400 Screens, 400 Blows is a weekly column that takes an in-depth look at the films playing below the radar, beneath the top ten, and on 400 screens or less.
The Oscars are history now and soon people won't even be able to remember the winners. But I keep thinking about that Best Actor race that came down to a near-draw between Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler (291 screens) and Sean Penn for Milk (111 screens). My group, the San Francisco Film Critics Circle, simply called it a tie. We agreed that both men gave the performance of their lifetimes. Other critics groups and other year-end awards also split between them; there was no clear consensus. For my annual predictions, I went with my gut on this one: I got the vague impression that, just from the cultural temperature, people were really into Rourke. But Penn won. And now that it's over -- with some hindsight -- it makes perfect sense. The Oscars didn't want to ruin The Wrestler for us.
The Wrestler is just a couple of months old now, but it has already gained a certain type of following. It has actual fans; people love this movie rather than just admire it. Milk has become a good movie for students to watch in school, but The Wrestler is a film that they will choose to watch, in their free time. It's a cult film now. And cult films don't win Oscars. It automatically disqualifies them from cult status. A cult film is something that people discover on their own. If the Academy acknowledges it, then it has been plucked away and turned into something official. It has a stamp of approval, and cult films are all about not being approved.
You can bet that Citizen Kane wouldn't always poll as the best movie of all time if it had actually won Best Picture in 1941. (The actual winner, How Green Was My Valley, is a good film, but it doesn't get nearly the same kind of love.) Think about films like Showgirls (1995), The Big Lebowski (1998), Fight Club (1999), Donnie Darko (2001), Memento (2001) or Brick (2006). Together those six beloved cult films earned a total of three Oscar nominations, and all lost. (Fight Club for Sound Effects Editing, and Memento for Screenplay and Editing.) Part of the fun of enjoying these films on a cult level is the idea of coming to their rescue, pulling them from obscurity and planting our own flag on them.
Additionally, I seriously believe that part of Martin Scorsese's enduring, loyal following from 1972 all the way through 2006 came from the fact that he never won an Oscar, and thus was never officially accepted. (Just look at his Oscar-winner colleagues like Coppola, Schaffner or Avildsen.) Now Rourke is riding on this cult success. Now that he has become our actor and not their actor, we will demand -- and get to see -- him in lots more films. I imagine the odds are only about 50-50 he will ever be nominated again, but won't it be fun to see him going nuts in two, three or even four movies a year? But better still, just imagine if Penn had lost. He'd probably go back to making more angry, message-laden films, hoping for more nominations. But now that he's got two Oscars, he has stopped, smiled and taken a role as Larry Fine in the upcoming Three Stooges movie! That alone will be worth his Oscar victory.