I’m just getting around to seeing Michael Haneke’s Amour, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. The French film, nominated for five major awards at last year’s Oscars, barely screened in the U.S. At its widest release, it showed in 333 American theaters. By way of contrast, Argo, the eventual Best Picture winner, screened in more than 3,000 theaters. Also, for some reason, Amour was not released on DVD until late August.
But no matter: the film is beautiful and untethered to any timely issue. Still, in some ways, the timing of the DVD release is useful, as it gives us a reason to think about how Amour fared at last year’s Academy Awards just as this year’s race is starting to heat up (word out of the Toronto Film Festival is that 12 Years a Slave is the one to beat). Watching Amour today, with the luxury of hindsight, it is as clear as ever that the Oscars are not just imperfect but a bit of a sham perpetrated on the public.
Last year, there were some, including me, who thought that Emmanuelle Riva would come away with a Best Actress Oscar for her brutally honest and vulnerable performance in Amour. As Anne, an elderly woman who suffers a stroke and then slowly, methodically loses her ability to function, Riva conveys the indefatigable human spirit while suffering the many indignities of a slow, painful death. The challenging and rewarding film documents every step of her descent through the eyes of her husband, played in an equally remarkable but very different performance by Jean-Louis Trintignant. Whereas Trintignant is mostly restrained in his emotions, Riva offers up her most sensitive parts to the role.
Think about it this way: when wild animals are near death, they often find a quiet, out-of-the-way place to die because they are more vulnerable to attack in that state, and they want to die peacefully. In this role, Riva does the opposite. 83 years old at the time of the filming, she immersed herself in the painful vulnerability of death on camera in full view of the world. It is an act of nearly unthinkable bravery that demonstrates a deep love of her craft and immense faith in the importance of art. It should be an inspiration to her fellow actors.
But the indignities her character suffered in the film were nothing compared to what came later. Riva flew to Los Angeles for the Academy Awards on Sunday, February 24, which also happened to be her 84th birthday. She sat mid-way up the orchestra section and watched as the Academy handed her Oscar to Jennifer Lawrence, a 22-year-old starlet who gave a fine but somewhat shallow performance in a glorified rom-com, Silver Linings Playbook. I will never understand why critics and the Academy were so impressed by that movie, but it seems particularly wrong to award Lawrence, a talented actress but one with quite a bit of craft left to develop, a coveted Best Actress Oscar for her role. Especially when Riva was sitting right there and had made kind of a long trip.
To understand why the Academy chose Lawrence over Riva, we must remember that the underlying purpose of the Oscars is simply to promote the film industry. That’s it. The awards were created in 1929, an era when Hollywood was under assault for its loose morals. A number of Hollywood scandals had made national news, none bigger than the manslaughter trial of comedy star Fatty Arbuckle, and parents were concerned that the movies might be having an insidiously negative impact on America’s children.
Hollywood took a number of steps to improve their image, such as the institution of the famous Production Code, but none have had the lasting impact of the Academy Awards, which were created to promote the best that Hollywood had to offer. By very definition, if there could be a “Best Picture,” the industry must have something positive to offer, right?
This is why you don’t often see challenging, controversial movies win Oscars, or even get nominated. It’s also why movies like The Artist, which celebrate the industry, tend to clean up. Lastly, it’s why Jennifer Lawrence wins Oscars instead of Emmanuel Riva: the industry simply has more invested in her. It is an industry that relies on stars, and many critics have noted that Hollywood is in short supply of them these days. Lawrence had already proven herself in commercial hits (The Hunger Games), but winning an Oscar cemented her as a legitimate star, and all of Hollywood will reap the rewards.
Riva, on the other hand, was a mostly unknown French octogenarian. The Academy does occasionally give out awards to older actors at the end of their careers, but they almost always go to Hollywood stars who have never gotten one, a tactic that promotes their earlier work. So you might look for Robert Redford to win his first acting Oscar this year for All is Lost, but for the most part, the old will continue to be pushed aside to herald the arrival of the next big thing.
 If you’re looking for further proof of this theory, consider that the man who stood onstage accepting the Best Picture Oscar at the end of the night is now Batman.