Oscars, Good God Y'all, What Are They Good For?
A history of embracing mediocrity.
We’re now into the 88th year of celebrating, or condemning, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as they honor some movie industry folks with shiny awards everyone likes to call Oscars. Alongside these awards is the ongoing debate over whether this ceremony holds any relevance other than seeing the American version of royalty mix and mingle with each other in public. After all, we must know, what is she wearing!?
I’ll admit, as a movie-loving kid I looked forward to the Oscars every year. In fact, I’d say that these past few years are the only Oscar telecasts I’ve missed since I was old enough to remain awake for the endless ceremony. And that’s mostly because I’ve been halfway around the world from Los Angeles. But even as a kid, it was probably clear to me that the main attraction was to hear some funny jokes from the host and see Jack Nicholson wearing his shades and flashing his iconic smile.
It was obvious to me early on that the Oscars, just like box office receipts, are not an accurate barometer for quality filmmaking. And this has been the case since the very first ceremony.
This might be a good time to tip the hat to a site that a friend hipped me to: Oscars and I. Here is where you'll find a noble man venturing to watch 88 years worth of Best Picture nominees. And while it is highly entertaining to read about his endeavor, I do not envy the amount of arguably bad and truly boring movies he will have to sit through to.
Even when we look back without anger at Oscar’s history, it is clear that they rarely acknowledge the truly innovative, remarkable or even memorable movies of any given year. Judging from the nominations, the award ceremony is largely a grand effort at maintaining a mediocre status quo and handing out awards to people who do a good job of being respectable and not rocking the boat.
Certainly this is the case for the Best Picture category, where a winner emerges from the Academy's largest pool of an elderly white-folk mind-hive eager to keep their business comfortably predictable. Sometimes, in the pinko infested pool representing the writer or documentary categories, you might see a nice win for something that truly represents a step forward for filmmaking. This is where you might find an award given to a Coen, a Charlie Kaufman or an Errol Morris - people who could accurately be described as producing independent and forward-thinking work.
Of course there are Best Picture outliers and, yes, even sizable chunks of time where you can look back at the nominees and see the movie industry coming to terms with itself. At the 40th ceremony in 1967, following wins for The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady and A Man For All Seasons, you see a seismic shift sprouting a crop of amazing nominees including Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate and the sweaty and angry winner, In the Heat of the Night. But by the 53rd Oscars in 1980, the studios had realigned and Ordinary People, the perfectly fine filmic equivalent of slightly toasted white bread, emerged victorious over The Elephant Man, Raging Bull, Coal Miner’s Daughter and Tess.
There were signs in 1991 of another possible sea change when Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs won Best Picture. Indie film was seeing a resurgence at the time with movies like Reservoir Dogs and Sex, Lies and Videotape making waves. But, by now the studio stronghold was secure. Lessons had been learned in the 60s and 70s and there was to be no further uprisings. All the major studios sprouted “indie” branches, gobbling up the darlings of Sundance and keeping everything in order. In what feels like a grotesque message of maintaining the status quo, the rest of the 90s includes the following: Forrest Gump, The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love and Titanic.
And this seems like a trend or pattern that could continue forever more: a single Lamb-type outlier here or there followed by a drastic Gump-y reaction in the other direction.
In this way, the random hodgepodge of modern era Oscar winners doesn’t even provide much sociological insight. For its first 60 years you could at least look back on nominees and award winners and get a window into what kind of themes or concerns people were responding to since these movies were also some of the most popular. But for the past 20 plus years, even that sort of relevance is gone from the Oscars. The King’s Speech? The Artist? Chicago?! It feels like random nonsense.
When a popular movie does win these days, all you can really do is shrug and say, “Oh yeah, that’s when all those Lord of the Rings movies were coming out.” Or, “What the fuck were people thinking with that Titanic craze?” If there is any sign of the times to be had from the few Oscar nominated movies that actually were popular with audiences it has more to do with technological advancements than any sort of relevant themes.
While The Hurt Locker was no blockbuster by any means, it does feel like an outlier simply by addressing a highly relevant sociological problem in PTSD. But like 12 Years a Slave or Crash, the issues being addressed are ones we’ve been dealing with since the 19th century. Perhaps the insight provided here just goes to show how little we’ve really grown since then. (And yes, Crash is a perfect example of how we shouldn’t award movies based solely on its good intentions.)
You could argue that Best Picture winners like Ordinary People and American Beauty keep the Oscars periodically relevant by accurately reflecting the endless navel gazing that goes on in upper middle class white society. Given the predominance of wealthy white men that make up Academy voting pool, you could imagine them pointing to these movies as a sign that the Oscars have indeed remained a relevant indicator of societal concerns.
But really, it isn’t difficult to see that the folks behind the Oscars are well aware of their lack of relevance. Since 2009 they’ve increased the number of possible Best Picture nominees in the blatantly desperate hope to increase the chances a viewer might give a damn and have a horse in the race. There are two very Hollywood mindsets at work here. The first, that increased viewership equals increased relevance, is flimsy at best. The second, when in doubt add more crap and see what sticks, is a classic way to simply make matters worse by further diluting the waters.
