The Day the Oscars Died
If you haven’t heard already, the Oscars happened, and unsurprisingly, they did not go very well. This year’s premiere event for cinematic achievement was marred by months of controversy and managed to shoot itself in the foot at every opportunity. Quite frankly, the Academy Awards are not good at giving awards to the right films. As opposed to being a celebration of film’s triumphs, this year’s awards were ruled by scandal and implausible winners. Last year’s show was the least-watched Oscars in history. The Academy Awards are a mess that can’t clean themselves up. Far from the glory days of Hollywood, the biggest news to come out of the Oscars in recent memory was when they incorrectly announced La La Land as the winner of Best Picture in 2017. With the awards already tainted by so much controversy, can they get back to where they were before?
While I’m sure the Oscars will continue for decades to come, there are mounting problems. The decline in viewership, the waning public opinion of the actual awards given out, and the strong outcry from fans and filmmakers alike against the Academy all create an image of a poorly-run organization that shows no signs of improving. The lack of transparency and communication with the public has created frustration among fans and filmmakers alike who want more insight into why the organization makes outlandish decisions that only seem to further prove that the Academy is a trending in the wrong direction.
For years, those in the film industry have called for the addition of a Best Stunts category in the Oscars. This year, the Academy finally heard their voices and announced a new award. Oh wait, that wasn’t for stunt work, it was for achievement in popular film. What does that mean exactly? No one really knows, but the point is that the men and women who put their lives at risk in the name of advancing the art of filmmaking continue to be ignored, while blockbusters that don’t have enough merit for any serious awards can still be honored at the ceremony. Basically, it means Disney (who broadcasts the awards) gets to nominate more Marvel movies for Oscars. The outcry against adding this category was so strong the Academy postponed the addition until 2020.
It seems as if the Academy can’t do anything right, as when they announced this year’s host, Kevin Hart, the pushback against him was so strong that they cancelled the plan almost immediately; It was quickly revealed that a few years ago, Hart had published homophobic tweets. It’s common practice when doing a background check on someone to look through their social media posts. Somehow, the Academy missed this step and hired him anyway. It’s not even like it was that hard to find what he said, as his old tweets resurfaced within hours. As they were forced to fire their host within hours of hiring him, the Oscars were left scrambling for a solution to their logistical and public-relations problems. “We’ll go host-less,” they announced proudly, as though they hadn’t been backed into a corner.
Only a few weeks before the awards were to be presented, the Academy announced that, in order to save time, some awards would not be broadcasted. The show was too long and bloated. The four categories, live action short film, hair and makeup, editing, and cinematography, would be presented during commercial breaks. While the other controversies were an annoyance more than anything, this was an affront against these crafts and categories. The Oscars are supposed to be a celebration of cinematic excellence, and instead the board of governors (the executive committee that runs the Academy) decided that these four awards are less important than the others. The Oscars give exceptional filmmakers a platform to showcase their work and be celebrated in front of a national audience. By erasing these awards from the public’s consciousness, the Academy is insulting those winners. Quite frankly, it’s just rude. As Alfonso Cuaron explained on Twitter, “In the history of cinema, masterpieces have existed without… actors. No one single film has existed without cinematography and without editing.” Everything is secondary to cinematography and editing, yet those were chosen as the least important. Cinematography is a high-profile award. Editing is a vital part of filmmaking. This decision to cut these awards makes little sense until one looks closely at the nominees. Disney movies were nominated in all but 5 categories. Coincidentally, four of those categories were the four cut from live broadcast.
The nominations were fairly standard. Big studio movies are usually celebrated and Oscar-bait is nominated for best picture. Indie movies that are much better than The Green Book are ignored. The usual. My personal love of First Reformed was affronted when it only got nominated for Original Screenplay, but what can you expect? It’s the Oscars, not an award for cinematic excellence.
In fact, Oscar voters are the subject of several controversies, notably at the center of the Me Too and #OscarsSoWhite movements. The Academy has made an effort to diversify, aiming to double its membership of women and people of color, but it hasn’t been enough to stop the older generation of voters from holding them back. Take the two screenplay awards, for example. The winner of Best Original Screenplay was Greenbook, a road trip movie about a racist Italian-American man, Tony, who drives a black, gay musician, Don Shirley, through the South in the 60s in which Tony ends the film still being racist and Don Shirley still doesn’t accept himself for who he is. The film, however, ends with the idea that racism is gone and everyone should just love each other. The moral of Greenbook is that it’s OK to be racist as long as on the surface you’re polite. The winner for Best Adapted Screenplay, on the other hand, was BlackKklansman, a progressive Spike Lee biopic about a black police officer in the 1970s that, despite prejudice and discrimination all around him, takes down the KKK by pretending to be a white man on the phone. The narrative ends with a similar eradication of racism, but the film takes a much darker turn and (spoiler alert) ends with real footage of the Charlottesville riots and neo-Nazi protests in modern America. While both films tackle race relations between white and black Americans, Peter Farley and Spike Lee have very different opinions on the state of American culture. It’s clear to see how both films won their awards. The young, progressive voters drove Klansman to a win while the older generation supported Greenbook. The Oscars, just like America, have a cultural gap between young and old voters that puts them at odds with each other.
