Are the Oscars Irrelevant?

Written by Darryl Da Silva February 04, 2012

A critical look at the year’s biggest party.

Well, the 2012 Academy Award nominations have been revealed, and the stage is set for another night of preening pageantry in Hollywood. The ceremony is sure to drag; the big-name presenters are sure to give long-winded speeches that amount to zilch; the red carpet costumes (sorry…gowns) are sure to be fawned over at undeserved length; and your eyes are sure to glaze over at some point during the broadcast, probably around the 54th musical montage. These gripes are not new; we, film buffs and casual fans alike, have been complaining about the Academy Awards’ more insufferable tropes and traditions for years.

But for the umpteenth year in a row, you haven’t seen or heard of at least half the nominees. (Be honest.) The host of the ceremony is Billy Crystal, a comic actor you’ve watched in maybe three films, all of them before the first Dubya administration. The tunes nominated for Best Original Song are neither on the radio nor your iPod, you still don’t quite know the difference between Sound Mixing and Sound Editing, and the best movie you saw this year isn’t on the ballot. (Oh wait, there’s Bridesmaids. Best Original Screenplay. Uh…thanks, Academy.) Wouldn’t the overblown grandiosity of the Academy Awards be a little easier to swallow if the nominated parties were responsible for movies that you’d actually seen? Movies that seemed to matter, were the topic of discussion, had their finger on the cultural pulse? Did anyone see The King’s Speech before it won Best Picture last year? (Again, be honest.) How about Frost/Nixon? The Reader? Who do the Oscars matter to anymore, really, besides the people who win them?

"The King's Speech", 2010's Best Picture winner.

It seems that, back in the day, crowd-pleasing blockbusters had a far better chance of ending up on the Best Picture ballot than they do now. Did you know that Fatal Attraction, the sensationalistic slasher with Michael Douglas and Glenn Close, was nominated for 1987’s Best Picture? So was the 1990 chick-flick fave Ghost. Titanic and Dances With Wolves both made roughly a kajillion dollars and won Best Picture in their respective years. But for the last decade or so, it seems the Academy has strived to ignore mainstream hits as best they can – some, like Titanic, can’t be avoided – while awarding smaller niche films that may or may not deserve the extra attention. (Memento did, Little Miss Sunshine didn’t. IMO, of course.) I liked where this trend was going at the time – high school indie film geek that I was – but now I’m not so sure.

So it was a delightful surprise when last year’s Best Picture ballot was littered with blockbusters, including Inception and The Social Network, two terrific films that also captured the cultural zeitgeist. People talked about Inception and The Social Network – a lot – for the entire year, and to see them nominated for the top prize at the most (relatively) important award ceremony in the industry felt like a score, a sign that the Academy voters were ready to put down their art-house hats and embrace what the general populace already had. You know, the way the Academy used to. (1976’s Rocky was not only nominated for Best Picture, but actually won, ahead of two critical darlings and bona-fide classics: Network and Taxi Driver. But even they were box-office successes.) And 2010’s more mainstream-skewing ballot seemed to pay off in terms of popular chatter; I don’t know about you, but I recall talking to more people about last year’s Oscars than any other.

This year’s nominations feel like a step backward – or rather, a step back to old habits – with only two of the Best Picture nominees being box-office noisemakers (The Help and Moneyball. Hugo is debatable.) The rest are mostly industry darlings only recently getting traction because of their status as nominees. Good films, perhaps – The Artist is a wee bit overpraised, but still charming – but how can the Oscars’ audience be expected to care? Where was Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close even playing before this week? Would you know to agree or disagree if it won Best Picture?

I’m not suggesting that the Academy reward mediocre films, performances, and scripts just because they happen to be popular, but a good dose of cultural relevance is surely the shot in the arm that the Oscars need. The ever-dwindling viewership ratings for the telecast aren’t helped by ballots filled with limited-run independent films and little-seen performances. (Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs? Nick Nolte in The Warrior? Anyone?) The Oscar race can’t hold much interest for those unfamiliar with the players. If the awards were given only to those efforts worthy, chosen by a jury of critics and film scholars with faultless and unbiased tastes…well, the Oscars might have more legitimacy, but they wouldn’t be nearly the talk of the town that they are today. If the Academy hopes to hang onto that all-important buzz factor, they need to play to the masses…and it’d better be in a high key.

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About Darryl Da Silva

Darryl Da Silva is a freelance writer and film obsessive. He also cooks, plays Klondike, procrastinates, and fusses over his hair. You can read more of his writing if you hack into his hard drive and download his unfinished novels, unpublished articles, and unlawful hate manifestos.

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