For the second year in the row the humbly self-titled “Australian Oscars”, or the AACTA Awards, gave a single film all but one of the awards for which it was nominated. Last year’s belle of the ball was Wayne Blair’s The Sapphires, which won 11 awards from 12 nominations (it missed out on visual effects) including film, director, actor, actress, supporting actress, adapted screenplay and all the technical craft categories that one would think could have been divvied up amongst the competitors for the sake of fairness, transparency, and, well, maybe because other movies deserved them. This year’s big winner at the ceremony held last week in Sydney was Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, which stormed home winning 12 of the 14 awards it was nominated for as well as a special honorary award for the visual effects, a category that the AACTA people curiously decided to axe after last year’s ceremony despite being a truly globally recognised industry in which Australians are successful. The two categories it lost? Best actress, which went to Rose Byrne for a seven-minute performance in the portmanteau Tim Winton adaptation of The Turning, and supporting actress, which was a matter of Isla Fisher losing to Elizabeth Debecki so it doesn’t quite count. Such all-encompassing hauls hadn’t been seen since the infamous 2003 ceremony where one of the industry’s weakest years of record gave way to Somersault‘s 13 awards.
At the time of the nomination announcements I had said, “The Great Gatsby would feel like a strange winner given the rumblings about whether it even deserves to be called an Australian film”, and that “I think it will be between the tiny south-Asian charms ofThe Rocket and the mammoth undertaking of 3-hour omnibus ensemble The Turning for the win.” Given those two films were arguably the most high profile and critically acclaimed of not just the six-wide best film roster, but also of Australian film in general for 2013 (excluding Gatsby, of course, which had a bit of an unfair advantage in that arena), it seems perplexing that the AACTA voters would send them home with only one each (original screenplay and actress respectively) while showering trophies on Luhrmann’s extravagant, big-budget F. Scott Fitzgerald adaptation as if anybody is going to see its tally and think “Well now you’ve convinced me!”
Perplexing, and also worrying. No, it’s not the AACTA’s job to reward the little films that need the awards and the exposure (like Mystery Road or Dead Europe) over large-scale pictures with more money and resources behind them. However, in only the third year of their new existence as the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts, the organization is in dire jeopardy of falling into the very trap that they had so desperately wanted to avoid: irrelevance.
By creating “the Academy”, the Australian Film Institute (yes, I know all these names are confusing, but bear with me – the AFI are AMPAS; the AACTA Awards are the Oscars) had hoped to find themselves a bigger slice of the international awards season pie and thus, in theory, allow for more exposure of the many people and films that Australians should be proud to call our own. In line with this more Americanised view of the world, they also moved the annual awards into the ceremony-heavy month of January (which means many actors likely wouldn’t be able to go, resulting in Luhrmann accepting on best actor winner Leonardo DiCaprio’s behalf because why would he care to go when he’s doing publicity to win an Oscar for The Wolf of Wall Street?) and created the bizarre, embarrassing folly of the international awards.
In three years they’ve seemingly squandered any good will the AFI Awards of old had in the way they were one of only maybe two or three places that local technicians, filmmakers and performers could see their work honored barring an. Nowadays it appears most of the organisation’s funds are being funneled into the back-patting international awards that this year awarded the likes of Gravity, 12 Years a Slave and American Hustle; awards that surely the recipients have little concept on, awards that nobody in Australia cares about, and awards that few on the lucrative Oscar watching circuit pay attention to, either. And now with the development of award sweeps by The Sapphires and The Great Gatsby, they are perilously close to deserting the industry altogether.
Now, I am not saying that the people behind these two movies were not deserving, and Catherine Martin especially was quite spot on in her acceptance speech citing that there’s plenty of room within this industry to encompass all sorts of visions not only of Australia, but of the world. However, the AACTA people are going to find it increasingly difficult to find support and sympathy amongst the industry for the ailing and cash-strapped awards if they continue to simply dole out statues to whatever made the most money or acquired the largest international distributer (The Sapphires, let’s remember, was picked up by The Weinstein Company as well as being the highest-grossing film of its year). It is all well and good for AACTA CEO Damian Trewhella and AFI Chair Alan Finney to complain about ambivalence towards the annual event when the voters – of which I used to be one, but not anymore – seem, at least superficially, more interested in glitz and click-bait attention-grabbing sweeps.
If the AACTA – or is it the AFI? – are truly interested in fostering local talent and building the industry into a globally-recognised brand, then giving 12 statues to The Great Gatsby is the exact wrong way about doing it. Nothing paints a more a dire portrait of the Australian film industry. The Great Gatsby is not just the best film of the year, but the best everything, apparently! And I’m one who wrote a 2013 article for Metro Magazine defending The Great Gatsby as well as its controversial status as an Australian film. I can’t imagine international producers and filmmakers looking at these results and thinking, “I want to make a film there!” Rather, these results say nothing else than, “Without the bucks and the buzz, there’s no point.” Even in 2011, the first year of the newly-coined awards, the best film prize was given to Red Dog, a massive box office hit that otherwise didn’t win a single award elsewhere (most went to Snowtown). Even when avoiding the sweeps of the last two years they seem to prize stature and size over everything else. In retrospect, that Red Dog win a disturbing harbinger of things to come.
