I love the Oscars. Though I disagree with their choices more of than not, I absolutely love the time of year we have come to refer to as “Awards Season.” And why wouldn’t I? The months leading up to the ceremony make up the one time of year in which everyone is talking about movies. I spend an unhealthy amount of time reading people’s thoughts on “Film Twitter”, and even more time listening to movie podcasts, but Awards Season is when people in the real world start talking about movies. This is the time when movies leap out of my cell phone screen, when movies abandon my headphones and step into the real world. This is when movies feel real. Only in February can your Uber driver tell you how disappointed he was by The Shape of Water. I love that, but that’s just me.
It would be an understatement to say that not everybody loves the Oscars as much as I do. There is no question that the vast majority of people on this Earth don’t give a shit about which Hollywood star does or does not win a golden statue. So let’s limit ourselves to people who are into movies. There are people, like me, who are into this whole Oscar thing. Then there are those who will dismiss the Oscars saying they are silly and meaningless because they rarely award the actual best movies of the year. Finally, there is a group who will say that the Oscars are everything that’s wrong with movie culture. There is a certain amount of truth in these people’s opinion, but I find that their arguments seldom take into account a full picture of the role the Oscars play in movie culture. With those people in mind, I will attempt to answer a couple questions I’ve asked myself many times: Are the Oscars important? And more pressingly: Should you care?
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: of course the Oscars are silly. For ninety years they’ve been handed out, mostly existing as a tool for Hollywood to promote itself. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences was created in the twenties with two purposes in mind: First, to clean up Hollywood’s image as a town of vice and immorality in the eyes of the movie-going public. And second, to work as a mediator in labor disputes. At the time, the big studio heads were worried about workers who had begun to unionize. They feared what would happen if writers, directors, and God forbid, actors did the same. These unions needed busting. Enter the Academy Awards, which perfectly served the Academy’s purposes: They presented Hollywood in the most favorable light possible, while giving out golden statues that would hopefully be enough reward to keep employees from wanting to form an union.
The experiment was partially successful. The union-busting aspect didn’t take. Unions were established, and let’s just say they didn’t get along wit the Academy. But the awards-giving aspect of the experiment was a success. I guess everybody loves a good trophy because even when the unions and the Academy were at each other’s throats, the Awards were never cancelled. Instead, they thrived. The public loved to see pictures of their stars hanging out together. Later, they could hear them giving speeches on the radio, and even better, accepting their awards live on television. The self-promotion worked. Winning and Oscar was a big deal. It’s hard to imagine in our days of superhero franchises, but there was a time when Oscar-winning dramas such as Rain Man, On Golden Pond, and Forrest Gump ruled the box office.
The cultural impact of the Oscars has receded quite a bit since then. There is no way Lady Bird will defy the latest Star Wars movie at the box office, but if there is enough talk about the possibility of it winning Best Picture, then that can do a lot to boost its box office. In fact, the movie has already made more than 45 million dollars (not bad for a movie that cost 10 million to make). Similarly, it’s hard to picture movies like Brokeback Mountain, Juno and The Revenant becoming the big hits that they were without the Oscar buzz that built around them. The fact of the matter is that Oscar talk can still generate box office results, and this is one of the very few reasons why movies like this get made anymore. With all this in mind we can answer the first part of our question. “Are the Oscars important?” I guess it depends on your definition of “important”, but for Hollywood, they are definitely a big deal.
Now, on to the second part: “Should we care?” To a lot of people, judging art (in this case movies) as if they were athletes in a competition is not only silly, but offensive. It’s true that engaging with a movie solely based on its potential to win Oscars is an incredibly limited way of engaging with art, and I would be the first to admit that there are some truly horrible corners of the internet in which movies are measured that way exclusively. But is there something to gain out of comparing movies against each other? People love being judgy, and they have been comparing art for a long time. The earliest form of what consider drama, Ancient Greek comedies and tragedies, were pitted against each other in a competition called the “City Dionysia.” It was a festival that lasted several days. On the last day, they gave out awards for the Best Playwright (or Poet), and later, for the Best Actor. Could one argue, then, that competitive art is some sort of inherent human urge?
