Tilda Swinton, or Why I Love the Oscars
1. Tilda Swinton, Oscar Winner? I love the Academy Awards for pulling a surprise like this, not just in the sense that Tilda came from behind to win (which several prognosticators, including me, had started predicting at least a few weeks ago), but because here is a brilliant career that never seemed remotely Oscar-bound, and yet, here she is, ensconced in the Academy's admittedly spurious but hugely influential way in the annals of great popular acting. On my watch, Tilda would be a five-time nominee by now, with earlier Best Actress nods for Edward II in 1992, Orlando in 1993, Female Perversions in 1997 (when I would have had her win), and The Deep End in 2001, but I was well prepared to accept her avant-garde origins and her chiseled, androgynous pallor and her continued allegiance to out-there artists as a reason that she and Oscar would never sit down to lunch (whether or not George Clooney was hanging upside-down in the background).
2. The Archive Opens I love the Academy Awards for, however unwittingly, pointing cinephiles, especially budding ones, in the direction of work they might never actually see and that Oscar would never in a million years nominate. I have been on plenty of websites this season where people are clearly noticing Tilda for the first time because of the Oscar buzz, and then the nomination, and now the win. Since most Oscar obsessives I know came to our first flower of intensive back-catalogue renting and repertory-house screenings via the Oscar books, and then by moving onto the longer careers of nominees who most impressed us, I am beyond ecstatic that this public boost to Swinton's visibility and reputation will actually lead people to the above titles and Caravaggio and The Last of England and War Requiem and Blue and Love Is the Devil and The War Zone and Teknolust and Strange Culture (on DVD from Docurama at the end of March). Not to mention how many more will see Michael Clayton, or remember Tilda's great, small, Hollywood turns in films like Adaptation and Constantine. An indirect but no less indispensable function that Oscar serves within the wider ecosystem of popular film.
3. Against Nepotism Swinton didn't win for a single reason other than her performance, with the slight exception of Michael Clayton's shutout in other categories. Even there, plenty of well-liked nominees go home empty-handed every year (The Godfather Part III, The Prince of Tides, In the Name of the Father, The Shawshank Redemption, Secrets & Lies, The Thin Red Line, The Insider, The Sixth Sense, In the Bedroom, Gangs of New York, Seabiscuit, and Munich all had more or less comparable nomination tallies and went home with nothing). Otherwise, though, the critics didn't help her, beyond the rave reviews from several months ago: somehow, when prize season arrived, they only had eyes for Amy Ryan. She didn't have a Globe or a SAG. She isn't, remotely, a Hollywood elbow-rubber. She isn't "owed" in any way the Academy recognizes (and certainly not the way Ruby Dee is). She isn't the young thing of the moment. She didn't play a likeable character. She didn't play the character in a simply digestible way. Her part wasn't showy, though it was generously featured. The general public has a dim sense of her as the White Witch of Narnia, but little else. Why did she win? It's the performance, stupid, just like it was for Harden. Good enough to persuade voters on its own terms once they got around to seeing it, and good enough to qualify as the best winner in this category since the proximate wins of Peggy Ashcroft and Dianne Wiest in 1984 and 1986if not the best since Vanessa Redgrave won in 1977, and in virtually the same dress, plus a left sleeve. For all the well-earned reputation of insiderism and errant, delayed sentiment that the Academy has accrued over time, they don't always vote that way, and when they don't, it's glorious.