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And the Scroll Goes To...

Why the National Society of Film Critics matters more than the Oscars

Who can forget that iconic moment — nearly 20 years ago now — when Steve Martin became only the third man, after Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman, to win a second best actor award, and, ignoring the auspiciousness of the occasion, suddenly reverted back to form by declaring from the podium, and to a world-wide audience measured in the hundreds of millions, “I am...one wild and crazy guy!” It brought down the house.

A year later when Michael Keaton won for “Beetlejuice,” Newsweek ran their feature article “Does the Society Ignore Dramatic Actors?” which included bellyaches from several unnamed sources — generally believed to be Michael Douglas and William Hurt — declaring that a quiet, dramatic role just couldn’t compete with the over-the-top comedic performances the Society apparently favored. That point seemed moot a year later when Daniel Day-Lewis won for “My Left Foot.” The year after that, of course, Martin Scorsese picked up his third best director award, for “Goodfellas,” but this one mattered the most to him, he said backstage, because it was the first time his film won best picture, too. His previous best director awards, for “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull,” had lost in the picture category to, respectively, “All the President’s Men” and “Melvin and Howard.”

Not coincidentally, 1990 was also the year the Society finally caved in to years of Hollywood lobbying and instituted their “Best foreign language film” category, which allowed more Hollywood movies to win best picture, instead of awarding it to, in Robert Evans’ colorful phrase, “The Swedes. Always the f--ing Swedes.” As a result, throughout the 90s, Hollywood features as diverse as “Pulp Fiction” and “Babe” picked up the coveted prize. But in 2000 the Society bitchslapped Hollywood again by awarding best picture to Edward Yang’s Chinese-language “Yi Yi,” and gave no best foreign language film award. “This was a horses--t year for Hollywood,” a Society insider told “Entertainment Weekly” in January 2001. “And we don’t give shit to horseshit.”

Should I end the fantasy here? Yes, it’s a fantasy (the speeches, the articles, the Robert Evans’ quote), and yet it’s not. The above-mentioned awards (or scrolls) were given out (or mailed) by the National Society of Film Critics (NSFC), a now-57-member organization of film critics from major magazines and newspapers and online pubs who have been giving out awards (or mailing scrolls) since 1966. The fantasy portion is that anyone outside the industry cared.

Can Hollywood police itself?

NSFC is just one of the many groups that dole out awards in the lead-up to the Oscars, but it’s always the Oscars that matter. The Oscars bring out the stars and the speeches and the gowns and the Oscar pools and the controversy. Other awards only matter in how they affect — or reflect — the Oscars. But why?

The Oscars aren’t the oldest movie awards. The National Board of Review began in 1920, nearly a decade before the Oscars. The Oscars also police themselves, a messy business. Actors nominate actors, directors directors, etc., and then everybody votes in the grand finale. This isn’t necessarily true in other industries. The most prestigious awards in Major League Baseball, for example — the MVP, the Hall of Fame — are chosen by the Baseball Writers Association of America. Essentially the critics.

In fact, the first film critics group, the New York Film Critics Circle, was created in 1935 in reaction to the Academy, and it’s fun to see where the two groups have differed over the years. I smiled that New Yorkers gave James Cagney (one of my favorite actors) the best actor award in 1938 for “Angels with Dirty Faces” (one of my favorite gangster movies), and that both “Citizen Kane” (instead of “How Green Was My Valley”) and “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” (instead of “Hamlet”) won best picture awards. At the same time, here’s some pictures the Academy anointed that the New York critics did not: “Gone with the Wind,” “Casablanca,” “The Godfather,” “The Godfather – Part II” and “Amadeus.” There’s fault in everything if you look closely enough.

Farber vs. Simon

I began looking closely at the National Society of Film Critics in 2002. That year, like most years, good movies were hard to find; then in the last two months a flurry of respected films were released that garnered end-of-the-year awards. Critics groups were all over the place. The National Board of Review gave their best picture to “The Hours,” L.A. Critics to “About Schmidt,” New York and Chicago and Seattle to “Far From Heaven,” Broadcast Film Critics Association to “Chicago,” Toronto to “Adaptation.” All of these movies were fine but none blew me away. I wanted to be blown away, as I had been in 1999, the last great year for American movies.

