Besides the obvious geekdom of loving movie nostalgia, the other reason I enjoy researching the Oscar races is because of what these awards have meant to our culture. More so than any other art form in the past century, the movies have a way of predicting, commenting upon, and reflecting our times. The Oscars have always been at the forefront of this social commentary. Now the results are not always an easy black and white ratio. So as to say, if we are in happy times then happy films win or in sad times, sad films win. People work in strange ways and the yearnings of our social consciousness can come out of left field.
For instance, in the 60s, Americans were torn and the movies were rapidly approaching more challenging subject matter. Yet, for three straight years, smack in the middle of the decade, light and forgettable fair took home the Oscar (My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, A Man For All Seasons, respectively). However, this turned out to be the calm before the storm as from 1969-1976, the Oscars had some of their most boundary-pushing years ever. It sometimes takes Hollywood a little while to catch up, but once they do, they can be a compelling parroting document of the culture at-large.
Last year, I was convinced that 50/50 would get a huge push for an Oscar. The story was a small, metaphorical tale of friendly love in the time of economic strife. It was a simple story of relying on one another. Just what we need in a time where reliance feels so tenuous. Much to my surprise, 50/50 was not even in the conversation at all. The year before I predicted that The Blind Side might get some Oscar love, seeing as the Oscars have a way of over-compensating for social turmoil. They want the nation to get better as much as anybody. So a sappy feel good story about the very American game of football, with light/friendly looks at positive racial relations, made sense.
This year, I think The Sessions has a strong chance of getting into the Oscar race for Best Picture. The reason? Well, the outstanding reviews help a lot, but also the mature subject matter about a topic that we all love to think about but hate to talk about: sex. And it’s sex with a topical twist, about a disabled man who, just like anybody else, wants to be loved. Also, the performances are top notch. We know just walking in the door that John Hawkes will be nominated for Best Actor. Helen Hunt, an old favorite who’s been outside the Oscar radar for a while, is as safe a bet as any in the Supporting category. Ben Lewin, whose heartfelt script was born out of his own experiences with polio, seems ripe for the kind of feel good story that Hollywood loves to promote. Additionally, the tone of The Sessions, with it’s adult humor and friendly tone, plays right in Oscars’ wheelhouse. With so many obvious “zeitgeist” movies out there (Lincoln, Argo, Zero Dark Thirty), The Sessions might strike the right balance.
So how does this reflect our times? Well, the Oscars have a way of handing over hardware to small pictures that don’t get too overly-zeitgeisty about their material when they decide to be socially-oriented. Instead, socially-charged Oscar pictures tend to let subtlety of the writing and the character study stand as a bigger issue. Throughout the 70s, character-driven pictures that only had shades of social commentary were often awarded. This is to say, that movies like Network are an aberration because of its confrontational way of announcing, “This world needs changing!” However, even Network zeroes-in on specific people in a very specific industry. Just as The Sessions zeroes-in on a specific man looking to achieve a relatable goal. The last confrontational film to gain attention was American Beauty. Like Network, Beauty was a satire, with wit to off-set its cultural frustrations.
The Sessions is a period piece about a topic that gets pushed deeper behind the curtain the further back we go. However, to the film’s credit, the world around the story never really comes into play. We never get obvious scenes such as the Town Hall or the University outraged about sexual therapy or the thought of a disabled man having sex. Instead, the film remains tightened on only the characters and their relatable emotions. The Oscars like to think that a small story can be a needle point for the greater climate. The Sessions does this very well.
In my opinion, The Sessions looks like a bubble movie in the vein of Moneyball, The Ides of March, The Blind Side, and 50/50. Two of those movie remained on the fence all the way until the day of nominations, and actually wound up getting in. The other two fizzled into obscurity before anyone took them all that seriously. Interestingly, you could argue that 50/50 was too personal and not zeitgeisty enough, while The Ides of March was too forceful in its opinions. Like Moneyball and The Blind Side, The Sessions is a true story that might have just the right balance to sneak between the lines.