We Need to Talk About Oscar

Here’s a riddle, in a Greek sphinx kind of way: I was a problematic child. Elitist, and often tone deaf. As an adult, I’ve grown desperately insecure in my need to be seen and respected, and cloy for attention year after year in a futile bid to remain young and relevant. I’m heavier than I look and I’m worth my weight in gold, but I can’t be bought and I can’t be sold. Who am I? 

Did you get it? That’s right! I’m an Academy Award! And guess what, despite all of that, I’m still very important. 

Yes, the Academy Awards ARE very important. Okay—in the face of war, one has to question what is genuinely important. So, let us reframe that: within the context of cinema and the film industry at large, the Academy Awards are important.You might not like them or you might be an avid fan. Doesn’t matter. The Academy Awards are important because they are an institution: the oldest awards ceremony of its kind and the only one, still, to be watched and cared about on a global scale. Nobody outside of America watches the Tonys, Emmys, or Grammys. But the Oscars are THE OSCARS. You don’t even remember a time when you didn’t know what they were, do you? They’re the awards kids stay up late for in France or England or India or Japan. They’re the ones that used to pull in ratings of over one billion people worldwide. Imagine that—one billion people watching your film win Best Picture, the vast majority of whom are not film buffs, but rather occasional film goers who will now go and see your film because it just got voted the Best Picture of the entire year. Think of the revenue that adds to a movie’s take on a global scale. The prestige it brings. The increase in salary an Oscar-winner can ask for. This alone, if nothing else, proves that the Academy Awards are important. 

Unlike the majority of the billion watching, I am a film buff and grew up in a family of serious film lovers. Movies were everything to me, so, naturally, I grew up watching the Oscars religiously. As a child, I once cried when the tape I used to record them on ran out before the end of the show. I was intoxicated by Hollywood, old and new. The glitz, the glamour, the whole shebang! And nothing—and I mean NOTHING—was more glamorous than the Oscars. My God, winning an Oscar seemed like the greatest thing in the world. The amazing outfits, those larger than life people, that huge auditorium with a standing ovation and Jack Nicholson sitting upfront in his sunglasses. I was glued to the television.

“Honestly, is it not a little awkward to look back over the years and see that films like Dances With Wolves won over Goodfellas? Or Chicago over The Pianist? Crash over Brokeback Mountain? Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan? How Green Was My Valley over CITIZEN KANE!?”

I give this backdrop because I want to explain that I understand the love of Oscar. I get it. I was there, in for a penny in for a pound. And if you still love the Oscars to this day, if they’re important to you, then let them be important to you. But I do now wonder: when the show has been tinkered with and tinkered with until its been dwindled down to an awkward soiree in a small room that looks like a jazz parlor, and the show can no longer bring in a billion viewers, and God knows they haven’t gotten a host right in years, why is an Oscar still so sought after? Without the pomp and circumstance of the old days, what are we here for?

For one thing, it’s the deluge of award shows now. The Independent Spirits, SAGs, Golden Globes (RIP), MTV, People’s Choice, Critic’s Choice, DGA, PGA,  LA Film Critics, NY Film Critics, and Nickelodeon (!!!)—all slotting in somewhere around Oscar time. Having such an overcrowded award season certainly waters down the main event. And ok, maybe I’ve grown more cynical with age, but the idea that any one performance or film could be better than another does seem a little odd. How could anyone choose between two completely different entities, often in different genres, and claim one as “the winner”? What have 12 Years a Slave and Gravity possibly got in common? How could one even begin to compare them? What about when you have two great films competing? Two bona fide masterpieces. Who would ever claim Francis Ford Coppola doesn’t deserve an Oscar for directing THE GODFATHER? But at the same time, who doesn’t think Bob Fosse deserves one for Cabaret? Those films are nothing alike—one’s a musical, for God’s sake. Either of them not getting the Oscar would be outrageous, but because there can only be one winner, it was Fosse who took home the prize that year, which means Coppola didn’t get one for directing what many people consider one of the greatest American films ever made. 

