[4 March 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
There was a time, not so long ago, when they were all we had. Film fans waited an entire year just to see their favorites line up for the annual red carpet ritual, the end result being a decorative gold statue (or disappointment) and a slap on the back from their own insular club (or not). The previous 12 months held a wealth of possibilities, and it all boiled down to a four hour excuse for grandstanding and kowtowing, legends being built while some movie myths were dismantled. It was our chance to see those famous faces with their guard down, wins eliciting cheers (or jeers) with losses and snubs providing a similar level of consideration/controversy. Back before the Internet, back before the social media tweeted the trivial and the travesty of every cinematic step, the Oscars mattered. Like prize fighting, horse racing, and professional chess playing, The Academy Awards used to be a national obsession. Now, they’re just a nuisance.
This is not the voice of the jaded and cynical talking. This is someone whose spent the last 45 years under an AMPAS trance and who is now just seeing the failure for the truth—the Oscars no longer matter. They used to, and it looks like they never will away. The reasons why may seem varied, but actually, the reality is much more obvious. With dozens of competing awards shows, with Guilds giving up the final results weeks before the Oscars actually stamp said results as “official”, there’s really no need for the Academy and such verification. In the past few years, the ceremony has become predictable, SAG and DGA, PGA and WGA announcing what will eventually be the recipients of the AMPAS honor. There’s no more drama. There’s very little suspense. Instead, the usual suspects show up, prepared comments in hand, and watch while things play out—as predicted. Even the cheese and kitsch have been slowly leached from the always overtime extravaganza.
This is the Oscars for a New Millennium. This is the new generation’s Academy Awards. In some ways, it’s like the pre-BCS College Football championship. Before there was an “official ranking system”, before the current proposed “playoff” was even a remote possibility, teams would spend several months playing their handpicked schedules, all knowing that they needed a certain AP and Coaches poll ranking to have a shot at the National Title. As the race grew closer, adjustments were made, scores run up, all in a desperate attempt to earn publicity, assumed power, and that all important ballot. Once achieved, the final game became an afterthought, an argued-over shoulder shrug with many worthy candidates sitting on the sidelines, watching. As the predetermined teams took the field, all that was left was the final score and the final placements. With rare exception, nothing was a surprise, except, perhaps, how good or lousy one team was.
In Oscar terms, the various critics awards are like the polls. We supposedly knowledgeable journalists and writers sit down and separate the creative wheat from the aesthetic shaft and try and compile a list of bests. These various compendiums are collected and spawn the start of the “who will win” debate. Then the Hollywood Foreign Press, via their Golden Globes, shake things up a bit before the Guilds step in and settle everything down. By the time we get to the Academy Awards themselves, everything is more or less predetermined. The story that comes out the next day is usually fraught with disappointment and disinterest, the host and his or her (or their) performance earning more column space than who actually took home a trophy and that’s because, for the weeks leading up to the announcement, the verdict had been delivered over and over and over again. Put another way, upsets are rare.
Did Leonardo DiCaprio really think his Broadcast Film Critics and Golden Globes wins would beat out Matthew McConaughey (and his dozens of accolades) for the Best Actor Oscar? Was there ever a moment when Alfonso Cuaron’s DGA guided Best Director award was in jeopardy? Sure, sometimes, the Guilds get it wrong (Christoph Waltz picked up his second Academy Award for Django Unchained, which SAG didn’t even nominate, Meryl Streep trumped Viola Davis in 2012) but for the most part, they are the opened envelope come Academy Awards time, and as they have become as popular a spectacle as the main movie celebration itself, they end up party poopers at a gathering whose sole purpose is to make a splash.
And then there is niche. The Academy used to love to dote over prospective titles, giving them unwarranted wins as part of a so-called ‘sweep’ mentality (cue: Titanic). Now, it seems like there’s a “participant” paradigm present. Everyone gets something, unless you’re The Wolf of Wall Street or American Hustle that is. The last film to legitimately walk away with a treasure trove of trophies was The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, with 11. Gravity did earn seven, but almost all were in the technical categories. It failed to earn a Best Actor nod and Sandra Bullock lost to Cate Blanchett for Best Actress. In yet another weird Oscar given, the film that was directed the best (Alfonso Cuaron) was not the Best Written, or the overall Best Picture. Argo had the same problem the year before (only one acting nod, Alan Arkin for Best Supporting Actor) and no Best Director nomination.
So instead of taking a stand, instead of separating it out from the various guilds and journalistic organizations to be its own entity, the Oscars have become much more like the competition, and nothing turns a specialty into a generality quicker than conforming. Sure, the Academy has often been the butt of jokes about their clueless choices, equally egregious snubs, and the overriding belief that the AMPAS is “out of it”. Now, they’re dead in the thick of it. So how do you explain the current situation? Is it the Oscars leading the way, or the Guilds causing the Academy to conform? While we can still argue that our favorites are being forgotten, it looks like the various members of the various artistic institutions have gotten together and formed their own BCS, so to speak.
Now, a nomination from the DGA can almost guarantee you a spot near the dais come Oscar night. A win at SAG is a given at the Academy. Sure, this has been the case for a while, but in what marketers like to refer as “trending”, it looks like the AMPAS is finally in line with the rest of the industry. This is why, as of now, the Oscars will never matter again.