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The Conservative Academy: From Midnight Cowboy to Now

Director Ben Affleck’s film Argo recently took home the Oscar for best picture. The film tells the story of one man’s incredibly dangerous plan to rescue 6 American citizens in hostile Iran. The film is thrilling and extremely well made. Affleck has become one of the most respected directors in the game today, and Argo is a perfect example of mainstream narrative filmmaking.

While Argo is extremely successful in what it wants to accomplish, it is, in my opinion, also representative of the conservative nature of the Academy today. A couple of years ago, the format for nominations for best picture changed from picking 5 nominees to being able to nominate UP TO 10.

At this year’s Academy Awards, 9 pictures were nominated, with one picture being snubbed from the final spot; a film that walks the line between mainstream and avant-garde; a film regarded by many critics as the year’s best.

This film, The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest, is, in my opinion, truly a work of art.

Upon receiving his Golden Globe for best director for “Argo”, Affleck went as far as to call Paul Thomas Anderson this generation’s Orson Welles, a statement I find hard to argue with. It’s true that The Master can be divided into a 3-act story, but generally every film has a beginning, middle, and end. An exception to that rule would be Leos Carax’s film from this past year, Holy Motors, an extraordinary film that received no attention from the Academy. The film is more a collection of vignettes strung together where we follow one man in the course of one day as he completes a series of tasks for his “occupation” of sorts. It is simply a film to marvel at for its eccentricities and its creativity.

The main reason I even write this piece claiming how the Academy has become much more conservative in time is due to my recent viewing of the 1969 Best Picture winner Midnight Cowboy. At the time of its release, Midnight Cowboy was rated X. It is the only film to be given an X rating and win an Academy Award. Upon completion, my very first thought was that the film would have NEVER even been considered for best picture if it were released this year. It is far to “artsy.” It is far too “avant-garde”.

Going back to the rating, the MPAA did eventually change Midnight Cowboy from rated X to the standard rated R; the rating it would undoubtedly receive if it came out today. Rated X only refers to pornography these days. The most adult rating shy of X is NC-17, a rarity in its own regard. Lately however, it seems as if more NC-17 films have been popping up. Steve McQueen’s Shame, my favorite film in the last 2 years now, definitely garnered the rating. William Friedkin’s Killer Joe garnered the rating for one disturbing scene in particular. A couple of films recently received the uncommon NC-17 and people behind the films argued against the rating believing it deserved an R. General knowledge is that rated R films will be more financially successful than NC-17 films. Blue Valentine, from a couple years ago, initially was NC-17 but convinced the MPAA to make it R. The remake of The Evil Dead, coming out in a couple weeks, initially received an NC-17 rating and now is being recut to fit the rated R guidelines.

Why does McQueen’s brilliant “Shame” and Friedkin’s artfully crafted Neo-noir “Killer Joe” receive no recognition from the Academy? I recognize that part of this argument is a matter of opinion, that people may not feel that films such as these deserve recognition. I’m simply stating that NC-17 films should be considered if they deserve it just as Midnight Cowboy was recognized back in 1969.

If “Midnight Cowboy” came out today, Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight would most likely be nominated for acting awards (given that the performances wouldn’t be outdated then) but it would not be nominated for best picture, similar to the recognition Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams garnered for acting in “The Master”, while the film itself was snubbed for best picture.

“Midnight Cowboy” follows a 3-act story. Voight’s character moves from Texas to New York to become a hustler. He fails, and befriends a crippled Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman’s dying wish is to go to Florida, and Voight decides to go with him. It turns into a buddy film. But what words cannot describe is the unbelievably disturbing editing technique that director John Schlesinger utilizes to leave viewers horrified and perplexed. It is incredibly effective editing that does not sacrifice story for style, but contrarily adds grittiness to Schlesinger’s idea of a troubling NYC society. The editing immediately disqualifies the film from being considered “mainstream” and shows that back in 1969 the Academy was not afraid to stare controversial film in the eye and applaud it. (About halfway through the YouTube video, the editing technique is on full display)

Here’s to Midnight Cowboy and how it is representative of the courage the Academy used to have. Too much of the film industry is about box office numbers now. What gets lost is the fact that cinema is very much a form of art. Story is only part of film. Rating and unconventional storytelling should not influence what the Academy recognizes as the year’s best in cinema when occasionally those types of films are far and away better than some of the films that do get nominated for best picture (cough, cough Les Miserables). Here’s to hoping for a less conservative Academy in the future.

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About Greg Davis

Greg Davis is a graduate of the University of Florida with a major in English and a concentration in Film and Media Studies. He is currently residing in Los Angeles working as a production assistant.

One comment

  1. i thought Argo a well made film and Ben Affleck and his cast terrific, however, when the most
    exciting thing that happens is whether you can cross a movie set when the red light is on,
    well you have to wonder