#OscarsSoWhite is the theme manifesting the crisis currently crippling the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences, but in truth, any number of flash points could have plunged the Academy into its current phase of existential angst. To be fair, it is very likely not a racist institution, but it has systemic flaws that become painfully exposed with increasing regularity. The voting demographic obviously tends towards a narrow pool of the community (older, white, domiciled in and around Hollywood), but it should be remembered that this was conceived as an occasion for Hollywood to congratulate itself, so one can hardly be shocked if the Academy’s membership is drawn from insiders who generally live in the neighbourhood. That wouldn’t matter too much if the Oscars weren’t a big deal other than being a big night out for the stars, but it does become a problem if the bequeathing of its awards are solemnly held to represent rewarding the best in film.
As has been repeatedly demonstrated over the years, Academy members have a very narrow conception of what makes a worthy movie – typically a middlebrow drama – and are then so excessively tied to that notion of worthiness that that they gushingly hand over all their gongs to this oh-so-praiseworthy film. It isn’t quite as staid a process as that. Winning movies tend to have a huge amount of money splashed out on their promotion by the studios that made them, who hope their furious lobbying is rewarded with a box office bounce. That part of awards season seems quite cutthroat. But after all this hoopla and money, are we the people supposed to obediently accord reverence to the Academy’s decision? Well, in actual fact, increasingly we don’t, which goes a long way to explaining how sensitive they are to controversy, with the underlying theme being that the Oscars are becoming culturally less relevant. And it’s hard to view that as anything other than a good thing, given their excruciatingly limited cinematic worldview.
Before looking at some of the runners and riders for this years Oscars ceremony, it is worthwhile looking back at some of the travesties of justice and assaults against reason that the Academy has perpetrated over the years, the prime example being 2005 when the Best Picture award was given to Crash. It came with a shallow, often cringeworthy script, some desperately contrived situations, and a determination to smash the viewer over the head with a message that was far short of being the authoritative commentary on race relations it purported to be. Egregious enough without considering the alternatives, but the film denied the big prize that year was the exceptional Brokeback Mountain, an emotionally intelligent and moving drama, with a leading performance for the ages by Heath Ledger. In 2010, a competent film, The King’s Speech, won. While conceding that it carried off a neat trick of inserting the personal trials of King George VI’s speech impediment into the turmoil of his brother’s abdication and Europe’s descent to war, it didn’t have any real lasting value as a piece of cinema. And in awarding the Best Picture award to The King’s Speech, the Academy snubbed a fresh, exciting film that told audiences a lot about the business world of today, The Social Network. A stodgy collection of movies in 1999 could have been given some uplift if The Matrix had been nominated. Instead we were treated to a dreary process which ended up with the overrated artifice of American Beauty coming out on top. Other years where the voting members of the Academy deserve harsh criticism include, to name but a few, 1941, 1952, 1980, 1982, 1990, 1994 and 1997 (look them up). And of course that’s just the Best Picture category. Undeserving winners abound in many of the others as well.
Looking at the state of the medium today, it is plainly obvious that film studios are rattled by the rise and influence of television. Hollywood feels it needs to offer things the smaller medium can’t, and so emphasis on visuals and a wide canvas has grown. The film that best meets that template from this year’s nominees is The Revenant, which seems well set for glory. While it is a well made depiction of a human survival story, with a collection of fine acting performances, it is a fairly thin story with an arguably questionable veneer of art-house aestheticism. It exemplifies how there is a lot of technical craft in today’s prestige offerings, but one finds that doesn’t necessarily produce great filmic moments. I’m all for enhancing the cachet of cinematographers and designers, but the fundamentals of great cinema ultimately derive from storytelling, with writer, director and actor harnessing their collective talents to produce a piece of art on film.
Artistic cavils will take a back seat to diversity issues this year, but they are related. The huge profile of the Oscars demands that it makes some effort to reflect diversity faithfully, and Academy members could do themselves a favour by getting out more and rethinking their ideas about what constitutes quality in the medium of cinema. Their long term centrality to popular culture depends on it. For all the controversies, however, there aren’t too many obvious duds on the list of nominees this year, not on the basis of what I’ve seen. And if Chris Rock performs his hosting duties adroitly, infusing inevitable chastisement of the Academy with the right blend of humour and indignation, they might emerge reinvigorated from this year’s brouhaha, with humility and renewed sense of mission. One of these years, their dreary awards ceremonies might even be worth watching again.