Monday, February 23, 2015

Why The Oscars (Don't) Matter

I figured out years ago that the Academy Awards aren't about winners and losers, at least not in any similarity to a sporting event. 

It's just an opportunity for established filmmakers to congratulate individuals in the industry for doing good work.  And that is why some years are more predictable than others.  When handicapping the Oscars all one has to do is look to see who the Academy thinks deserves an award, and 9 times out of 10, that person or film will win.  If it's not your "turn," you won't win.  You might not even be nominated.  Sometimes there will be a breakout performance that interrupts the cycle, or a film is so overwhelmingly popular it will sweep a bunch of awards, but it's also common for the awards to be spread out over a number of films. 

I think that's what happened this year.  Birdman ultimately impressed enough people because of its technical achievements, but maybe not its performances.  The same with Grand Budapest Hotel.  And because there was no knock-out drama, the acting awards were spread out to the "deserving but overlooked" (Julian Moore) and a relative newcomer (Eddie Redmayne).  It also doesn't hurt that these two performances were about people battling illness - a favorite challenge for the Academy to recognize.  Supporting Oscars went to veteran actors this year recognized for their careers, although Supporting awards often seem to go to newcomers in stand-out roles.

I'm trying to figure out if the apparent snub of Selma was because a film featuring African-American struggles was a big winner last year, or if Selma just isn't a very good film.  I haven't seen it yet.  But I see now that American Sniper, despite its great box-office, never had much of a chance.  Eastwood has been recognized repeatedly for better work, and Cooper will get his Oscar eventually.  Just for a better role.  (Instead, Sniper won a technical award perhaps because that was a category it could be recognized for without upsetting the other award categories.)

This isn't a bad system, because how do you really judge one great performance "better" than another great performance?  I think the competition aspect is silly, but choosing to recognize films and individuals, the Academy's stated goal, makes sense.  Some people get overlooked, others get a little too much attention, but it's just a group of industry insiders picking people and films they think deserve recognition.  (And this is why I think a nomination is really just as good as a win.  I'm still shocked that The Lego Movie wasn't nominated for best Animated film, and that comedies and action films are still routinely snubbed in the Best Picture category.  Too many Academy members must not think those films are ever "deserving" of recognition besides in a technical category.)

The Academy is in some trouble, though, and they made telling fun of it during the opening number, with Jack Black angrily singing about people being more interested in the "screen in their jeans" than the Silver Screen.  Reading comments today it's clear that the Academy Awards show still matters because it gives a chance for the industry to promote itself and its stars.  And the industry really doesn't care how people watch movies, as long as they pay for them and not steal them off the web.  But the industry has little control over the message. 

The problem is that everyone now is an expert, and every opinion is just as valid as anyone elses' - at least that what people think.  We can see it in the disdain for science and for history.  There is little respect anymore for the opinion of established groups.  So what we get with the Oscars isn't a lively debate over who they choose, but a questioning of why we should listen to them anyway.  The secrecy behind the members doesn't help much, but I don't think "outing" them would make the process they have for voting more digestible for the average know-it-all.  And making the Academy more "democratic" would defeat its purpose of recognizing filmmakers in its own idiosyncratic way. 

So maybe the Academy is on its last legs.  With video games selling more and more units and making almost more money than movies, maybe in ten years the red carpet will feature avatars and rendered versions of actors, controlled remotely as they rest back home in their mansions or on the beach.  And the know-it-alls on the web will be complaining how the latest first-person-shooter game got robbed with only one award. 

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