If you’ve watched the Oscars for any amount of time, you’ve probably noticed some trends: The Academy likes movies about real people, preferably historically significant ones. Four of the eight Best Picture nominees are based on true stories, and four of the five Best Actor nominees are playing real people, with the fifth, Michael Keaton, playing a sort of alternate universe version of himself. They also like movies about people with physical or mental disabilities (Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking being the best example this year), movies about art (Birdman, Whiplash), and performances by actors who hide their movie star looks under prosthetics (Steve Carell, acting under the shadow of Nicole Kidman’s fake nose). They also really, really like Meryl Streep.
It’s been noted that the Academy is overwhelmingly white, male, and old, but it’s conservative in just about every respect you can imagine. The Academy likes films that are conventional, reassuring, and generally positive, mainstream without being too popular. They separate Best Foreign Language film from Best Picture, emphasizing the extreme unlikeliness of anything made outside of the United States or Great Britain of being truly great. There are always exceptions – Birdman is aggressively inventive in its approach, while Boyood finally got the Academy to take note of Richard Linklater’s low-key indie style – but it’s hard to look at the nominations for this year or any other without thinking “Yes, these are the sort of movies that get nominated for Academy Awards.”
This is all predictable, not just because this sort of thing happens every year, but because of the very process of nominating and awarding films: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, which votes on the Oscars, is comprised of people who have been nominated for Oscars, or who have been recommended by people who have been nominated for Oscars. So if you won great acclaim for your conservatively-mounted historical biopic, it is logical – though certainly not necessary – that you might look fondly on other conservatively-mounted historical biopics.
The systemic issues are less obvious, as a lot of the lobbying for awards attention happens behinds the scenes. Stephen Follows talks bout some of the details and expenses of an Oscar campaign, explaining the time and money spent on ensuring the right people see your movie at the right time. Quality alone isn’t enough to win an Oscar; you also need the well-planned resources – both money and manpower – of a studio behind you.
But that’s all okay. Most of the Academy’s biases are plain to see, and the Oscars have never pretended to be a objective & democratic meditation on cinema. It’s a ceremony where the fancy people come out to decide which of the movies they’ve seen are the best, and to applaud their fellow fancy people when they win fancy awards, while trying to appear graceful and calm when they lose. These are awards that value the heart-tugging emotional validation of The Artist, Forest Gump, or Chicago, a ceremony that’s just the right place for the humour of Ellen Degeneres or Billy Crystal.
There are problems with the Oscars, but the bigger problem is how we treat them, elevating them to the ultimate level of film evaluation. Oscar Buzz starts earlier and earlier every year, but the starting pistol is usually fired at Venice or Toronto in August and September. Films are scheduled for maximum Oscar exposure – early enough that voters can see them, but not so early they’ll be forgotten. And almost every festival or awards gathering gets analyzed in terms of what it means for the Oscars.
But maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe the Oscars are just one of many honours a film can win, merely one perspective on cinema. It’s a valuable perspective, given by those who work in film as opposed to those who merely watch them, but it doesn’t need to define how we
This morning on Twitter, after the nominations came out, I saw several people posting demographic data on the Academy – white, male, old. This wasn’t new data, though – it came from a 2012 LA Times feature. The numbers may have changed in the intervening two years, but probably not dramatically. So if the numbers were relevant in the wake of the nominations, surely they were just as relevant yesterday, last week, last month. They were relevant every time someone said “Oscar buzz” for the past six months, and they’ll be relevant every day between this year’s ceremony and next year’s.
The Oscars had more sway in the past, when distribution of films was more limited, and there were critical voices. Perhaps, once up on a time, you could have a consensus that, yes, these are the five best films of the year. But those times are long gone, and looking to any single organization to be the ultimate arbiter of cinematic value is not merely foolish, but unnecessary.
The Oscars are always going to be a big deal, because they’re one of the oldest and most popular awards ceremonies. But they don’t have to be any bigger than one awards ceremony; they don’t have to be any more important than we allow. They don’t have to define cinema as we know it, and we should feel neither angry nor proud that our tastes align with theirs.
They’ll make some good choices and some bad choices, and it doesn’t have to mean anything more than that.