I had a whole huge column about why the Oscars were too old and focused on recreation/simulation culture. Then I realized that it’s not the point anymore. (FYI, just look at the Best Actress nominations and tell me what actress got in there for playing an original character. None? Okay, so we’re clear that this may be a problem? Sigh) Instead, I’ve found that as I went through Oscar season and the constant back and forth of the various other industry awards, I see the Academy Awards has its own reality that has nothing in common with the rest of us.
Here’s the problem: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Science is too afraid to actually address the real world. And it’s films like The Artist, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Descendents, and any other one that blindly accepts a happy ending, backwards and hopelessly problematic politics (cough*The Help*cough), and retrograde cinema that have become the recipients of industry awards and the resultant publicity shift that increases box office take and public prestige. They don’t deserve it, but I’m apparently too young and out of the AMPAS’s overwhelming white and male voting bloc. Wait, I’m not? Then why do I still feel angry when I hear talk of a recreation of a silent movie as airy cotton candy fluff winning the Golden Naked Dude Award over other films that address actual experiences and values of our time?
It’s all a part of the problem that emerged when Crash won ahead of Brokeback Mountain in 2006. Instead of addressing the magnificent, nuanced direction of Ang Lee, instead of recognizing Heath Ledger’s awesomely performance as a man who denies his own happiness, and instead of stating that a movie placing the problematic heteronormative lens over a true love story between two people who happened to men actually represented a timeless way of looking at how to deal with personal and societal tolerance, the AMPAS went out of its way to recognize a movie whose racial politics were eclipsed in New Jack City. It was sappy, serene, and manipulative, and unlike my well-respected former film professor said, it really doesn’t start a conversation about race and tolerance at all. But that was the point after all: Instead of rewarding new ideas and inventive thought, the AMPAS really took a step back to give an award to a movie that Spike Lee had made with more insight and truth nearly two decades earlier. Instead of an award, it was a slap in the face to the outer fringes of modern cinema, and the message was simple. “We don’t want your kind here.”
Crash was the shot across the bow of the industry, a statement that modern problems were too much for the AMPAS membership. And almost every Best Picture winner since then has been absolutely toothless. The Departed’s victory was lip service to Martin Scorsese’s career, a safe choice when Marty’s most dangerous movies deserved it more than any other when they were originally nominated. No Country for Old Men showed how the AMPAS doesn’t really understand art movies or classicist productions like There Will Be Blood or Michael Clayton. Slumdog Millionaire was a White Man’s production of Bollywood, adding unnecessary and condescending legitimacy to a genre that would otherwise go unrecognized (though this isn’t a diatribe against Danny Boyle because he’s amazing). The Hurt Locker was a war movie about the people in the war because that way the voters didn’t have to address difficult “politics” and insulted viewers’ intelligence by stating that this was the definitive film on the most difficult war to depict in a fractured audience. And The King’s Speech…don’t. Let’s just not go there.
Thankfully, I’m not alone in feeling this way. Other, much smarter and better-connected individuals have already commented on the nostalgia problem of the Academy Awards. I just wanted to share my personal feelings about this because I think it’s something that needs to be said.
This isn’t the cry of a film nerd wanting the AMPAS to recognize his genre tastes. I don’t mind that The Dark Knight, District 9, or Inglourious Basterds didn’t win the awards in the years they were nominated (actually, scratch that last one; I’m also bitter that Tarantino’s been shut out for forever). Instead, this is a call for the Academy to start paying attention to great films that take chances and threaten to divide audiences. By playing to the assumed moderate tastes of audiences, the group is actually hurting themselves more than any other film body in recent years. Instead of getting actual conversations started, there’s only been one consistent conversation about the Oscars in my life: “The Academy Awards suck, let’s watch the Simpsons instead.”
And that conversation is warranted! When you spend many untold hours telling younger, intelligent and objectively critical audiences that they don’t matter, it’s only a matter of time before they start to smell your game and leave you to your own devices. All I’ve learned from the Oscars in the years that I’ve been watching it has been that it doesn’t actually reward creativity, chances or modernism. Let’s look at this year’s Best Picture category and drink in the fact that the most likely winner is going to be a simulation of a silent film with a cute shaggy dog and a heisted score from Bernard Hermann. Instead of really paying attention to the myriad of talented voices out there, the Academy Awards plays by its own boring, pedantic logic and assumes we’ll all follow since it remains one of the few monocultural institutions that our increasingly niche-driven popular culture shares.
And it can’t even do that correctly. The struggles of finding a host that doesn’t bore the audience, divide the audience, or even represent a movie star have been a large AMPAS problem since Billy Crystal left. This year’s awful choice of Brett Ratner as producer and his subsequent flame-out ultimately left the Academy no choice but to go back to the safe bet of Billy Crystal, which just leaves me cold.
This infuriating aversion to taking chances is what drives more involved persons away from giving a damn about this whole uninteresting slog. Jason Reitman decided against making further “Oscar bait” in his movies, instead going back to the spirit of the Seventies that has informed his best work. Likewise, the best films of the year don’t feel like they are trying to win awards, but instead be films that take chances and reward patience. But I never get that feeling anymore. Instead, the Oscars seem to me to be just another sham and a self-important recreation of the unimportant movies throughout the year.
Because let’s get one thing out of the way: the movies that have been nominated for Best Picture aren’t important. I know that the first draft of history is almost always wrong, but let’s be honest about these movies. Do you foresee future film students going back to The Artist, War Horse, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Help, The Descendents, Moneyball, or even a great film like Midnight in Paris? (I’m leaving off The Tree of Life and Hugo because I haven’t seen them yet) I don’t think so. These movies don’t dare to teach us new things or challenge us. Instead, they just leave us with a popcorn belly, something that makes us think we’re full but we’re just getting fat. No steak or veggies, just empty fat posing as a meal.
So here’s my predicament. Do I watch the Oscars because it’s a shared cultural experience in an age when those are quickly dwindling away? Ultimately, no, because the AMPAS decided a long time ago that it didn’t want to share with anyone else. Instead, it’s playing by the same tired rules in a film industry and game that has become so much bigger and potentially better than what it was in 1962.
And one movie this year shows how doing the same thing without evolving can be a bad thing. Yes, I’m going to bring up Young Adult again, but it’s to prove a point. In the movie, Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is a repressed beauty queen who has a perfect exterior that masks her crumbling inside. She has refused to grow up past the age of 18, and immaturity has taken a mortal toll on her relationships with others. To me, a character and arc like that is emblematic of the problems with the AMPAS right now. Instead of diversifying, it’s consolidating its weaknesses because it’s afraid to grow up and accept that there are new things, possibly even better things out in this world. Just like Mavis, it realizes something’s wrong but is too afraid of what it is, and it doesn’t want to be like the people it condescends to in every decision and action. It doesn’t want to live in the real world and accept change, but like Mavis, it pulls its hair out in frustration when it can’t get what it wants.
But I don’t want to end on a down note, so here’s the happy ending that the Academy seems to be parroting this year. Oscars, when you’re ready to meet me in the middle, when you’re willing to accept change, and when you’re finally willing to grow up and listen to what millions of moviegoers, critics and filmmakers already know, I’ll be there. Just like this song.