I’m a critic all the time. But when it comes to the Academy Awards, whether I watch them or not, there’s really no pleasing me. If great films or film artists get snubbed, I become crabby and depressed. If they get rewarded, I become crabby and territorial—a period of popular interest follows, the movie gets the exposure it actually deserves, and suddenly I feel so very bourgeois; I loathe myself, and take it out on the movie by calling it a whore.
But really it’s Oscar that came between us. Oscar is to blame.
The first Academy Awards cere-mony, in 1929, was attended by 250 people. It was just a formality; the
winners had already been announced. Indeed, the Academy itself was just a formality really. Founded in 1927, it was an attempt by MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer to consolidate his power and repel the growing influence of various Hollywood labour unions. Membership was by Mayer’s invitation, and because self-congratulation came naturally to him, the annual Academy banquet became an awards event. The statue is called Oscar either because an Academy secretary named it after her uncle or because its rear end reminded Bette Davis of her husband Oscar’s. No one is really sure. The sealed envelopes started in 1941. The awards ceremony was first televised in 1953, after which the aura of self-congratulation could no longer be contained.
It’s important, and easy, to remember that the Oscars ceremony isn’t really about movies anymore. It’s about television. The Academy Award of Merit is its official name, but nobody mentions the merit anymore. Now we understand the event not as a celebration of the highest achievement in motion picture making, but as a testament to the highest achievement (such as it is) in the making of an awards show.
That’s in keeping with the protectionist spirit in which the Academy was founded. From birth, TV was the movies’ nemesis. It stole audiences. It reduced aspect ratios and attention spans. Total co-option was the only option. Hence the tawdry, perverse pageant of televised idol worship and slithering decadence and—very occasionally—aesthetic or social significance that we have today.
As for the award itself, no, it’s not exactly the Nobel Prize. If given the choice, though, most of us would rather take the Oscar.
“After I won the Oscar,” said Shirley Jones, best supporting actress for 1960’s Elmer Gantry, “my salary doubled, my friends tripled, my kids became more popular at school, the butcher made a pass at me and my maid asked for a raise.” Compare this with the street value of, say, a Grammy: “Hey, don’t throw your garbage down here!” is the response when Homer Simpson’s Grammy gets derisively tossed out a window. However much some philistines (like me) complain about its devaluation, the Academy Award is worth enough for studios to spend tens of millions of dollars on a campaign for a single picture in order to nab one. Oscar wins have been shown to add as many millions in revenue. Best Actor award winners have been known to double their going rates.
And although, according to Nielsen ratings, 2003’s Oscar show was the least watched ever in the United States—the ratings drop was attributed to the Iraq war, but some of us might really just be as sick of the thing as we say—the estimated worldwide audience remains firm at about a billion and a half.
Ubiquity does not equal quality, but it can be mistaken for power. Which brings me to the issue of Oscar the accidental cultural ambassador. I’m reminded of Robert Zemeckis’ 1997 movie Contact, based on Carl Sagan’s book and a nominee for Best Sound, in which Jodie Foster listens to the universe for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. She finally gets one when aliens send back some early television signals, including a bit of the 1936 Olympics. It’s a kind of intergalactic 10-4: Got your message re: insane mustachioed dictator. See you soon.
Naturally, some unease ensues.
There is much hand-wringing about the Oscars and whatever it is they signify (not exactly fascism, in this case), as well as about the message we’re televising to the rest of the world and its reception. “How is it,” Congressman Henry Hyde, who chairs the House Committee on International Relations, has publicly asked, “that the country that invented Hollywood and Madison Avenue has allowed such a destructive and parodied image of itself to become the intellectual coin of the realm overseas?”
Well the answer might be in the question. In recent years, people have accused the Academy of being too left-wing (Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, 1993), too right-wing (Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, 1994) and both at once (Elia Kazan’s Honorary Award, 1999). But the real reason Oscar makes a lousy ambassador, aside from his inadequate upbringing as either someone’s ass or someone’s uncle, is that the ceremony is afflicted with persistent delusions of representative democracy. We tend to treat the Academy as a kind of electoral college of American movie taste and are shocked when elections seem corrupted by cronyism or other apparently anti-democratic forces. Academy members have never been appointed by state governments, so far as I know, nor are their numbers commensurate with Congressional representation, however intriguing such an experiment might be. The elections are corrupt, though. That much is true.
