I watched the Oscars this year with the same sense of irony and agony that I do every year. It’s torturous to me because, much like Neil Patrick Harris, I love movies. I still do, even though I work in the industry now on its lowest, and least respected, rung. It should have beaten me, but it doesn’t, and it likely never will, because when a movie is very good, it’s inevitably a triumph of personal vision and teamwork in a way that has nothing to do with its draconian and graft-riddled delivery system. Thankfully, I can separate the two quite nicely and hold a seemingly hypocritical concept in my head that while I hate Disney Studios and always have and always will, I can love Toy Story, The Incredibles, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Fantasia without missing a beat.
But I digress. I watched, too, the fallout from this year’s Oscars: someone always hates the host and thinks they did the worst job ever; someone complains loudly that the movie they wanted to win best picture didn’t win; someone always mocks the whole process, from the dresses some women wore to the lack of diversity, or lack of equality, or lack of whatever this year’s hashtag activism would have us tsking about. Usually, these articles can all be found on Slate.com (I kid, I kid...mostly).
Even if I agree with the general consensus that, for example, Birdman shouldn’t have won Best Picture over something like Boyhood, I’ve stopped feeling real emotion over it. Sure, my predictions this year were in the toilet—they always are. I tend to be very egalitarian with my choices, much as if I were actually voting. I won’t heap every award on the flavor of the month. Instead, I ask myself what best fit each category and let the chips fall. Example: is there anyone in the room who didn’t think Birdman would win for Best Cinematography? Right, didn’t think so. But in the category of Best Picture (read it as “Best Production,” and remember it’s the producers who come up to take the award), Boyhood was robbed. That production was 12 years long, and never looks patchwork or disjointed. Linklater filmed several movies in between doing Boyhood, and each time he came back to it, he had to pick up where he left off. On screen, it’s a very subtle magic trick, and he should have been rewarded for it.
But the voting body instead chose to recognize a movie that spoke to them on a very personal level: a movie about ego, fear of failure, lack of relevancy, fantasy, and the perils of fame. In other words, they chose to recognize themselves. And why not? It’s their award show, right? I mean, did you get to vote? No, that’s the People’s Choice Awards, not the Oscars. And the foreign press award? Nice, but well...no, it’s the award given to you by your peers that matters the most. It’s the grudging respect that you earned, if not the outright “Screw you, man,” from your fellow actors and actresses. That’s the award you savor.
Make no mistake, here: the Oscars have ceased to be relevant to American Culture, and will probably never be relevant again. Oh, they used to be, a long time ago, back when the studios were in charge of everything. They made the Oscars a big deal through canny promotion, lots of glamor, high fashion, and pageantry. Also, remember this was back in the day when newspapers, magazines, and radio ruled the roost. TV was in its infancy. The message was carefully controlled. There was an aura of mystery about the whole thing. Those images of stars walking the red carpet was one of the few pictures you’d see of them outside of their film roles. And, also, there were fewer movies, fewer categories, and less competition all around. It wasn’t perfect, and I’m not saying it was, but that’s the myth that the modern Academy Awards have been trading on for years: the glamor of Hollywood.
Talk about a fairy tale. Twitter and 4Chan have replaced newspapers and magazines. Memes are generated faster than they can be absorbed. Scandals break in seconds, are over in minutes, and linger for days, like when you overcook fish in your house. We see these people All the Bloody Time, thanks to the Internet, the Talk Show circuit, and whatever else they may have going on that has sucked up bandwidth for the day.
|This is just one of the memes that was|
generated about John Travolta. Again.
This is the world in which the modern Oscars exist, and it’s poisoned the well completely. Here’s why: Hollywood reads tweets. They scour blogs. They say they don’t, but someone in the organization does. When we as a people are displeased with them, they hear it loud and clear. Granted, they hear it much in the same way that the Plebeians shouted at Nero that he was overdoing it, but they DO hear it. And it totally influences what they do, even if they say it doesn’t. That’s where the opening monologue and other material comes from these days. Gone are the Billy Crystal song and dance numbers where he does a Mad Magazine style summary of the movies nominated for best picture. Just about everything out of N.P.H.’s mouth was a wink and a nod, if not an outright apology to, all of the criticisms levied on the ceremony from social media.