Laurence Barber in The Guardian similarly observed that “it is a somewhat embarrassing reflection of what’s important to our industry to see the significance of money and celebrity placed on the ceremony’s highest pedestal.” Furthermore, as former AFI employee Rochelle Siemienowicz described in her report for ArtsHub, the night was one filled with “glistening buckets of Moët champagne”, a “ritzy three-course menu (including spanner crab, duck and barramundi)”, and plentiful, fervent jokes about the divide between the industry classes. Was Luhrmann the night’s event organiser?
That The Great Gatsby wasn’t exactly met by the feverish, ecstatic critical response that Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom (a best film winner in 1992) or Moulin Rouge! (a big tech winner, but losing to Lantana in the big categories in 2001) received makes the outcome even stranger. The “academy” certainly don’t owe Luhrmann anything, given he’s a seven-time nominee and two-time winner (plus the Byron Kennedy Award in 1999). Lest we forget they didn’t even nominate Australia, the second-highest grossing Australian film of all time, for film or directing prizes in 2009 following a misplaced wave of cultural cringe. And to further the point, Luhrmann received a weirdly out of place tribute that featured a performance of a song from Luhrmann’s only film to not be an official Australian production or co-production (that would be Romeo + Juliet) as well as one of “Lady Marmalade”. It was as if they cared none for the other nominees, and rather figured they’d place all their eggs in Baz’s silver-lined basket.
The omission of Australia from 2009’s nominees seems like a telling dividing line between the AFI Awards of old and the AACTA Awards that exist today. One year later the much-loved Animal Kingdom was big with voters as well as Oscar (Jacki Weaver was Oscar-nominated for best supporting actress) and one year after that Australia’s own Academy was forged and it’s hard not to see the parallels. It’s amusing, however, to note that at the same time this is happening, the Academy Awards are trending down in terms of sweeping epics, with several years in a row of several films scooping three or four trophies each.
Were this year’s awards merely a way to get Luhrmann and wife/collaborator Catherine Martin in the American press where she is fighting to become one of Australia’s most Oscared individuals with costume and production design nominations for The Great Gatsby? Were these awards a big sloppy thank you to Luhrmann and all the money he brought into the country, theaters (it made $29-million at the local box-office), and industry? Were they systematic attempts to officially stamp a new dawn of the Australian industry that actively chooses financial success over everything else? I guess we’ll never know, but perhaps signaling television’s more broad success, the top categories on the small screen side of the night were more evenly spread amongst the likes of of Top of the Lake, Please Like Me, Offspring, Nowhere Boys and Redfern Now with others like Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and Mrs Briggs scooping deserved technical prizes.
Thankfully 2014 is looking up in terms of Australian cinema following the rather disastrous results of 2013 where the year’s second highest-grossing Australian film only needed one weekend to get there (that would be Transmission Films’ Boxing Day release The Railway Man with Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman). Jonathan Teplitzky’s WWII drama will undoubtedly feature prominently in next year’s AACTA Awards – and despite its 2013 release date, it will conveniently slot into next year’s eligibility period for the same year that The Weinstein Company will be pushing it for stateside awards success – alongside a healthy roster of titles that includes Venice premieres Tracks and Wolf Creek 2, David Michod’s The Rover, Kriv Stenders’ Kill Me Three Times with Simon Pegg, MIFF hit These Final Hours, Matthew Saville’s big screen return Felony (which I have seen and is really bloody good), WWII drama Canopy, the two Sundance titles The Babadook (which is excellent) and 52 Excellent (also excellent), I Frankenstein (which is not so excellent), Craig Monahan’s first film in a decade, The Healing, Rhys Graham’s buzzed Berlin screener Galore, Tony Ayres’ Cut Snake, Son of a Gun starring Ewan McGregor, The Reckoning with Luke Hemsworth, Rolf de Heer’s Charlie’s Country, the Spierig Brothers’ Predestination, Portia de Rossi comedy Now Add Honey, Robert Connelly’s Paper Planes, and more all looking (or having already proven to be) solid hits with critics and hopefully audiences, too.
On one hand I do feel slightly bad for The Great Gatsby and everybody behind it since it has gotten somewhat unfairly tainted with a broad brush by most commentators that it was an undeserving winner. Whether one’s personal favourite won or didn’t isn’t really the point. Rather it’s about the attitude that appears to be developing that our national film awards, arguably the highest peak that many Australian films will reach in terms of peer recognition, are quickly becoming little more than a public victory lap for whichever single film managed to make its way through the cracks of cynical Australian audiences and became a hit that also isn’t entire embarrassing to reward (Kath & Kimderella, however…) To quote Guy Lodge of Variety and InContention on Twitter: “I know it wasn’t a *banner* year for Ozfilm, but…”
Congratulations to Baz and his team, but for the sake of Australian film, which I obviously love, I hope this isn’t something we’re going to have to get used to.