I have never had much interest in the Oscars, which surprises many people because of my love of movies. But that affection is the very reason I have disliked the Oscars for many years. The awards have very little to do with recognizing quality films and more to do with marketing, politicking, fashion, and celebrity. One could put together a long list of movies that have won awards over much more deserving titles. Rocky over All the President’s Men, Network, or Taxi Driver? American Beauty over anything? Crash (and not the good Crash) over anything? Slumdog Millionaire? These are our best cultural artifacts? Certainly, all the choices are not bad but I haven’t believed for years that the primary goal of the awards has anything to do with celebrating quality films.
That’s not to say I have no appreciation for the exposure the Oscars can provide for films that would not otherwise garner so much attention. I’m certainly thrilled that a film like Amour may be introducing Michael Haneke, one of my favorite directors, to a larger audience. And it’s wonderful that Beasts of the Southern Wild has taken off the way it has. So, I don’t mean to sound entirely dismissive and suggest that there’s no benefit to the Oscars just that they’ve become a form of entertainment, focusing more on comedic and musical acts than any in depth appreciation of great cinema. Despite some attention to lesser know films, the focus will always return to the more popular movies and celebrities.
I recognize that the Oscars are still important to a lot of people genuinely curious about good films and that they serve as a convenient mechanism for discovery. However, the Oscars are plagued with limitations and only expose a small and usually fairly predictable body of work. At best, they’re a starting point for discovery and capture a certain zeitgeist. At worst, they tailor popular taste bound by crass monetary interests and have systematically lowered our standards. It pains me that what a lot of people will remember about the fabulous Beasts of the Southern Wild is that its magnificent star, Quvenzhané Wallis, was the victim of rather harsh and sexist jokes. This is not how we celebrate excellence in the arts.
The nature of the awards really hit home when I started reading Variety on a semi-regular basis. Beginning, I don’t know, somewhere around June (I may be exaggerating), a good portion of the ads are for enticing people in the industry to vote for certain films or actors or directors for awards. The imprimatur of a nomination can mean a serious boost in box office. A LOT of money changes hands because of the awards. It’s not crazy to think that certain films get greenlighted because they are potential Oscar bait. As often happens, the infusion of monetary interests has sullied once good intentions.
It’s also telling that, beginning in 2009, the awards expanded to include ten nominations. Yes, the number of nominations has always been arbitrary but what point is there to expanding the number other than to make more films marketable as potential Oscar winners? It’s very much akin to baseball increasing the number of wildcard teams. Will that ensure that the best team wins? Most likely not. Does it mean there are playoff teams in more television markets? Certainly.
Of course, these complaints are coming from someone who hasn’t watched more than a few clips from the ceremonies over the past few years. Maybe I’m entirely off base. But considering that this year’s Oscars sounded like it was a real train wreck, maybe I’m not. I pay so little attention to the Oscars that I didn’t even know Seth MacFarlane was hosting. What I have read about the ceremony makes me feel justified in my dislike of both the Oscars and of MacFarlane, whose work I’ve never liked. Admittedly, I haven’t seen much of it, but what I’ve seen always came across not only as immature, sexist and racist but also just not funny. Shows like The Family Guy always seemed to me to be a cheap knockoff of The Simpsons. But not the early, good shows, but The Simpsons after they jumped the shark and forgot the intelligence of their post-modern flourishes. Just because something is ironic doesn’t mean it’s funny. The choice of MacFarlane, who has much more experience in TV than in movies, points to the priority to entertain.
It would be great if this debacle results in the Oscars refocusing on celebrating film rather than being a three-and-a-half hour variety show.