The Academy Awards: Do They Matter?

Original Post Date: 2/17/15

And the award for best achievement in a subjective category goes to… the color red!

Every year we get caught up in the hype of award shows. How can you not? It’s a chance to feel cultured and relevant. But while we’re arguing about whether Beyonce got robbed or not, the true winners are the broadcast companies. Let’s be real, these shows might be career boosts for the nominees who take home golden statues, but each and every executive is singing a different tune. This raises the question: do these shows even matter? On one hand, it’s a great opportunity to elevate and recognize artists. On the other hand, when you pick a ‘best’ achievement, you’re diminishing everyone else’s work. Can you really compare the quality of two films? Some say ‘No, of course not.’ Others believe that it’s a celebration for all involved. I say it’s somewhere in between.

The Oscar winners each year might reflect popular sentiment, but they are only the result of what the Academy voted should win. Make no mistake about it, the Academy is very biased. Like any organization, politics dictate their direction… and that’s not about to change. That said, you have to applaud them for their history of high brow taste. They might not be artsy like Cannes Film Festival, but you don’t see the Academy nominating very popular films like the Fast and the Furious or Transformers for Best Picture. The problem I have is that their taste is so predictable. I will argue it has led to a pattern of movies tailored to win awards, AKA “Oscar Bait.”

Every year there seems to be that one film that got produced because it would get nominated. This year I say it’s The Theory of EverythingIt’s a biopic about a genius with a disability whose story is framed through a romance. Yikes. If that’s not forced, I don’t know what is. Let’s take a quick look at the most flagrant Oscar Bait victories of the last few years, shall we?

2014: 20 Feet From Stardom takes home Best Documentary over The Act of Killing

In a true display of voter bias, a documentary about backup singers was given an Oscar over a daring, innovative magnum opus. To make The Act of Killingdirector Josh Oppenheimer put his life on the line to capture the lives of cold-blooded killers and made them come to terms with the weight of their crimes against humanity. How? By making a movie within a movie. A strange concept on paper, but it is a work of genius. I have to guess that the Academy opted for 20 Feet From Stardom because they could sympathize more with struggling artists than Indonesian crime lords, but history is not going to be on their side.

2013: Daniel Day-Lewis wins Best Actor as Lincoln

Wow, hard to be objective about this one. Not only is Daniel Day-Lewis one of the greatest actors of all time, but I was actually a sound extra in this film. True story. But come on now, this role was intentionally written to have those dramatic closeups and monologues that helped a white guy enable black people. Deluded Racial Progress: 1, Artistic Integrity: 0.

2012: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close gets nominated for Best Picture

A fitting title for this film as both are impossible to remember. I kid. Sort of. It’s about a kid with Asperger’s who loses his dad in 9/11. I can’t imagine this would have been nominated if the dad wasn’t portrayed by Tom Hanks because nothing else was likable.

2011: The King’s Speech wins Best Picture

I will be the first to tell you that this was a really good movie that was anchored by an impeccable Colin Firth… but  it was nowhere near the cinematic achievement of The Social Network. Someone once argued that The King’s Speech could have come out any year and it would have been a contender. To that I say “Exactly!” It’s an inspirational story that has not evolved thematically and is no more relevant today than it was 70 years ago. The Social Network, on the other hand, is a masterful breakdown of elitism in the digital age. I can’t think of a film that better fleshes out the concept that “we’re farther apart now than ever in spite of being more connected.”

Every year there’s going to be a winner that probably won’t stand the test of time, but that shouldn’t invalidate the history of what the Academy has gotten right. Redemption time:

1941: Citizen Kane receives multiple nominations in spite of box office failures

Citizen Kane is the gold standard to which we compare crowning achievements- it is synonymous with the word ‘masterpiece,’ but when it was first released it almost fell into irrelevancy. Why? William Randolph Hearst was determined to make it fade away. Kane is a none-too-subtle attack on how media moguls manipulate the masses and Hearst was an obvious inspiration for the title character Charles Foster Kane. When Hearst saw this film he was infuriated. He sought to end it and did everything in his power to remove it from the public eye, but unfortunately for him, it was nominated for Best Picture, Director, Actor, and won for Best Original Screenplay. Job well done, Academy.

1963: Sidney Poitier becomes the first black man to win Best Actor

What an amazing, dignified man. While we still have a long way to go with racial movies in America, we do need to acknowledge how far we’ve come. When Poitier won Best Actor for Lilies in the Field, we were in the middle of the Civil Rights movement and many blacks would have feared to even enter some movie theaters down south. But it was a step forward. He brought us some iconic roles and paved the way for minority performers to be more than just caricatures on the silver screen.

1973: Cabaret wins eight Academy Awards, loses Best Picture 

Want to talk about heartbreak for a production company? Try tailing the record for most category wins and losing the big one. Too soon, Gravity? Cabaret is an excellent film and is one of the better musicals I’ve seen adapted to the screen. Liza Minelli really shines and there’s something hypnotic about it… and yet the Academy didn’t see it fit to give them the crowning achievement of the night. It went to some movie where the lead actor had the audacity to outright decline his Oscar. Oh, that’s right, it was The Godfather.

1991: Silence of the Lambs wins “The Big Five”

The Silence of the Lambs (1991) Poster

I believe that Silence of the Lambs is about as close as you can get to a perfect movie. To win “the big five,” you have to win Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay, a feat that has only happened three times in 87 years. Silence pulled off everything you could want in a movie. It improved upon its source material, redefined visual narratives with subtle nonverbal techniques, and forged the role of a lifetime. It’s also a testament to the Academy for coronating this film because it brings up some story elements that are often overlooked in mainstream film. For one, it’s a crime thriller that steps into the horror genre, a genre that is all but ignored come award season. Further, it is very much a feminist narrative. Last but not least, it delves into the psychology of sex, something that is a touchy subject in America to this day. They got it right.

2003: Roman Polanski is awarded Best Director in spite of personal history

Say what you will about Polanski’s personal life, but he’s an amazing artist. The Pianist won the Palm D’or at Cannes Film Festival and I see it as the only Holocaust film truly on par with Schindler’s List. Oscar buzz tends to shape who wins what and the buzz was pointing to Scorsese that year. Gangs of New York wasn’t great, but Scorsese had been overlooked for so many years, so he seemed like a shoe-in. But nope, the Academy gave it to the right man.

2014: 12 Years a Slave wins Best Picture over Gravity

 

Cuaron is a master and Gravity was a technical marvel, even managing to fit in spiritual and wide metaphors into a crowd pleaser… and yet, 12 Years a Slave was a moment where we all gasped and realized it was the best movie in years. It was a tossup, but the Academy opted for the authenticity of 12 Years and acknowledged it as the most brutal, but important depiction of slavery yet captured on screen.

In short, award shows are totally subjective, but they do matter. They are crucial in establishing who stood out that year and why we chose one winner over another. We may or may not always agree in the long-run, but it fundamentally speaks to how the films impacted our culture and how performances resonated with audiences all over. Here’s to another year of celebrating one of the best gifts we have… to that I say “Alright, alright, alright!”

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