You’d think that people in the movie industry would recognize the power of a good narrative. So you might think that they'd recognize the chance to gain relevance by simply telling the story of the ever-evolving art form of the movies. But this means embracing change, something most old folks are always going to be scared of doing, and putting an end to awarding forgettable nonsense like Shakespeare in Love, The King’s Speech and Chicago just because Harvey Weinstein is a bully. You simply can't be relevant by awarding mediocrity over innovative work.
By going in this direction it could at least hold its head up high as being a respectable awards ceremony. The only other game in town that gets anywhere near as much attention is the Golden Globes. And at this point you could argue that they’ve become more respectable by not pretending that they have any respectability to begin with. The Golden Globes are honest and unashamed about the inherent meaninglessness of Hollywood awards and the fact that it’s all about who campaigns more diligently and sends more fruit baskets or whatever to the members of the Hollywood Foreign Press.
By their very nature, these things are always going to be a popularity contest, but it wouldn't be hard to make the nominees an accurate reflection of who made the biggest impact on the industry in the previous year. Obviously, history will be a better judge of what movies end up having the biggest long term affect on filmmaking, but by continuing to tip its hat to stale biopics like The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game, Oscar is going to continue coming off as an equally stale product.
This is the very same reason there’s been increased animosity towards the Academy Awards this year. More people seem to be noticing that their track record of nominees offers no sense of narrative, evolution, diversification or progress. Indeed, it is boneheaded and backwards thinking for the Oscars to believe that at this point they can have any real impact on the future of the industry. It’s going to continue to evolve, diversify and progress with or without them. So the smart move, and relevant move, is to get on board and shine a light on it.
Can the Oscars evolve?
But despite this venting, I was still holding out hope that there might be some signs of life this year - that maybe the controversy leading up to this year's ceremony would light a fire under the voters. Hell, I knew the chances of Mad Max: Fury Road winning best picture were slim to none but it was still my horse in the race and we all hold a vast capacity for self-delusion.
However, if there's a third guarantee in life, after death and taxes, it's that the Oscar's will let you down. And when it came to the Best Picture category, it would seem as if the almighty power of nostalgia is just too great. Which is why I question whether it's worth getting even mildly disgruntled about.
Unfortunately, I'm stuck with an irrational love for movies and Mad Max is one of the few studio pictures in recent memory that reminded me of some of the reasons I fell in love with movies in the first place: A big screen filled with wild creativity and delivering a sense of wonder and amazement at seeing someone manifest their audacious vision.
Now I know everyone doesn't fall in love with movies for the same reasons, and this is by no means the only reason I love movies. And I also know that we can't help which movies left these important imprints on us, the kind we might look at as an ideal movie or perhaps something worthy of a Best Picture trophy.
You can't knock anyone who might look at All the President's Men, see a great movie and the kind that should be made more often, and therefore cast a vote for Spotlight. But here's where a movie like Spotlight differs from Mad Max: it doesn't have any ambitions beyond telling its story effectively, which it does entirely through good script-writing and acting.
Mad Max: Fury Road expertly uses the entire filmmaking toolkit to fully realize and immerse you in a wholly unique and complex world world filled with subversive and thought-provoking themes. What you end up with isn't just good storytelling but also an ambitious and amazing marvel that pushes the boundaries of the medium forward.
You can make an argument for The Revenant's ambitions but at its core it comes up far shorter in the story department. There's nothing new or memorable its tale of a man keeping himself alive to exact revenge apart from some impressive cinematography, technical wizardry and a crazy behind-the-scenes story. In reading interviews with Tom Hardy where he talked about his perspective on the character he plays, it's easy to think of the flip-side to The Revenant as being a much more interesting movie. After all, we've seen far fewer movies spend its time trying to get inside the head of the doomed target of revenge.
So why did Spotlight win Best Picture? Did Mad Max and The Revenant split the vote? Or does it come down to nostalgia?
The Oscars are more often than not steeped in nostalgia. These ceremonies often have a theme that will enable them to look back and honor past glories and contain more than one touching highlight reel. And this is largely unavoidable since movies are inherently suited to evoke and take advantage of the immense powers of nostalgia.
No one is immune to these powers. It's easy to be like Max from Kicking and Screaming and be despairingly nostalgic for conversations you had yesterday. And it's even easier to let nostalgia blind you when it comes to judging the quality of a movie.
So, it makes perfect sense that the award would go to a movie that evokes a cherished Best Picture winner from the 70s. And Spotlight is so non-threatening to the Hollywood status quo that could easily be mistaken for being made at any point in the last 30 years if it weren't for some passing references to the internet.
I get excited when I hear people like William Friedkin and David Byrne talking about not having a nostalgic bone in their body. Maybe these two guys aren't the most relevant people in popular culture nowadays but they continue to inspire by adapting, evolving and knowing that nostalgia is a creative killer. The worst thing any industry or art form can do is nurture thoughts about how better things used to be back in the good old days.
Yes, nostalgia is an unavoidable part of human nature but so is being unimaginative and unoriginal. And just as we can try our best to fight these tendencies we can also try to award movies that do the same and represent imaginative and original voices.
Spotlight isn't a bad movie, but its win is bad for movies just as Leo's win is perhaps bad for acting. You can hope that the Best Picture win might increase shine a light on the need for good investigative journalism and how the Catholic church operates, but the irony is that it will likely have very little effect. Because when movies like Spotlight win Best Picture, the honor that comes with the prize will contine losing its value.