This is how they used to do the Oscars. Ballots would go out to all of the voting members, and they would check of their picks in every category. They send them back. Someone, probably Price Waterhouse, tallies them up and from that aggregate list they take the top several in every category and that’s the nominations list. That list went public, and while the boys in Vegas set to making odds on who would win, the voting members would again choose their favorite—or maybe they’d switch it up, depending on who they just talked to at the country club or the studio—and the votes would go back to Price Waterhouse and the winner would be announced on Oscar Night and everyone would clap and cheer and there you go. The next day, around the water cooler, the women would discuss who had the best dresses and married couples would vow that if the best picture winner, which they missed when it was in the theaters because of the family vacation, ever came to television, that they would definitely watch it. Sometimes, there would be a gross mistake, a whoops, that the voting body would correct next year. These were usually pointed out in articles written by syndicated columnists like Gene Siskal or Roger Ebert, taking a break from reviewing movies to express an opinion on what went wrong that year. And sometimes it would be a good enough argument that there would be a kind of discussion about it, and it might get filtered back to Hollywood, and appropriate steps would be taken. Maybe it would be in the form of a Lifetime Achievement award next year, or maybe it would be to vote in this year's snubbed actor for his next performance, which was nowhere as good or as meaningful as the movie he was in last year, but anyway, here’s your statue.
This is how they do the Oscars now. Ballots would go out to all of the voting members, and they would check of their picks in every category. They send them back. Someone, probably Price Waterhouse, tallies them up and from that aggregate list they take the top several in every category and that’s the nominations list. They make a big point about releasing the nominees in an early morning (for them, remember, the West Coast is three hours behind New York) press conference, and while the boys in Vegas set to making odds on who would win, the Internet explodes with faux outrage and disbelief that, ONCE AGAIN, there’s no movies about people of color in the Best Picture category, or that they CAN’T BELIEVE that this geek-nation favorite didn’t get nominated for every single award, or that So-and-So was good in that movie, but certainly not Best Supporting Actor Good in that movie, and so on, and so on. The 24-hour news machine and every late night talk show ramp up the usual jokes, and the list is sifted over with a fine-toothed comb, analyzing it in every direction as if a subjective choice made by spoiled millionaires actually means something about our society at large. Oh, and every one of those spoiled millionaires sees and reads those comments, because they can’t help but look.
Now the final ballots come back to the voting members would again choose their favorite—and now they’ve most assuredly switched it up, depending on what the temperature of Twitter is at the moment. Then again, maybe they don’t; there are a few of them who no doubt double down, vowing not to be influenced by a bunch of screaming 20-somethings on social media. Those votes would go back to Price Waterhouse and the winner is announced on Oscar Night and while everyone is clapping and cheering, the Internet is exploding with more fake rage or praise, depending on what cause was name-checked in the acceptance speech. The next day, the Internet is full of how stupid the Oscars are and how horrible that dress looked, and every gay man under the age of fifty and teenage girl under the age of twenty has logged in to snark at the singing or the musical number (well, maybe not this year), and Hollywood in general gets sullen and angry and closes ranks for a couple of weeks and tells itself that it doesn’t matter what people in Kansas and Arkansas think about them because THEY are the taste-makers, not the city commission of Little Rock.
And we wonder why they’re in a bubble.
