The Oscar Experience: The Weird Logic of Movie Legacy: “Hugo,” “My Week With Marilyn,” “The Artist”

In Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, based on the illustrated book by Brian Selznick, movies are first described as dreams and then likened to adventures and magic tricks. Though less directly stated they are also revealed to be shared memories and, for those who make them like Georges Méliès in Paris a century ago or Martin Scorsese now, legacy.

Movies are also legacy for the six thousand plus members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences whose opinions we’ll be obsessing on in this new bi-weekly column. They have all, at one time or another, been involved in the making of the movies. Whether or not AMPAS members care about the art of the cinema in the way some critics and cinephiles do is a question without an answer, as they’re not a monolithic entity. They do, broadly speaking, care about the Oscars as legacy.

You see this in the obvious preference of drama, biopics, war films, and message movies, year in and year out. And yet while pundits and critics and film buffs make a great show of disapproving Oscar’s lazy “it feels gravely important, therefore it must be worthy”  voting habits, they are often guilty of the same broad brushstrokes. Please note the immense grudges held on those very rare occasions when Oscar dares chose a clever comedy over a war film (Shakespeare in Love vs. Saving Private Ryan; Chicago vs. The Pianist).

This year in particular, we’ll see the notions of Movie Love and Movie Legacy rubbing against each other at the Kodak Theater in ways even more obvious than usual. Three of the year’s noisiest contenders, all opening this holiday weekend, have their roots in movie history.

My Week With Marilyn is, at least in part, a recreation of the making of one particular movie The Prince and the Showgirl (1957). Its prime push will be in Best Actress with Michelle Williams working her best Marilyn Monroe impersonation. But for those who care about the sanctity of awards (Don’t judge! Willful idealism is beautiful) this is where movie love and legacy show their dark sides. An Academy member recently told one of my fellow pundits that they were planning to vote for Williams. “Nominating Michelle will finally correct those Marilyn Monroe snubs. Marilyn will finally be recognized for her acting!” Uhhhhh, that’s not quite how it works, voter. Marilyn doesn’t get a shared retroactive posthumous nomination. Does this mean King Edward deserved a posthumous Oscar last year for kicking that stutter? Vote for the movies themselves, people!

The Artist and Hugo are both positioning themselves as Best Picture candidates. It remains to be seen whether too much movie love is never enough for voters. Though several movies about movies have been nominated for various Oscar categories (Sunset Boulevard, Postcards from the Edge, Mulholland Dr.. Singin’ in the Rain, The Player, 8 ½, A Star is Born) they’re often left out of “Best Picture” itself and they don’t tend to win big on Oscar night.

I was wondering the other night if it would matter in what order the voters see these three contenders? For instance, I fell for Hugo‘s deeply felt regard for film history but it wasn’t wild passionate love so much as dewy-eyed respect. You see, I’d recently seen The Artist, which worked the same turf with abundant flair and invention. It’s funnier, faster, freer, less encumbered by its gimmick. Or maybe I just like my movie nostalgia without the hard-sell for the currently popular 3D technology. Scorsese has been talking up 3D and future iterations of it (hologram movies!) with even more reverential fervor than he’s been granting to the first movies ever made.

With so many of the last silent film stars passing in the past few years, it’s doubtful that any Academy members outside of 101-year old two-time Best Actress winner Luise Rainer remember the eras these beautiful valentines to Old Hollywood are recreating. Some of the older members surely remember Marilyn Monroe but even if they worked on one of her sets in the 50s, did she show up that day? And haven’t all real memories of Monroe been tainted by the still ubiquitous posthumous fantasy by now?

Not that any of this will matter when it comes time for voting. All three films are trading on our shared dream of the movies rather than their reality: their sense of adventure, their impossibly charismatic stars, the magic tricks of their moving illusions. Oscar night may feel particularly enchanted by Hollywood’s ghosts this year with these movies floating about. I doubt we’ll see Billy Crystal kicking off February’s festivities dressed as Papa Georges inviting us to “Come dream with me”. That would be too cinephile geeky for the Oscars; we’re more likely to see him dressed as a maid from The Help. Still… on a year on Oscar night the Kodak Theater is, for many of us, a Palace of Dreams to rival the glass studio of Méliès.

Nathaniel Rogers is the creator of, a popular web destination for actress enthusiasts, Oscar obsessives and people who believe in cinema beyond the latest blockbuster. He works as a freelance writer in New York City.

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