Upfront I should confess my inadequacies to thoroughly discuss this topic. I dare not call myself an aficionado of cinema, though I do teach a course on it at the university and have a collection of movies that is rivaled only by my collection of books. Yet my stage in life as a parent of young children largely inhibits my ability to view film in the theatre. At least once a week, I eagerly await my discs in the Netflix envelope. Thus, I am often a full six months to a year behind in my film conversations. So while I long to form opinions on Birdman, The Imitation Game, and American Sniper, I am at a loss to do so. I hope, however, you will bear with me in my observations about the Awards in general.
I used to follow with rapt attention the exciting revelations of Oscar Sunday. Even as a young boy, I would watch as late as my parents would allow and check the newspaper first thing Monday morning to see who won. But I think it was around 2001 that I first lost my taste for the glitz and glamour. The exhibitionism and soft nudity of the red carpet never held much appeal for me, but I was suddenly disappointed that year in the Awards themselves.
Russell Crowe won Best Actor that year for his performance in Gladiator. And though I believe Mr. Crowe to be a fine actor deserving of many accolades, playing a sullen Maximus who talks little and grunts much is not quite award-worthy. But looking at the line-up in 2001, he was nearly guaranteed to win. Tom Hanks is practically the male Meryl Streep and would be nominated for every role he has played—but his Chuck Nolan in Cast Away spoke even less than Maximus. And the other three contenders—Javiar Bardem, Ed Harris, and Geoffrey Rush—played in films that received neither the press nor the box office receipts that Gladiator did, and so Russell Crowe seemed the most natural choice. Though he has gone on to play even more rounded roles such as John Nash, Jim Braddock, and Javert (not to mention Jor-El), the Best Actor award was more of a deposit on future acting than it was a deserved tribute for current work.
This may seem like a minor point to some, but in a tragic this-is-the-end-of-the-innocence moment a-la Don Henley, I realized the Oscars were not at all what they pretended to be (this should come as no surprise about people making their living pretending to be someone else). Despite the assumptions of artistic purity, the whole thing turned out to be a way to generate hype, and with hype more acclaim, and with more acclaim more interest—which naturally turns into more dollars. The actor who can attach the “Academy Award Nominee” next to their name in the movie trailer will give their appearance in the film gravitas—and presumably more press and box office receipts. They move from mere “actors” (a street corner commodity in Hollywood) to “artists” (the aspiration of American heartlanders longing to be in Hollywood).
But now everyone is considered an artist. For in a world when a singer as overrated as Taylor Swift can be nominated for every Grammy category available, either we are an age truly without talent or an age that has mistaken talent for celebrity. And it is celebrity that drives the Awards. Ever fearful of losing ratings, the producers of the show can no longer rely on the genuine wit of a Billy Crystal to entertain the masses and must settle for the underwear antics of a Neil Patrick Harris. In an effort to gain middlebrow dollars, the self-proclaimed highbrow descend to lowbrow tactics and celebrate spectacle while calling it art.
This year’s furor over not enough people of color being represented reveals two things. One, it shows that minorities are indeed under-represented in Hollywood. “Black films” are often marginalized to DVD release, and black characters are frequently limited to supporting roles. Rare is the success of a Tom Hanks or Tom Cruise; even more rare is the success of a Denzel Washington or Morgan Freeman. This is a legitimate complaint from the African-American community, and counter-complaints of one network of BET are insignificant stacked up against how many WET’s exist throughout the cable world. We need not balkanize the Oscars, yet we should be aware of the biases implicit in the current corporate model of cinema. Perhaps studios don’t think white audiences want to see black stars, or perhaps they don’t think black audiences will pay to visit the theatre; or perhaps these are merely self-fulfilling prophecies.
The second thing it reveals is the blatant politicization of an award show. Should best actors and actresses be represented because of their talent or because of their color? If the Academy Awards are truly about talent, then the demographics of the artists should have nothing to do with their performance. But the truth is that these kinds of award shows have always been politicized popularity contests. Citizen Kane, though nominated for 9 Academy Awards, only received 1—in large part because of William Randolph Hearst’s campaign against the film. It was revealed that Sharon Stone gave Coach watches to Hollywood Foreign Press Association members in hopes of (in exchange for?) receiving a Golden Globe for her work in The Muse. Sally Field’s embarrassing cry, “You really like me!” exposed the Oscars to be little more than groove sessions for the psychologically distressed (also a characteristic endemic to the artist).
Perhaps my real beef is with the American obsession with accolades. We all want recognition for our deeds. I want people to read my posts, my blogs, and my poetry; I get a sense of satisfaction when others say they enjoy it; I like to evoke emotions or to generate thought. I long one day to be anthologized in Great Writers of the 20th and 21st Centuries Named Fullman and for graduate seminars devoted entirely to my body of work. But all such aspirations are self-serving, vain attempts to achieve base fame and pagan immortality in this life. We all want our lives to amount to something, to pass on a legacy, to celebrate a corpus of accomplishments. But to celebrate the artist rather than the art feels too self-congratulatory to me.
Of little value then is the temporary buzz we generate at the end of every February. There seems to me no purpose in making predictions on who will take home the prize or in holding Oscar parties if the recipients are to be chosen on factors other than the quality of their performance. If an actress receives her award because her time has come or because her acting generated more headlines than her competitor, then it ceases to be about the art and becomes mere publicity. If a film is chosen for Best Picture largely because its message, politically correct by media standards, is considered subversive to fly-over country, then it ceases to be about the art and becomes social engineering viz. entertainment.
I am not one of Shakespeare’s puritans who deride the theatre. No, I think the art of drama allows us to see the deepest and sometimes truest parts of the brotherhood of man. In film we connect with others and catch glimpses of the human soul. Further, I want to hear the opinions of aesthetic experts, people who know and appreciate beauty, so that I can judiciously choose and refine my palate for cinema. But, for this audience member at least, the Academy Awards forsook their ability to judge and to influence long ago.