By all rights, the Academy Awards should be long dead by now.
The institution has nearly been killed by, in approximate chronological order: labour unrest, “talkies,” studio meddling, competing unions and guilds, Frank Capra’s desire to win an Oscar come hell or high water, actual high water (the 1938 edition was nearly washed away owing to Los Angeles flooding), actual threats of hell (in the form of the Hays Code), the competing agendas of Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, the Second World War, William Randolph Hearst, broken press embargoes, Joseph McCarthy, dirty tricks, Marlon Brando, Rob Lowe, Harvey Weinstein, Seth MacFarlane, #OscarsSoWhite, James Franco (but not Anne Hathaway), Envelopegate, #MeToo, the pandemic, the streaming wars and, of course, The Slap.
Looking back, it is rather shocking that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences survived its very first edition of the Oscars in 1929, when the inaugural Best Actor award went to Emil Jannings (for performances in two films, The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh), a German-born star who would shortly depart the U.S. to become the poster boy for the Nazi propaganda machine. (This curious hiccup in Oscar’s origin story, and many more, are detailed in Michael Schulman’s excellent and anxiety-inducing new book, Oscar Wars.)
Put into perspective, then, the 95th Academy Awards airing this Sunday night look like an industry-rousing success story of immeasurable joy and wonder, another storied chapter in Hollywood history, which, as we all know, is written by the winners. Even putting aside obligatory Oscars cynicism – an increasingly hard thing to do when looking at the state of modern culture – this year’s slate of nominees feels like the Platonic ideal of what the Academy Awards should look like.
There are big-budget, adult-friendly dramas that even your parents (and grandparents) have seen and enjoyed (Elvis, All Quiet on the Western Front), indie hits that have energized audiences across social divides (Everything Everywhere All at Once, which feels like the leading contender for best picture), excellent underseen films that will benefit greatly from the spotlight the Oscars provides (Tar, The Banshees of Inisherin, Women Talking), and real-deal Earth-conquering blockbusters (Avatar: The Way of Water, Top Gun: Maverick).
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Despite some requisite quibbles and obvious snubs that are perennially part of the Oscars experience, moviegoers could not ask for a better representation of the year in cinema.
Yet there is still an overarching conversation – a dialogue retweeted and recycled into the void, with no beginning nor end – that is intensely committed to the idea that the Academy Awards should be wiped off the face of the Earth. Or at least shunted off television to streaming or YouTube, where they can take up less of the zeitgeist’s oxygen. Today, perhaps more than in the previous 94 years, it feels the world has it out for Oscar – you can practically taste the sweaty, spittle-flecked anticipation as to just when we’ll get the ratings for this year’s broadcast, allowing everyone to lament that the show just ain’t what it used to be.
No doubt that there are many, many things wrong and in need of correction, or at least carefully executed repair, when it comes to the Academy Awards and the body that represents them.
The Academy isn’t diverse enough. No, wait, now it’s too diversity-focused? The films are elitist. Or maybe they’re not elitist enough, so let’s add some “fan-vote” awards in there for the Zack Snyder army of bots. The show is too long, and there are too many categories. Or maybe there aren’t enough categories – and also, how dare producers give out certain awards during commercial breaks? The hosts are never funny, so get rid of ‘em. No, wait, bring them back. Oh man, Jimmy Kimmel again? And how could the Academy forget to include that person in the In Memoriam montage?!
The show will never be perfect, never be able to please everyone everywhere all at once. But the thing is, if film is dying – if movie theatres are slowly becoming less of an essential cog in the entertainment-industry machine and streaming becomes the de facto avenue of cultural consumption – then the Oscars should be the very last thing we bury. Now, more than ever, anyone who cares even a little bit about movies – about the distinct pleasures and powers and possibilities that come with watching a cinematic story projected from end to beginning, ideally in the dark, and ideally surrounded by audiences just as appreciative of the medium – needs to rally around the Oscars. And fight for them.
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For one single night, audiences from around the world are given the opportunity to celebrate artistic excellence, to champion bold new visions and celebrate influential masters. In the face of an industry increasingly devoted to bland corporate franchises and ephemeral streaming-first nothingness, the Academy Awards offer a chance to spotlight filmmakers who are (mostly) fighting the good fight.
Think about, even, the nadir of the contemporary Oscars era: the 2021 ceremony, held not in the Dolby Theatre but in the depths of L.A.’s Union Station, where attendees sat six feet apart from each other, dour and masked (though, um, only during commercial breaks). The broadcast drew a record-low audience of just 10.5 million people – for comparison’s sake, 55.25 million viewers tuned in for 1998′s ceremony, a.k.a. the Titanic year – and by most other metrics the show was a disaster. It was awkward, it was depressing, it was head-scratching and it was more than a little embarrassing, especially when it ended with an absent Anthony Hopkins winning best actor, instead of the big Chadwick Boseman posthumous win the show’s producers had clearly pinned their hopes on.
But even at its absolute lowest point, the Academy Awards were worth something. Not too much, and maybe not even for constant naysayers, but something. Those who did watch in 2021 were made that much more aware of genuinely excellent films and performances, like they are every year. Daniel Kaluuya in Judas and the Black Messiah, Youn Yuh-jung in Minari, Mads Mikkelsen in Another Round, and, yes, Anthony Hopkins in The Father – these are test-of-time performances that deserve to be discovered and honoured. The same goes for Chloe Zhao’s historic best director win for Nomadland, a movie that caught a lot of drive-by ire at the time, but will be deservedly watched, discussed and appreciated for years to come – all thanks to its big, or big-enough, Oscars moment.
No matter what the viewership for this year’s Oscars might end up being – and there is a very conceivable chance it could hit a new low, at least judging by the numbers coming in for this season’s other awards ceremonies, such as the Golden Globes and the YouTube-only SAGs – we should not be so quick and eager and nauseatingly gleeful to write the Academy Awards’ obituary.
If the show turns on at least one or two or three or a million moviegoers to the epic joys of something like S.S. Rajamouli’s RRR, the tear-jerking drama of Laura Poitras’s All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, the dangerous geopolitical reality of Daniel Roher’s Navalny, or the masterful, sweeping and quite funny tragedy of Todd Field’s Tar, then isn’t that something worth watching? Isn’t that something worth fighting for?
If the Oscars die, then the movies die, too.