What Do We Even Want From The Oscars?

You’d be forgiven for not noticing, but the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony took place a little more than a week ago. It was an event intended to honor a handful of beautiful films and moving performances; an event that had plenty of obstacles working against it; and an event that ultimately fell day-old-champagne kinds of flat. I’ve spent too much of my time this past week wondering why, and my thoughts on the subject will most likely come across as a bit unwieldy. Somewhat circuitous. Contradictory, disjointed, incoherent, even. And I would apologize for all of that, if it wasn’t such a fitting tribute to the 2021 Oscars themselves.

I’ll start by admitting that I’m the kind of person who cares about the Oscars, bloated and retrograde though they often are. I care about movies, and I care about pomp and tradition, and I care about determining which thing in a given group of things is The Best. The steadily declining ratings for Hollywood’s Biggest Night over the past few years suggest that not a whole lot of people feel the same way, but I am of the mind that such indifference is not inevitable, that more people can be persuaded to care if only they are given a reason.

Oscars 2021 predictions: Who will win in every major category at this  year's Academy Awards? – The Denver Post

Because people used to care, I’m pretty sure. Unless this is another one of those tricks of memory that can happen, like when you revisit the towering mountain you remember tobogganing down as a child, only to discover that it was only ever a gently sloping hill. If that’s the case, perhaps the golden hues of my nostalgia have distorted the grandeur and significance of the ceremonies I remember from my youth. But I don’t think it’s just that. I don’t think I imagined up 55 million people tuning in to watch Titanic win 11 Awards, or Billy Crystal’s many opening montage parodies, or the palpable excitement of Cuba Gooding Jr’s Best Supporting Actor win, the behind-the-scenes of which recently went viral. I know that the decades before I was even alive to watch all have their own share of Oscars iconography, moments that together make up the legend and lore that we collectively associate with Hollywoodland.

Last Sunday night did not feel like a continuation of that legacy. If I’m being honest, the Oscars haven’t felt like the essential, spectacular event that they purport themselves to be for quite some time. I’m hardly the first person to wring my hands about their demise– “Could this be the year movies stopped mattering?” was a question posed by Wired back in 2016. In 2018 the Academy considered overhauling itself with a few dramatic moves in order to attract more viewers. Possibilities included adding an “Achievement in Popular Film” category, so that the awards might tip their hat at the movies people actually went to see while also making it very clear that such movies remain second class trash; or moving all off-screen technical awards off-screen, during commercial breaks, so the audience wouldn’t be confused about why so many plain-faced charmless people keep interrupting a showcase for movie stars. All of this in addition to having to grapple with the very real issues of diversity and inclusivity that underscored how irrelevant the ceremony was quickly becoming.

So it’s been clear for awhile that the Oscars need to change, that the Academy is aware of this, and that they’re deeply confused as to what to do about it. This year’s producers hyped up their vision for the show as being “a three-hour movie in which some awards are given out” and “a love letter to people who make films.” These are goals I should theoretically support, but the swings taken to achieve them were wildly, jarringly wrong. Trading out clips of a nominee’s most vital scenes in exchange for uncomfortably earnest soliloquies from the presenters was a CHOICE. So was churning out the “In Memoriam” at a speed that suggested money was being earned for every name that could be fit in under two minutes. And of course, switching up the traditional order of announced categories so that Best Actor would cap off the night was an obvious and audacious gamble for a poignant moment that never arrived.

chadwick boseman imagine on Tumblr

It was a mess, but one that might easily be swept under the red carpet, because less than ten million people even bothered to watch. Plenty of lamentations and post-mortems have been written in the days since, fretting about the current state of cinema and its place in the larger culture. I personally have listened to more than three podcasts on the subject. Critics and movie-lovers alike have attempted to diagnose the core issue and suggest potential solutions: the show should be shorter; the speeches should definitely be tighter; they need to nominate more movies that more people have seen; the Oscars need a host again, and that host should be Dwayne The Rock Johnson.

I find many of these points compelling and some of them even persuasive, but I don’t know if there’s any one thing that will bring the wider public back into the fold. I don’t know what the Oscars are even supposed to be anymore, what importance they can still hope to have, or what ideas they should be trying to represent. Their commitment to exclusively honoring whatever arthouse titles the film nerds love has brought the Oscars to a place that is as precarious as it is pretentious– and I say this as someone who minored in film! The Venn diagram of “movies that top the box office” and “movies that get nominated for Oscars” appears to be devolving into two separate circles (at least during non-pandemic years in which there is in fact a box office). This is the natural consequence of the tentpole business model that Hollywood has come to rely on in recent years, but it’s unsustainable if the movie industry wants their big night to be something that the people outside of it care about.

I’m not advocating for the Academy Awards to transform themselves into MCU Appreciation Night– that ceremony already exists, and it’s called every day at my house. But I do think there should be some reflecting on and reckoning with what this once-great awards show wants to mean to the culture at large. A serious night for dedicated cinephiles wherein works are recognized purely based on their excellence of craft? An exercise in brand management, mainly used to cultivate the allure of Hollywood and celebrity that has captivated us for so long? A promotional event that aims to remind audiences that movies are great and they should consider going to see them again? All of the above? A meme?

Ellen DeGeneres on Twitter: "If only Bradley's arm was longer. Best photo  ever. #oscars http://t.co/C9U5NOtGap"

There is an argument out there that none of this matters because movies themselves no longer matter, but I refuse to accept this as true. Considering the Academy has only just taken its wobbly first steps towards acknowledging women and POC and other underrepresented communities (last Sunday Chloe Zhao became just the second woman to ever win Best Director; the hair and makeup artists from Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom were the first Black women to ever be recognized in the category) it would be like finally getting invited to a banquet only to find out that only scraps remain on the table and the original guests have all left. Beyond their own self-interest, it’s incumbent on the Oscars to preserve their status just so that these historically marginalized artists get their proper due.

Our media landscape may be ever-fracturing, built to be consumed in increasingly personalized and on-demand ways; and between Netflix and TikTok and YouTube and Instagram our attention may have more suitors than we could ever possibly entertain. But human beings will always crave stories. To see life examined and interpreted and reflected back at us in meaningful ways. And if we can glean anything from this past pandemic year, it’s that community is just as essential to our well-being. The movies are still the only place where we get to experience both. The only place where moments like this can happen. If the Oscars want to resume their relevance, focusing on that feeling– that shared wonder, that communal joy– and figuring out how to celebrate it, that’s where I’d start.


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