The older generation of Oscar voters have created a system in which predictable and mediocre movies win awards. For years, “Oscar-bait” movies have ruled the Best Picture category. A film can be considered Oscar-bait if it 1) is a biopic, 2) stars a minority (bonus points for disabilities), 3) has a lukewarm message about how discrimination is bad, or 4) contains all of the above. You may feel like I’m just attacking Green Book right now, but I’m actually talking about The Imitation Game. And Crash. Also Bohemian Rhapsody. I could go on. There is a very specific formula that Oscar voters will select for best picture nearly every year. It’s so predictable that, even despite the obvious cinematic excellence of Roma and The Favorite, the highest award in cinema went to a biopic that was “based on a true friendship,” Green Book.
Best Picture isn’t the only predictable category, either. The award for Actor in a leading role has become an award for the best impression of an already famous person. In six out of the last seven years, the winner has starred in a biographical adaptation of a real person’s life. While Rami Malek was certainly deserving of his award, the idea that this award has become so predictable is troubling. Does this mean more biopics are going to be made in the hopes of attracting a big star and an easy Academy Award win? Hopefully not, as a lot of them are really bad. They take a large budget, a big name star, and a familiar and inspiring story and turn it into Hollywood cliché that everyone forgets about soon enough. If the award went to an actor that starred in a film that cared about anything but it’s initial weekend box office (like Ethan Hawke in First Reformed) then maybe studios would invest in higher quality films and everyone would be better off for it.
Watching the Oscars in Paris is difficult. They start after midnight and finish right before I have to wake up for my 9 am. As a film student with a passion for cinema, I tried to stay awake this year, but fell asleep after only a few categories. When I woke up the next morning and went to class, I thought everyone was joking. Bohemian Rhapsody won four awards? Really? And one of them was editing? Rhapsody was possibly the worst-edited movie of 2018. There is no explanation for this. The only semi-plausible answer lies in the idea that editors took issue with Alfonso Cuaron (who deserved and voted for Rhapsody out of spite. Bohemian Rhapsody is contrived, unoriginal, and uninspired. Starting with a flash-forward to a big performance, the film goes through Freddy’s early life and formation of the band but quickly cuts to mega-stardom. The main character goes through tough times and it looks like the band may never be the same, but inevitably they return for one big show: the concert from the first scene. Watch any music biopic from this century and you’ll see this pattern. Oh, and of course there’s a “what happened to all the characters” during the credits. The film barely dealt with Freddy getting AIDS. For example, one might expect the lighting to darken at such a critical and unfortunate junction, but there was no such change. There are no new ideas presented in Rhapsody. It was fun to watch because the music was done by Queen and Rami Malek did a good Freddie Mercury impression, but that’s not worthy of recognition by the highest cinematic body in the world. To put it in the same realm as Roma or almost completely ignore smaller films like First Reformed and Annihilation isn’t surprising, but it’s still disappointing. The director was fired halfway through production of Bohemian Rhapsody because he wouldn’t show up to work. It was one of the worst movies of the year, and it won more Oscars than The Godfather.
While I don’t have all the answers, I’d make a few changes that would streamline the show and support the filmmaking community. Getting rid of a host was a cowardly reaction to public backlash, but it did shorten the show, so I would consider it. I’d also cut some song performances that nobody cares about (like the weird country song from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) and I wouldn’t play a 30 second clip for every acting nominee. That’s about 30 minutes shaved off, right there. Oh, and I definitely wouldn’t add a category for Best Popular Film. Not necessarily because adding a category would prolong the show, but because that category itself would be an insult to both the the artistic filmmaking community that gets routinely shunned by the Oscars and to the nominated films themselves. Imagine being a director whose movie was passed up for Best Picture, but being given the consolation prize of being nominated for a category that equates to Movies that aren’t high-brow or good enough for the Oscars, but were popular with the masses so we wanted to include them so more people would watch. A category for Best Stunts would be nice, though.
Does all of this mean the Oscars are done for? No. All in all, this was a relatively unremarkable year for the Academy. This year’s show, even with the controversy and scandal, got an 18% boost in ratings over last year. No one could look away. Besides, was the Academy really that great in the past? When were their glory days? Even as far back as the 70s, a golden age of American cinema, Marlon Brando refused to accept his Oscar for Actor in a Leading Role. This past year, I was happy that Spike Lee finally got his Oscar and sad that Green Book won, but I’m mostly upset with myself. I keep expecting the Oscars to be more than they are, and I feel the disappointment each time. The Academy Awards are a TV show before anything else, not a bastion of cinematic excellence. I know that next year I’m going to watch. Quite frankly, it’s just too big of an event to pass up. I’m going to hate the nominations and complain about the winners, but I’ll be watching all the same.