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Expert Comment: The 2014 Oscars

0154 Dr Jacqui Miller Tuesday 4 March 2014

Senior Lecturer in Media Dr Jacqui Miller looks at the winners and losers from the 86th Academy Awards.

The Academy Awards are always a key point in the film industry’s calendar, revealing as they do Hollywood’s relationship with creative development and socio-political commentary. A review of 2014’s Oscars may reveal some predictable winners, but also that Hollywood is still breaking new boundaries and recognising a more truly global cinematic community than ever before.

In 1939, Hattie McDaniel was the first black actor to win an Oscar, in that instance for Best Supporting Actress. This was a wonderful achievement for McDaniel, but she was playing a slave, Scarlett O’Hara’s ‘Mamie’ in Gone With the Wind. It has taken another seventy-five years for a black artist to win Producer of the Best Picture, but rather than playing a subordinate, comedic role, accepting of slavery as did Daniels, the British director, Steve McQueen, long associated with controversial subjects including the 1981 Irish hunger strike in Hunger  and sex addiction in Shame, produced 12 Years a Slave, countering Hollywood’s tradition of re-telling the African-American experience through the white perspective.

The tackling head-on of difficult historical episodes in a way that spared no detail but was yet life-affirming carried through to the winner of Best Documentary Short Feature, The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life. Its subject, Alice Herz-Sommer, was the oldest survivor of the Holocaust, whose piano-playing, even whilst in a concentration camp, enabled her to feel that she was with God.

One film dominated both the nominations and the awards: Gravity. Whilst in some ways seeming to be the epitome of a conventional Hollywood block-buster, this film in fact raises questions about both about the shifting definition of the industry, and the nature of creative filmmaking.

Gravity can be claimed as a Hollywood film – it has two stars, George Clooney and Sandra Bullock who are bywords for bankable glamour. Through its director, Alfonso Cuarón, its has been cited as part of the Mexican film renaissance (he is the first Latino to win Best Director). It is also claimed as a British film; all the filming except the stars’ faces was done in the UK. Thus, Gravity is a transnational film and demonstrates that filmmaking no longer lives in national boxes. However, the UK component is the most important.

I believe the team winning the Oscar for Special Effects, have for the first time demonstrated that CGI may take its place alongside lighting and cinematography as a truly creative aspect of film art. Overall, alongside the inevitable star gazing and frock watching, this year’s Oscars provide a sense that film remains a dynamic cultural barometer.

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