Honestly, is it not a little awkward to look back over the years and see that films like Dances With Wolves won over Goodfellas? Or Chicago over The PianistCrash over Brokeback Mountain? Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan? HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY OVER CITIZEN KANE!? And what about the years when no truly worthwhile Best Picture contenders were nominated—such as, say, 1988 (did we really believe Rain Man was the best film of the year?) Then consider the films released that weren’t nominated in their place: Dead Ringers, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, A Fish Called Wanda, Bull Durham, Big, Die Hard, and one’s left wondering what exactly is the criteria to get a nomination in the first place. What if on such years (since the Academy insists on not treating comedy, horror or action with the same reverence it treats drama), they entertained forgoing a Best Picture winner altogether? Sacrilegious, yes, but not so much as the fact that the Academy never even bothered to nominate Psycho, 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Do the Right Thing.

“When you start adding and eliminating categories in pursuit of ratings, or start changing rules to keep up with the times, you start messing with the golden standard that makes that statuette so covetable.”

By nominating and awarding films in the first place—and setting boundaries for what even constitutes a nomination-worthy film, we automatically turn what should be an art form into a competition. Now, I’m not naïve enough to not realize the film industry is exactly that, an industry, and therefore first and foremost a business. Business is competitive. But that aspect is settled at the box office. When a film like Star Wars makes all the money in the world, it is the clear * business * winner for the year. But if the Oscars are intended to reward films by artistic merit and not box office, by making them compete for awards, do we not actually rob them of their artistic integrity? 

Nominating and comparing films is only the most obvious problem with the Oscars. The more interesting question to ask is, what do they stand for now, and what are they even trying to achieve with their broadcast?  

The Oscars are said to be given for “excellence in the American and International film industry.” But if they’re really so prestigious, should they even be broadcast to begin with? Why not just read off the winners on the news, as the Pulitzer Prize has always done? Why the big hullabaloo with the hosts and the songs and dance numbers and the big carnival? Because it’s about entertainment, of course. But if that’s what it’s really about, and there’s nothing wrong with that, then why pretend that an Oscar is any more prestigious than an MTV popcorn award? And if it’s not just about television ratings, then why does the Academy insist on trying silly stunts year after year, like putting the Best Actor award last because they thought it might help their PR? Or suggesting a Most Popular Movie award. Or dumping the Lifetime Achievement Award to the Governor’s Ball, and now going so far as to dropping awards like Film Editing from the main broadcast (because films don’t need editing, didn’t you know, only movie stars). When you start adding and eliminating categories in pursuit of ratings or start changing rules to keep up with the times, you start messing with the golden standard that makes that statuette so covetable. Perhaps we would still be taking the Oscars as seriously if they actually behaved like they gave a damn about their own history, cinema, and artists, and gave the less famous workers in the industry the honor and respect they more than deserve.

“With the Academy Awards comes a sense of history and tradition—something none of the other award shows can afford. You can’t buy history.”

At the end of the day, what always made the Oscars a show worth watching is exactly that—the SHOW. With all the pomp and glitz and excess they used to have. Perhaps the Oscars were always a bit silly and shouldn’t have been taken so seriously to begin with, but at least they were GLAMOROUS. Yes, they were slow and always out of date and stodgy and far too long, but that was part of the charm. It’s what made The Oscars feel important. 

With the Academy Awards comes a sense of history and tradition, something none of the other award shows can afford. You can’t buy history. This is where Vivien Leigh won and James Cagney and Frank Capra and Sidney Poitier and Grace Kelly and Denzel Washington. All those legends looking down at their golden statue with such pride and awe and sometimes tears. That’s what gives Oscar its worth. That’s what made Spielberg long for it for so long despite his astronomical success. That’s what made the recent slew of foreign directors—Ang Lee, Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro Inarritu, Guillermo del  Toro, Bong Joon-ho, Chloe Zhao—so clearly ecstatic to have won this particular foreign award, because they grew up on it, because in their hand isn’t just a statue, but 94 years of history wound into this lump of gold. But chip away at the show, and you chip away at the gold and find that it’s just gold plated. Fill the Oscars with silly gimmicks and keep stripping them down, and all we’re left with is a pandering and, worse, panicking Academy body that doesn’t think it has the clout to survive. 

Nobody wants to see the man behind the curtain. What we want is the Great and Powerful Oz.