The current the system, though, makes a decent amount of sense.
The process of winnowing to a shortlist, and then winnowing that to a list of five nominees, is determined solely by the academy’s documentary branch, a voting group of fewer than 250 members. James himself joined the branch five years ago.
Here’s how it works: All the eligible documentaries (in recent years that number has been around 150) are put to an initial vote. The top 15 make the shortlist, which is announced in early December. Life Itself made that first cut.
The final five nominees are then selected from the shortlist. Once the nominations are in, only then does the vote go to the 6,000-plus academy members (actors, designers, producers, everyone) who select the winner.
That’s a streamlined version of a process that had formerly been a minefield of regulations and convoluted arithmetic. To the academy’s credit, the system has been through meaningful revisions in the 20 years since Hoop Dreams was left out.
That still leaves the question of why Life Itself didn’t make the cut this year.
Even the Chicago doc house that helped produce the film is at a loss. “Not that knowing why would make much difference in the outcome,” Kartemquin Films communications director Tim Horsburgh tweeted in a conversation with Criticwire editor Samuel Adams. “Maybe it truly is some powerful f—ers’ eternal grudge.”
Cooler heads might have advised against such a tweet. But is there anything to that?
It seems far-fetched. James is well-known and liked in the documentary community. “He’s a legend in our field with an incredible body of work,” nominated filmmaker Laura Poitras told Variety. Citizenfour, her documentary about Edward Snowden, is considered the favorite to win. “I assumed his film would be nominated, so it’s a bit of a heartbreak.”
But if you want to entertain a conspiracy theory, here’s some fuel for the fire: At least one publication has suggested there was some funny business going on back when “Hoop Dreams” was eligible.
In a 1995 piece in Entertainment Weekly titled “How Hoop Got Blackballed,” writer Alan Adelson reported that the film’s exclusion was likely the handiwork of just one person.
Back then nominees were selected by a tiny committee comprising 15-18 members (by Adelson’s estimate):
“According to one shocked insider, in the committee’s pre-scoring discussion one voter cautioned that if Hoop Dreams were nominated, it would surely win. He appealed to his fellow members to preserve other films’ chances of winning the Oscar by denying Hoop Dreams a nomination altogether.”
Think about that. If Adelson’s numbers are right, fewer than 20 people picked the documentary nominations that year.
But here we are, two decades later, with a vastly improved system and substantially augmented voting pool. You could argue that documentary filmmakers are as susceptible to petty gripes and craven careerism as anyone else in the movie business. But it takes a certain amount of paranoia to believe that one person (or even a handful of people) has been plotting a continued freeze-out.
Even if you think the results of this year’s vote were determined by factors other than merit — even if you believe there is lingering resentment over Ebert’s particularly intense support of James’ work to the (perceived) exclusion of others — the idea of an organized scheme to blackball James seems like a stretch.
“I don’t think documentary filmmakers have such cutthroat, cynical ambition,” filmmaker James Marsh said via email from the U.K. Marsh’s documentary Man on Wire won the best documentary Oscar in 2009. This year, his narrative feature The Theory of Everything is nominated for best picture (though not, in another Oscar peculiarity, best director).
Like James, Marsh is a voting member of the documentary branch and waved away notions of a backroom plot.
“I don’t think there is much groupthink or sophisticated second-guessing amongst the voters. We are just a bunch of individuals who have very little contact with each other, and I suspect most people vote like me — because they genuinely like and respect the films they vote for. The one obvious flaw in the system is that there is no enforceable obligation to watch all the films you are sent and inevitably people cherry-pick their films. In that respect, I expect ‘Life Itself’ was probably seen quite widely. It had a profile that many other documentaries would lack.”
Marsh offered up this hypothesis: “It might be that a portrait of the life (and death) of a beloved film critic didn’t have a strong enough social or political dimension for the majority of the voters. And of course, I disagree with that as someone who voted for the movie on my ballot. But that’s democracy, however flawed it is.”
There may be something to that theory. For the past two years, the documentary winners have been accessible stories about the music business (Searching for Sugar Man and 20 Feet From Stardom) rather than films tackling geopolitical or human rights issues.
Among the films on this year’s shortlist, “Citizenfour” and Life Itself were considered the two main contenders. The handicapping tended to frame the contest in terms of the important film about the U.S. government spying on its own citizens versus the human-interest film about a guy in the Midwest who wrote about movies.
Maybe the documentary branch wanted to restore a more serious-minded patina to the award. If you follow that theory, they were hedging their bets to ensure that the navel-gazing members of the full academy didn’t foul up and rally around the man who gave them a thumbs up one or two times.
The thing is, every time you float an argument about why Life Itself wasn’t nominated, the opposite could be just as true.
Gold Derby’s Montgomery doesn’t buy that the “documentary branch voted strategically to bolster a more political film.” Why? Because, according to his calculations, the Poitras film was the front-runner even before Life Itself was shut out.
“And if Life Itself had been nominated and won,” he said, “I don’t think anyone would have thought less of the academy.” I think that’s right.
Maybe being the big populist movie of the year actually hurt Life Itself. The film got a lot attention and had an in-your-face Twitter presence. Maybe that turned voters off. Or they assumed the film was a lock and chose to support underdog titles that weren’t as visible.
Marsh said his Man on Wire win was “very helpful in allowing me to make my next documentary film very quickly with a decent budget.” So a win can offer tangible results. But James, who has never been in the running, had a different perspective.
“I’m one of the lucky ones,” he said. “I really mean that. If I want to do a film, so far, knock wood, I’ve been able to get the funding. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard, but I’ve been able to do it. And in the world of filmmaking, there aren’t that many people for whom that’s true. So I’m really fortunate. So yeah, if I won an Oscar it would probably help more. But it’s not like not winning is hurting my career.”
There is one final potential explanation why Life Itself wasn’t nominated, and it is the least convoluted of them all. For those involved in the film’s making or distribution, it is also the toughest to swallow. Not surprisingly, given his unflappable disposition, it was James who voiced it: “I guess the documentary branch simply felt five other films were better.”
He wasn’t feeling sorry for himself. Just acknowledging a very real possibility.
“What helps me try to maintain the right attitude is that each time this has happened, I’ve gotten such tremendous support from my colleagues, writing me, emailing me, going on Facebook now,” he said. “I’ve heard from filmmakers I admire — including people who are nominated — reaching out to say how much the film meant to them and how sorry they are.
“I’ve gotten so much support getting snubbed that it really means a lot to me,” he added, and then laughed as he offered up this final thought: “It might be more meaningful than being nominated, although I don’t really know because I haven’t had the other experience.”