What went on in the “City Dionysia” isn’t that different from what happens in the South of France every year at the Cannes Film Festival. The most prestigious film directors in the world fight to get a spot in the Official Competition line-up, which allows them the chance to win the coveted Palme D’Or at the festival’s closing ceremony. The Palme, like the Oscar, immediately raises the profile of the winning film. There are many things to critique about Cannes (just like there are many things to critique about the Oscars), but I doubt many cinephiles would say the film community would be better off without Cannes. It’s hard enough to generate any interest in foreign art films, so one doesn’t even want to imagine how dour the situation would be without the pomposity of Cannes.
In a world that is growing less and less interested in cinema, both Cannes and Oscar serve increasingly similar purposes. They keep interest alive for the kind of movies that can no longer generate interest by themselves. Perhaps you find all this self-promotion nauseating, and decry the fact that both the Oscars and Cannes put too much focus on the movies that are out now, and could potentially win awards, forgetting about the rich history of cinema. In that case, it would be worth mentioning that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is a very big sponsor of film restoration, having helped to preserve and restore 800 movies, including Hollywood classics, documentaries, shorts, and experimental films. It’s also worth noting that these preservation programs are largely funded by the money that flows into the Academy thanks to the popularity of the Oscar ceremony.
I don’t think it would be a stretch to say most people don’t know about this restoration program, and that if nothing else, the labor the Academy puts into preserving the art-form is enough to justify its existence. However, I think the polemic I’ve encountered most often regarding the Oscars is not whether they should exist, but how they should go about their business. The other day I was talking with a friend of mine about the fact that James Franco did not get a Best Actor nomination. We both assumed he didn’t get it, at least partially, because of the sexual misconduct accusations that surfaced after he won a Golden Globe earlier this year. Now, my friend understood the logic behind voters not wanting to nominate him, but he wondered if denying an artistic achievement because of personal or political reasons was in keeping with the spirit of the Oscars. “Shouldn’t it be about the art?”
It’s a question I have thought a lot about and have come to answer with a resounding “no.” It is not about the art. Judging art in this manner is, like I said before, profoundly silly. Most Best Picture winners are regarded as mediocre films just a couple decades after they win, and eventually forgotten by everyone except Oscars obsessives (when is the last time you heard of Cavalcade or Gentleman’s Agreement?) We all have subjective reactions to art, so pretending that we can quantify and measure the effectiveness of a movie is futile. Even if we wanted to judge the Oscars exclusively based on “the art”, it would be impossible to do so. The Oscars cannot award the “Best Picture” because there is no such thing.
Here’s what the Oscars can do, though. They can shine the spotlight on movies, performances, directors, writers, producers, and craftspeople who wouldn’t get much attention otherwise. They can put movies with tiny budgets on the same stage as gigantic Hollywood spectacles. They can insist, year after year, to devote part of an expensive televised show to awarding documentaries, foreign, and short films. Even more importantly, they can put young up-and-coming talent in the same room as the most powerful and respected Hollywood veterans.
Last week, this year’s nominees came out to what is called the Annual Oscar Nominee Luncheon. An event that is meant to give the nominees a primer on what to do during the ceremony and how to deal with their speech, but is mostly just an excuse for all this people to hang out together for an afternoon. Every year, a “class photo” of all the nominees is taken. It’s one of my favorite moments of the awards season. Looking at the picture, you can see titans Steven Spielberg, emerging actors like Daniel Kaluuya, and pioneering technicians like Rachel Morrison (the first female cinematographer to be ever nominated for an Oscar) standing side by side. Mingling. Getting to know each other. Maybe planning to work together in the future.
The last time I encountered the question of “shouldn’t it be about the art” was during the years of the #OscarSoWhite campaign. Back then, people complained that the Oscars failed to nominate a single person of color in any of the four acting categories. And other people reacting saying that it “should be about the art” and not about a person’s skin color. I’m a little embarrassed that it’s taken me this long to fully develop my thoughts on this matter, but here it goes: The “awarding the best art” part of the Oscars is complete bullshit. What’s not bullshit is the opportunities that can come a person’s way after they become an Oscar nominee. This is why it’s beyond important to nominate women, racial minorities, and members of the LGBTQ community. So they can be part of the conversation. So they can get work. This is how you will be truly trying to elevate the voices that haven’t been heard before. This is how the Oscars can actually “be about the art.”