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Does Anybody Actually Take the Oscars Seriously These Days?

And people complain that Christmas starts too early! It’s still 2011 and we’re already in the heart of what might be termed “Oscar season”, the spiritual counterpart to the equally expansive “blockbuster season.” Both have very different measures of success. Success in blockbuster season is measured in the words “record-breaking” and “box office” along with various other aggressive adjectives like “smashing”, “breaking”, “crushing” or “dominating.” The winners get their choices of big budgets and high-profile roles and franchises, or the opportunity to risk it all and play again during Oscar season. The rewards at the end of Oscar season are a little gold statue and something like “artistic credibility”, along with the right to stick “Oscar-winner” in front of your name. I’d swear Meryl Streep’s mail is addressed to “Oscar-winner Meryl Streep.”

I might Doubt their credibility...

However, while we tend to regard blockbuster season as pure folly, recognising the merit of a film rests not on its final gross, I can’t help but feel that we all take Oscar season just a little bit too seriously for our own good. While many websites publish league tables and prediction charts with a sly and self-deprecating sense of fun, applying logical and rational thought to their choices, and conceding most of it is a geekier form of sports gambling, I get the sense that there’s still a sense of legitimacy around the Awards, even beneath the layers of cynicism that most film commentators reserve for them.

And, to be honest, that cynicism is well-earned. It’s hard to argue that the Academy is a representative body, or that they’re really trying to become a representative body. They aren’t “the People’s Choice Awards” or anything like that. They don’t exist for the purposes of recognising what are widely-held to be “the most-loved films of the past year.” Hell, sometimes it feels like they honour “the least-seen films of the past year”, a trend which saw the cumulative box office gross of 2007’s Best Picture nominees come in at under $300m. In 2009, The Hurt Lockerbecame the lowest-grossing Best Picture winner since 1955.

Box office bomb?

While box office doesn’t necessarily assure quality, the opposite is also true. The Oscars seem to have adopted an approach that tends to ignore all but the highest “pedigree” of box office record breakers. “There’s already an award for making money,” some commentators have stated to justify excluding big-budget crowd-pleasers from consideration, “It’s called money.” Yes, but this ignores the fact making money shouldn’t exclude you from a competition based solely on quality. But enough of that.

The Oscars aren’t about choosing the objectively “best” films of the past year, because such a task is arguably impossible. Art is subjective, and so is film. All the Oscars serve to do is illustrate the films and individuals that the Academy deems to be worthy of awards. It’s theirceremony. They can do whatever they want with it. Given the organisation is built mainly of film stars and producers and other Hollywood-folk, it’s all remarkably self-congratulatory – but such is life. It’s hardly any less legitimate than self-appointed critical circles or magazine editors recommending their own picks.

Shouldn't it be about the art?

There are any number of reasons to be skeptical of the Awards, even within the framework the Academy establishes. There are numerous anecdotes and stories about members refusing to view certain films in contention, or delegating voting to family members or household staff. There’s the fact that Marlon Brando very publicly parted ways with the Academy, only to return when he decided that he really wanted to watch the screeners.

Indeed, the seemingly annual increases in the regulations around canvassing during awards season, including fancy lunches and gala “parties” suggest that this is a competition won by the marketing team rather than the movie itself. Commentators and reporters will frequently suggest that certain actors may “cost themselves” a deserved award by virtue of their conduct outside the film. For example, it has been suggested that Gary Oldman’s politics may have cost him a nomination for The Contender, and many suggest that the poorly-timed release of Norbit may have cost Eddie Murphy an Oscar for his wonderful performance in Dream Girls.

Lack of a nomination is getting Old(man)...

After all, why are the nominations such a big deal, if we’re just going to be cynical about them? After all, none of the websites I visit tend to be under any nostalgic illusions about the Awards, they are just as cynical as I am. More to the point, why do we get so offended by the snubs, if we realise that it’s all so very silly? I am as guilty as anybody else. The lack of a Best Director nomination for Christopher Nolan for Inception or The Dark Knight is a joke, and I can’t help but feel a little bit disappointed. If the Oscars mean absolutely nothing, why do I care? Why does it matter if they validate my own opinion or not?

And yet, each and every year, we seem to get the same opinions and articles. We get commentary suggesting certain films or individuals were “snubbed”, as if it’s an affront to all that the Academy Awards should stand for. There’s a lot of passion out there, and I’m as guilty of it as anybody else. I still feel incredibly disappointed that The Reader picked up an Oscar nomination ahead of Wall-E or The Dark Knight. I think it’s a more basic sense of frustration than a simple “why don’t they like what I like?”sort of thing.

Watered down Awards ceremony...

I imagine it’s the romance of the ceremony. It’s the idea that this is the singular big event in the annual movies calendar – that these are the awards as far as movie awards go. I think it’s the notion that the general public, who tune out movie news throughout the year, treat the Academy Awards as some sort of barometer of taste, and the the Hollywood executives craft and fund movies specifically to win these awards. After all, the studios don’t make films to win Golden Globes.

I think that we get so frustrated about these Awards because, to the outside world, these aren’t the result of any number of cynical choices and campaigns, but because the word “Oscar” carries a huge amount of currency to people like my parents and my wider family. They are more likely to watch “the Oscar-winning” Black Swan than they are to catch the latest Darren Aronofsky flick, despite what the on-line critics might say, and what popular opinion might be. The Oscars have a hook into the mainstream, and they signal that a particular film is to be taken “seriously” to the millions of people who don’t read movie blogs or track the Toronto International Film Festival. It doesn’t matter if you’re a multi-billion dollar film or if you’re soemthing as small as Drive, the Oscars do mean a lot to a lot of people.

Awards season is gearing up...

However, perhaps it’s even more than that. Perhaps the affection for the Oscars comes about through an affection for the movie industry itself. After all, they work hard all year and bring us good films. As much as I might mock the cynicism of the Weinstein Oscar machine, I do have to thank the studio for Pulp Fiction or The Artist. Aren’t these studios and movie-makers and star entitled to a night of celebration, and doesn’t that deserve the high profile that we give it.

I don’t know. However, I have until at least March to figure it out.

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2 Responses

  1. Personally I don’t care much for them and I never watch the show. Sometimes you do hear about movies that are new to you…

  2. This is one of the better articles I’ve read on the questionable value of the Academy, certainly containing a great deal more careful, intelligent consideration than that less than august body deserves. I suppose there is excitement due to habit built around the Oscars that attaches people’s interest even if they know better. Certainly not all events that have become, in a way, traditional are either nourishing or pleasing to us, but here we engage ourselves with them all the same. Such is the irony of the human condition. Still, since the campaigns begin in earnest at the end of the calendar year, perhaps it is simply the way to mark the end of one film season with the beginning (and optimism) of another. The difference of opinion I have in your comparison of these awards with critics year end recommendations is that the critics have no stake in picking certain films, where there is often a great deal of self-interest within the Academy. The great mystery I have noticed over the years, as far as nominations are concerned, is the lack of disparity within the nominated films. If five films (let’s ignore this current trend of ten which is both ludicrous and hopelessly clueless about the relative lack of genuine quality of a wide spectrum of films) are nominated Best film, the stacking of nominations for each film automatically limits more “minor” nominations for other films. Even lesser technical awards always seem to be aimed at those few titles, as if great sound or editing couldn’t exist outside a film with ten other nominations. How can there be this many nominations, and not have dozens of films represented rather than just ten or a dozen? (At most.) And instead of the Academy worrying about who’s going to bore us hosting the show, why not worry about how to justify that most obscene annual assertion that “it’s been a great year for films”?

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