Every year the elite in Hollywood walk the red carpet and sit comfortably in their seats, awaiting the Oscars, an awards show that has not only defined their business, but the careers of many in attendance. It is a special night, but not just for these lucky few who attain a front row seat. The world is watching and, from houses to hotel rooms, drinks are being poured and arbitrary ballots cast. It’s America’s favorite entertainment horse race.
So why can’t I shake the feeling that I care so little?
For years I was the one in the suit, sipping sparkling grape juice and weighing the pros and cons of each category. But that was then and, at the great risk of sounding cynical, I now find the whole thing a grand charade that masks the politics of big studio filmmaking with a facade of artistic appreciation - a shell game created to give awards to the highest bidder.
“Oh come on,” you say, “isn’t that a tad extreme? Aren’t you just being harsh because it’s the cool thing to do. How very hipster of you to turn your own artistic jealously into a critique.”
I get the backlash. I’ve said it all to myself before, but I can’t ignore the feeling. I can’t ignore why I’m no longer sipping champagne and ticking off my ballot boxes.
And here are the reasons why….
“And the Best Pictures Goes To…”
It’s a dangerous game we play when we try to quantify art. Best Picture, Best Director, Best This, Best That. When we put art in a box, categorizing for culture what’s good and what’s bad, you strip it of why it nourishes the soul in the first place. It becomes a husk of a thing, marketed as if to a naive populace, who are believed unable to decide on their own what good cinema is, both for themselves and for humanity as a whole.
While we could talk about the validity of all awards for art, that’s not the discussion I want to bring forth (another time and another place perhaps). It’s the Oscars for which I currently speak and for good reason - they are the grand poobah, the world’s litmus test for gaging cinema quality and seperating the good from the very good.
Isn’t it scary the power a single awards show has on the general public? Do we remember who won best picture at the Spirit Awards? No. The BAFTAs? No. The Golden Globes? Maybe. But, when it comes to the questions asked from “Trivial Pursuit” to “Jeopardy” it’s the Oscars that stick in people’s brains. It’s the Oscars that people care about. It’s the Oscars that give the idea that its okay to objectify art in general far reaching terms instead of personal preferences - “it’s the best film of the year” instead of “it’s my favorite film of the year.”
Does that mean there isn’t such a thing as great film? Not at all. Great films stand the test of time. We remember the likes of Rebel Without a Cause, Casablanca, and Modern Times because they floated to the top of our culture psyche and stuck there while their drifted away. Great film is possible because it has made an impact, but stating grandly that something is the best film of the year before it can really impact the cinema landscape may hinder the winner more than help it. Being called the greatest is a hard thing to hold on to unless you’re Muhammad Ali.
Another problem I have with using the Oscars as a way to determine cinema hierarchy stems from those calling the shots - the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I think many believe these awards to be a tally of a massive diverse group, whose cumulative knowledge is the best aid in determining winners. What they don’t realize is that, according to the LA Times, only a little under 5,800 people actually vote, 94% of those are Caucasian, 77% are male, and the median age comes in at 62, with only 14% of the Academy voters being under 50. So who’s voting for best picture? Probably your grandpa.
The Money Run
Every year at least one film has this marketing ploy - the underdog. They are the little film that could and, with their little sling, they’ll slay the mighty blockbuster Goliath to take home the statue. It’s a great story, but that’s about it. The Oscars (and many of the big awards shows) are one big cash on the table money run, where whoever can get their film into the hands of their voters the fastest and sleekest most likely will win the prize.
Now, I’m not saying there is moral issues here. It’s a business after all and each its just selling its product in its best packaging, but this isn’t the side Hollywood really wants you to see. They’d prefer you not know that films like “Argo” and “Lincoln” are spending 10 million dollars to stay in the spotlight. They’d prefer you not know that Universal Studios gave each member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association a free iPod shuffle loaded with songs from “Les Miserables.” They’d prefer you just root for the underdog.
The Impossible Dream
Growing up, I knew I wanted to be in film and what I saw as the maximum amount of success I could achieve was to win an Academy Award. Not to live comfortably and express myself through cinema or find happiness in sharing my stories with fellow film lovers on the festival circuit. It was to win and win big. I’m sure I’m not the only one.
For years, I thought that was the pinnacle of achievement in my craft and so decisions on what I created were influenced with the knowledge of what was considered the best by the Academy. The vision of my creativity became filtered and fuzzy, narrowed by the mass amount of weight I put on my back to accomplish what I thought was the necessary end result of my work - an Oscar. This wasn’t an obsessive thing, it what I thought was standard procedure for being a filmmaker. To put it plainly, I stopped playing by my rules and began playing by theirs.
I think it’s this way for a lot of budding filmmakers. We become so wrapped up in what we think will win us a golden trophy that it becomes our golden idol and we begin to neglect the talent we have been given in favor for the talent it will take to bring us the grandest accomplishments, whether that be an Academy Award or any other prize.
Now don’t think I believe it bad to want to be recognized for your work. I understand that desire, but, if we’re not careful, we’ll treat awards like the Oscars as Everest — a mountain we can climb if we try hard enough—instead of Mars—a distant object that only through sheer miracles we’ll reach.
If our end result is to achieve accolades then we are no longer artists, but businessmen with a unique set of skills. This thought process is bad for filmmakers, but great for the rat race Hollywood and the Oscars like to run. It keeps the money flowing and sadly calcifies an entire industry from trying anything that they may deem too different from what is generally considered acceptable. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, this is how it all ends—not with a bang, but with a whimper.
No doubt another Oscars season will come and another set of awards will be placed on another set of shelves. No doubt they’ll start chatting about the next year at the afterparty and, yes, next year will come as well. It’s a never ending cycle. And like the Oscars, my little feeling will resurface and I’ll find myself ruminating on the pulse of film while everyone else enjoys the show. I envy them. I really do.