I won’t go so far as to suggest that the Oscars are tainted, because that’s giving The Internet and the New Media Machine too much credit, but I will suggest that because of the Internet and the New Media Machine, they can go back to being a private local award, given out to members of the club, and we don’t have to care about them the way we used to. Old Hollywood is gone. We’re saturated with stars and celebrities in a way that is frankly suffocating. And really, how many of you are using the Oscars to determine your Netflix cue these days? You know after opening weekend if it’s a movie you want to see. Your friends have cross-posted interesting blog articles about the film, or written thoughtful critiques on FaceBook. You don’t need the Oscars for anything, except maybe to dictate your choice of classic films before 1970. The Best Picture list (and its nominees) are still a pretty good barometer for those.
But now? With Rotten Tomatoes in place? Pfft. Forget it. You don’t agree with the winners most of the time, anyway. For a lot of us, the Oscars are a backboard to slam against, a whetstone for our wit, and not any kind of standard for excellence. This is sad, because that’s what the awards were meant to be in the first place.
The best barometer for what movies will stand the test of time is, in fact, time itself. For every injustice heaped upon films at the Oscars, the passage of years (and film studies classes around the world) has a way of evening out the score for us. Let’s look at a classic example from the 1980s.
Exhibit A—Best Picture Category, 1981
Here are the nominees:
Raiders of the Lost Ark
(I’m not including a hyperlink for Raiders of the Lost Ark because if you need to know what that movie is about, I want you to stop reading this blog and don’t come back until you’ve watched the movie. I’m serious. If this is you, go. Go now. I ain’t playing.)
And the winner was...Chariots of Fire.
I’ll let that sink in.
Now, regarding Chariots of Fire, On Golden Pond, and Reds, these are the kinds of movies you see all the time at the Academy Awards. Thoughtful movies, compelling dramas, great actors and directors... and so, if they are all so great, how many of them have you actually seen? Most Gen X-ers and Baby Boomers have likely seen three or four of them. But there’s one movie that we’ve all seen, and it sure as hell ain’t Chariots of Fire. If you know anything about Chariots of Fire, you know the song in the movie was re-used in National Lampoon's Vacation when Clark and Rusty are running in slow motion up to the gates of Wally World. That's it. That's the sum total of Chariots of Fire's contribution to your life. And that lampoon tells you everything you need to know about Chariots of Fire. It's about running in slow motion.
But them’s the breaks.
It happened before, as well: Annie Hall beat Star Wars in 1977. My Fair Lady beat Dr. Strangelove in 1964. The Best Years of Our Lives trumped It’s a Wonderful Life in 1946. And we know it’s happened since then. It happens a lot.
The whole list is here, thoughtfully hyperlinked, for your perusal: Academy Award for Best Picture. Go for it. See how much of a film buff you are. Or, better yet, if you’re not a film buff, see how many movies in that category you’ve actually seen since, oh, I don’t know, 1994. That was Pulp Fiction’s year to lose. Start there and go forward. Whether you agree or disagree with the winners, how much of your personal taste is reflected in the nominees?
So, that’s it. I don’t need these awards anymore. They don’t matter to me like they used to. I still enjoy the movies, and I love seeing good ones and turning people on to films they’ve never seen before, and watching the light come on in people’s eyes when they talk about their favorite movie. And as much as Hollywood seems to want to involve me in the process, it’s really through a three inch thick pane of safety glass. They are in the bubble, and it’s a closed feedback loop. They hunker down over the Internet like an oracle and try to discern what the masses are revolting about, and for 90% of it (or more), I just don’t care. All I want is for people to do their best work and make an interesting story that’s well written and well acted. If it’s a giant spectacle, that’s cool. If it’s a quiet character piece, I like that, too. And if something I like is something that everyone else likes, too, then that’s okay with me. But I’ve never really watched movies based on what other people say I should watch, and neither should you.
My challenge to you is this: Next year, skip the Oscars altogether and just rewatch Raiders of the Lost Ark. I promise you, it’ll be more fun than the whole awards ceremony. Any highlights you miss will be streaming the next day, and you can catch the ten meaningful minutes of the three hour show and be just as caught up as the rest of the world.