There has been some phenomenal filmmaking, and some equally spectacular performances, in the cinematic year gone by. Some of these films and performances have been nominated for an Oscar – a 10-inch gold-plated tin man, given to members of the film industry by other members of the film industry that recognises stellar work in the film industry. You can see why people get terribly excited (and terribly cynical) about the whole thing.
Subsequently, the annual Hollywood festival of gratuitous back-patting tends to generate some clumsily-led debate amongst cinema goers, media outlets and people who think The Avengers deserves to win every award there ever was, ever. The scope of this debate usually ranges from ‘Does it matter that virtually none of the nominated films were big hitters at the box office?’ and ‘Does anyone actually know what cinematography means?’ to ‘WHO ARE YOU WEARING?!!’.
However, there is always a second, far more interesting level of discourse that the Oscars brings to the fore. It is concerned, singularly, with film. Where is the cinema of our age taking us, and what can we now learn about the filmmaking of days gone by? What techniques are being experimented with, and what do they mean artistically? What subject matter do we understand to be deserving of attention, and how is it being translated on screen?
The interaction between these two levels of discussion is always fascinating. It’s what makes for an Oscars that has substance behind the style. In 2014, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave took the bit of metal for Best Picture, as America honoured a film that held up a mirror to one of the darkest periods in its history. As news anchors and film correspondents exchanged views on whether Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity deserved the award for its superior technical and narrative flair, others reflected upon how a panel that is 93 per cent white and 76 per cent male chose to single out a rare film about the brutality of slavery in a country still rife with inequalities. What does this show about how society, history and peoples interact through filmmaking? Who knows? Let’s watch Jennifer Lawrence fall over again on CNN.
This is how the Oscars endure as a hybrid of high art and low culture. It’s what makes them one of the most watched TV events of any one year.
In 2015, however, the balance of the trivial and the topical has been upset. The two have, in fact, been focally united as the film world and the wider media have ruminated extensively upon the fact that all 20 nominated actors are white; this has seen an intrinsically important debate about today’s film industry and race equality explode into a tabloid feeding fest. The result? A highly important cultural issue has rightly superseded – and possibly to a small extent, tainted – public engagement with a showcase of some of the best works of art produced in 2015.
As part of an important exploration of art and society, this year’s Oscars have been defined by what they are not. As a result, what remains feels a touch superlative by default – a collateral shame, because there are some extraordinary pieces of filmic work being showcased. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s directorial flair in Birdman, Eddie Redmayne’s unnervingly truthful performance in The Theory of Everything and everything about Richard Linklater’s Boyhood are just the tip of an iceberg of outstanding filmmaking. Yet 2015 will always be the year that the Oscars and the film industry were unanimously held under a microscope at the partial cost of the uninhibited celebration of excellent film. It’s a small price to pay given that a huge cultural and artistic flaw has been crucially highlighted. Yet it is important to remember that the nature of this year’s nominations is a manifestation rather than a cause of a wider problem. More than anything, the predominance of white Oscar nominees serves to illustrate the lack of infrastructural equality in artistic industry.
Yet the Neil Patrick Harris-led show goes on. As we watch Eddie Redmayne, Julianne Moore, J. K. Simmons and Patricia Arquette probably walk away with the four acting awards, we will all, film connoisseurs and celeb spotters alike, be more aware than ever that the tin men are all plated with the same thin layer of gold.