“Many [Academy voters] are old, tired and conservative,” writes British director John Boorman in his memoir Adventures of a Suburban Boy, “and to lure them away from their swimming pools and golf clubs taxes the invention of studio publicists. It is ironic that as the movie-going audience gets younger, the Academy membership gets more ancient, and the gap between box-office hits and Oscar pictures grows wider.”
For the Oscars that were handed out this February, 5,803 voters were asked to select their Best Picture nominations from a list of 254 eligible films. I don’t know how many films were made in 2003, nor how many film professionals worked on them, but the answer in both cases is more than the award ritual represents.
To complicate matters, the movie business has a new nemesis in the Internet. Last fall, grappling with the pest of piracy, the Motion Picture Association of America tried to ban the screener tapes and DVDs that members rely upon to cast their votes. Criticism erupted on behalf of limited-release films that might not get proper attention without the screeners. Small production companies sued the MPAA, and the ban was partially lifted. Meanwhile digital versions of this year’s contenders still pop up online now and then, imprinted with periodic “For Your Consideration” banners.
To borrow a line, something’s gotta give. Cinema’s cross to bear is, I suppose, similar to democracy’s. If “the language of film is universal,” as the Landmark Theatres slogan goes, the business of film is rather American: at once huge and hollow, profound and trivial. We ask the medium to carry the weight of all the other high arts it manages to combine, and of the lower arts too. What other mode of creative expression can do that while containing so broad a range of quality and still commanding so enormous and diverse an audience?
The ritual of the Academy Awards isn’t all politics; it’s show business, too. “As soon as a seat is vacated, a seat filler occupies it so that the camera will never witness anything but a full house,” Boorman writes. “The cameras are always in tight on the faces of the losers, searching for glimmers of pain, envy, tears.” The ceremony is a means for ordinary people to witness the great expense to which hopped-up, dressed-up (or, recalling the streaker of 1974, down) celebrities will go for validation. How, uh, humanizing.
“Nothing would disgust me more morally than receiving an Oscar,” Luis Buñuel told Variety in 1971. “Nothing in the world would make me go accept it. I wouldn’t have it in my home.” Earlier that year, George C. Scott had been nominated for Patton, but had promised to refuse the award. “Even in refusing it, like this actor, one isn’t free from its corrupting influence,” Buñuel went on. “Look at what happened to him when he said he wouldn’t accept it. It was worth a Time cover.”
I don’t think I’ll watch the Oscars next year. Is that irresponsible? Will abstinence limit my ability to contribute meaningfully to the public discourse on American cinema? If, for example, I’m in line at the supermarket and the couple in front of me is arguing about whether or not Jack Nicholson is just coasting now, will I have nothing pithy to interject?
Well, I have my opinions. That much should be clear from the almost libelous title of this essay. I do think the Academy Awards ceremony has come to resemble that memorable Oscar Mayer commercial, which for decades has promoted the consumption of highly processed, garishly packaged luncheon meat. What an odd little pageant that is. How childish the performers! The wriggling, the cute flubs, the false humour and forced solemnity. How they debase themselves for the sake of whetting our commonest appetites. Is there any real nourishment to be had from doing that crazy ditty? It should be said that my preadolescence was fuelled by bologna and cheese. My adolescence, in turn, was fuelled by movies. Can there be any accounting for taste?
Some of my friends feel the same way as I do about the Oscars. They vow yearly to avoid the thing and then watch it anyway. I guess they’ll probably talk me into watching it next year. Fortunately, a complex social ritual has evolved to address this situation: the Oscar Party. It is a serious affair, the Super Bowl for the creative class. You take sides. You shout at the TV. You gawk and fawn, and complain about the gawking, fawning media. You expect something unexpected to happen, and respond flamboyantly when it does. Most significantly, you appreciate the irony, which is in long supply. Everyone’s a critic, and, later, a Tuesday morning quarterback. It’s fun and weirdly cathartic, or supposed to be.
On the other hand, the ceremony, in spite of all its attempts at brevity, likely will be interminable—a few hours at least—and that might be time better spent. I could go to a movie. Or rent one. I still haven’t seen Gone with the Wind, which won Best Picture in 1940 and probably is a masterpiece of some sort. Or, to choose a title more appropriate for the evening, how about La Grande Illusion, which although nominated the previous year did not win, but which I have seen and know to be absolutely a masterpiece? Yes, maybe I’ll do that instead.