Then one movie did blow me away: Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist,” an unsentimental depiction of the great horror of the 20th century, directed by a man who knows how tyranny manifests itself in ordinary ways and how bodies crumple when the life has gone out of them. Three critics groups got it: two local (Boston and San Francisco), and one national. The National Society of Film Critics.

Sure, NSFC has its faults. Like most critics groups, they were enamored of foreign films at just that moment — early to mid-70s — when Hollywood was delivering its best. Every NSFC Best Picture from 1971 to 1974 was foreign, usually French, and while no one can hold a grudge against “La Nuit Americane” in 1973, ignoring both “Godfather” movies means ignoring the Great American Tragedy.

They’ve also made odd choices, either reflecting a small, somber sensibility (“Melvin and Howard” in 1980; “Stranger than Paradise” in 1984), or a wacky one (“Babe” in 1995; “Out of Sight” in 1998).

They meet once a year — at Sardi’s in New York on the first Saturday of January — and since winners require a majority of votes there are often several ballots. Here’s the rub. Not everyone shows up — chairman emeritus Peter Rainer estimates 25 to 30 members usually attend the Sardi’s meeting — and proxy votes are allowed on the first ballot only. Which means overall minorities can carry the day on subsequent ballots. But Rainer makes no apologies for the Society’s choices. “Babe” as best picture? “I thought that the group’s finest moment,” he told me by phone. “The picture of a pig on the front page of Variety.” Any great battles between the critics? Not recently, he said, but certainly in the past: The “Taxi Driver” vs. “All the President’s Men” debate of 1976. “John Simon,” he recalled, “practically got into a fistfight with Manny Farber.”

Indeed, there’s a kind of purity to the Society’s choices. Just as 70 years later I still watch “Angels with Dirty Faces,” in another 70 years, moviegoers — if there are any left — seem more likely to be watching “Out of Sight” than “Shakespeare in Love.”

Best actor: Eddie Murphy

The Academy is a little like Time magazine in that they’re often a step behind greatness. “Annie Hall” was a great movie so Time put Woody Allen on the cover for his next film, “Manhattan.” “The World According to Garp” was a great novel so they put John Irving on the cover for his next novel, “The Hotel New Hampshire.” The same with the Academy. Henry Fonda is about to die so let’s Fed-Ex him an Oscar for “On Golden Pond.” Al Pacino has a distinguished career so let’s hand him a statuette for...what was it again?

The Society doesn’t make this mistake. In their world Al Pacino wins for “The Godfather” (instead of “Scent of a Woman”) and Russell Crowe wins for “The Insider” (instead of “Gladiator”) and Laura Linney wins for “You Can Count on Me” (instead of not winning anything), and Jack Nicholson wins for “Easy Rider” (supporting) and “Chinatown” and “Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Terms of Endearment” (supporting) and “Prizzi’s Honor,” but not “As Good As It Gets,” because that’s the year Robert Duvall is honored for “The Apostle.”

This is my kind of world. It’s a world where overlong historical epics with reductive lessons (“Gandhi,” “Out of Africa,” “Dances with Wolves,” “Forrest Gump,” “Braveheart,” “Gladiator”) win nothing, and where best picture and best director only match half the time — because what are directors if not very important components in a group effort to tell a story? It’s a world that knows the world is serious (see “The Pianist”), which is why comedy matters, which is why Eddie Murphy is named best actor for “The Nutty Professor” and Gene Hackman for “The Royal Tenenbaums.”

On Sunday, March 5th, sure, I’ll be paying attention to the Kodak Theater. But I’ll also be paying attention to Sardi’s on Saturday, January 7th. And if the past is prelude, Kodak will leave me shaking my head while Sardi’s will leave me nodding it.

—Erik Lundegaard’s favorite pick-up line is from “Angels with Dirty Faces”: “Say, you turned out to be a pretty snappy-lookin’ dish.” But you’ve got to do Cagney to make it work. This piece was originally published on MSNBC.com.