On the Oscars

Accelerating its journey to complete irrelevance, the Academy Awards announced that it plans to add a category for ‘Best Popular Film’ (there’s a fairly credible suspicion that this is mostly a way to give an award to Black Panther, which…let’s not get into that).

I’ve long since stopped caring about the Oscars, but I wanted to address this a little.

It seems like everyone has problems with this, though from different directions. According to BBC, some people are complaining that it degrades the Academy Awards into a popularity contest, which is rather funny considering what the Oscars already are, while others complain that it will be a dumping ground for worthy films that people actually watched while allowing the more prestigious Best Picture award to continue going to movies people have already forgotten.

Here’s my problem: splitting ‘Best Picture’ and ‘Best Popular Film’ creates two separate categories of cinema: the ‘important’ films and the lesser ‘popular’ films (because if you distinguish from Best Picture – a designation that includes all films – and Best Popular Film – which includes a limited subset of that, you are very clearly implying the latter is a separate and lesser category).

One of the major problems with the Oscars is that they have been growing increasingly elitist, self-congratulatory, and hyper-focused on agendas. A look at recent Best Picture nominees shows a heavy leaning towards smaller, unpopular films that push issues from a perspective favored by the political and social climate in Hollywood – race, sexuality, Left-wing politics, and so on. Examples of agenda-driven films (listing only the winners that I personally know obviously and clearly fit one of the categories) from recent years include winners The Shape of Water, Moonlight, Twelve Years a Slave, Spotlight, and The Hurt Locker, as well as nominees Call Me By Your Name, Get Out, Fences, Hidden Figures, Bridge of Spies, Imitation Game, Selma, The Wolf of Wall Street, Django Unchained, The Help, The Kids Are All Right, Avatar, Milk, and Frost/Nixon. Again, that is limiting it only to films that of my own knowledge push one of the above listed agendas, limited to Best Picture Nominees of the past ten years. I imagine that a more thorough examination than I’ve made would make the pattern far stronger. This, by the way, is not to say anything about the quality of the films themselves, nor is it to say there are no honorable exceptions, such as 2010 winner The King’s Speech. merely that this is a strong pattern in the Academy’s nominations in recent years.

They have been extremely reluctant to give nods to what are called ‘Popular’ films or films that have the approval of audiences; the fact that the Academy expanded the number of Best Picture nominees from five to ten following the controversial decision in 2009 to snub both The Dark Knight and Wall-E is only another example of this; it is an attempt at appeasement: to have space to nominate select ‘popular’ films without any chance of actually awarding them the trophy.

This new ‘Popular Film’ category is another attempt at appeasement: the Academy will give out a minor and grudging award to films people actually liked while still being able to reward the films that push the correct agendas. The fact that this seems to be largely a means to reward Black Panther is only another continuation of the trend of agenda first (let’s be honest; Infinity War far and away deserves to win that category above Black Panther. Quite a few films would be more deserving of an award than Black Panther, as a matter of fact: I’d even rank the mediocre Ready Player One as a more worthy recipient, though that’s not really the point here).

This is a trend that has been steadily growing over time. In, say, the 1960s Best Picture nominees tended to be popular films that were well-received at the box office, showed a high level of technical quality, and dealt with large subject matter or at least universal ideas. In 1965, for instance, the nominees included My Fair Lady (the winner), Beckett, Mary Poppins, Dr. Strangelove, and Zorba the Greek. Today I can only imagine maybe Dr. Strangelove being nominated. A few years before in 1963 the nominees were Lawrence of Arabia (winner), Mutiny on the Bounty, The Longest Day, The Music Man, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Quite apart from the fact that these are all technically fantastic films (at least, I know the ones I have seen are such and the others have a reputation of being so), note that one, these are big movies dealing with big subject matter and ideas, whether or not its immediately relevant to the then-political climate (though the nice thing about films like this is that they’re always relevant: My Fair Lady is never going to be out of date as long as men and women are attracted to each other and society has different manners for different classes), and two, that there is a huge variety in the kind of film being nominated, from musicals to family films to war movies to intimate dramas. Zorba the Greek is a very different film from Mary Poppins, which is barely in the same universe as Dr. Strangelove.

The point is, these were, by and large, the popular films of their day, and they will be remembered long after most of the Best Picture nominees of the past decade have been forgotten (which, in many cases, is now. Does anyone remember The Artist, Best Picture Winer of 2012?).

If the Oscars operated as they did back in the day, there would be no need for a ‘Best Popular Film’ because ‘Popular Film’ wouldn’t be considered a lesser category and they wouldn’t be filling up the Best Picture category with nonsense that no one cared about. Avengers: Infinity War would be a shoo-in nominee for Best Picture and a strong candidate to win. That is the kind of movie old Hollywood liked: a huge crowd-pleaser that was technically very strong and which dealt with big or universal ideas.

This whole post turned out longer and more involved than I meant it to. What I mean to say is that this move by the Academy is only the latest in a string of insults against their audience and the idea that they are entertainers rather than instructors. It exacerbates rather than solves the problem of Oscar irrelevance, all the more so because it seems to be done for the sake of continuing the same agenda-based criteria they have been operating under for at least a decade if not more. Certainly if they intend this as a way to tempt viewers back to the show, I doubt this will work. Cutting out the hostile moralizing would be much more to the point.

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