The Oscars, or the Academy Awards, are often criticised for being self-congratulatory, acting as the supreme overlord of entertainment. Despite this supposed focus upon artistic merit, the show itself is a famously bloated and often an unentertaining schlock-fest. The irony of this is rather entertaining, but poor hosts and worse jokes do make the whole thing a tiresome affair, a highlights reel of the night is all you’ll ever need to watch.
You’d think an industry based in entertainment and artistry could pull together to create something that translated well on to a television screen. Instead, the Oscars remain an elite event, not particularly entertaining in their own right. The whole affair is more tailored to those attending in person than those at home, so despite the insistence from whoever owns the broadcasting rights that the show is “unmissable!”, it’s easily passed over.
Poor hosts and worse jokes make the whole thing a tiresome affair – a highlights reel is all you’ll ever need to watch
The event comes last in awards season, so it’s not terribly hard to predict the results, but it’s arguably the most culturally significant of them all. An Oscar has the ability to bestow upon an actor better projects and a push into mainstream awareness, which can translate to better box office numbers. Careers can be enhanced through a nomination alone – just look at Saoirse Ronan. Lupita Nyong’o was pushed onto a high reaching Hollywood trajectory after her nomination and subsequent win. It can also be an adrenaline shot to revitalise a weakening filmography: see, Matthew McConaughey and Michael Keaton. The purpose of the awards is not just to celebrate art, but to also bring attention to it. It’s more than just something to stick on the DVD cover.
To take a more pessimistic stance, the Oscars aren’t representative. It’s uncommon to see films, however critically lauded, from genres such as horror, comedy, or action, cult classics such as What We Do in the Shadows being an example. There also seems to be a clear discrepancy between commercial and critical success. Batman vs. Superman gleaned $872.7m at the box office, one of the most financially successful films of 2016, but has been panned critically.
The elitism of being told what is or what is not artistically valuable is also problematic, and I’d encourage everyone to avoid using the Oscars as a definitive viewing guide for the year, or even to shape your own opinions of films. Historically, many fantastic films were not winners; at the 67th Academy Awards Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption were passed over for Forrest Gump. All well loved features with an enviable legacy, but in a cinematic fuck-marry-kill, most would likely execute Gump. The preferences for specific types of film are unfortunate, promoting one-note Oscar baiting movies, which play up to voter preferences in order to maximise their award potential. Additionally, there is a clear bias against non-English language films which tend to be placed in the Foreign Film category, rather than breaking into Best Picture, making it all a very westernised affair.
Voters certainly aren’t perfect. Snubs occur and experimental films are rejected for safer choices. Voters may not even base their choice on quality, voting instead on a film’s reputation. And then there are the campaigns which can aid a win, depending of course on whether you have a figure like Harvey Weinstein to schmooze the electorate. Creating a narrative around an actor or project can also be advantageous, for example Leonardo Dicaprio and the infamous and eventually tiresome saga of being nominated oh-somany times without a win. This also applies generally to The Revenant, where the struggle of filming in real locations and temperatures was omnipresent in discussion of the film’s quality.
This is not completely foolproof; the meta Michael Keaton could not use the comeback narrative, which Birdman centred around, to seduce voters. He was overcome by another narrative, of transformation. Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking required meticulous detail and craft, but the Academy will always heavily reward losing or gaining weight, warping one’s body in some way. It seems going to physical extremes is the way to win, an award for effort, rather than for the quality of the final piece.
We can criticise the capacity of voters to make the right choice but as long as we, the cinephiles, pay attention, the Oscars remain important. Perhaps we care because it’s an insight into the industry, a glimpse of what they thought deserved recognition. That’s useful whether you want a recommendation, or to gain a look inside the mind of Hollywood.