On the lasting (ir)relevance of The Oscars

When I was laying my head to sleep on the eve of the Oscar night (and for clarity it might be useful to note I do not live in the US and the ceremony itself does not kick off until well into the early hours), I was overcome by a feeling of indifference towards this entire affair. For the first time in my adult life, I was not even remotely interested in following the Awards season enough to make my own predictions about who was going to take the top prize, or even to talk to my friends and colleagues about it. Granted, the pandemic, which according to some has come to an end, has successfully eliminated the coffee break and watercooler culture at work where these types of conversations would usually take place, but if I wanted to, I could always take to Twitter and other social media to look for meaningful discussions. But I decided not to.  

This listlessness of mine led me to wonder what the point of the Awards Season in general and the Oscar race in particular were in the first place. Now, if you are on the inside of the film industry, it is probably an important motivational tool, although I would like to imagine the distant promise of having a shot at receiving an unwieldy golden statuette isn’t the main driving force for any artistic output. But pulling back and assuming a more holistic perspective over the field of filmmaking, how important is this night? And how are we supposed to determine or measure it meaningfully? 

Over the least years (and more likely the last few decades), one of the most constant melodies in the run-up to the ‘big night’ was that of falling ratings and The Academy desperately fighting to claw back the viewership it had enjoyed in the past. Every year these days seems to be a year of change, overhaul and make-over. We’ve seen the speeches shortened to pander to people’s diminishing attention spans. We’ve seen The Academy changing the format to exclude the so-called boring categories from the main telecast. We’ve seen them play with different pedigrees of hosts. We’ve seen them introduce new ways of voting, adding popular titles to the Best Picture run, a Fan Favourite Oscar and so on. We’ve seen The Academy respond to gender and racial disparities in its make-up. We’ve seen it all. And nothing seems to be working as intended. All we get in the aftermath are controversy, backlash and derision coming from all corners of the cultural landscape. 

So, are we failing to see the forest for the trees? Is the film industry chasing its own tail trying to please people who don’t care? Are we tired of watching multimillionaires receiving awards for their work, virtue signalling and using their platform to opine on subjects they know nothing about? Perhaps in the current eat-the-rich climate of culture wars a lavish celebration of insular exceptionalism is out of step with the rest of the world and in the pursuit of attention from potential viewers who are increasingly turned off – not titillated by – the prospect of watching the modern royalty parading on red carpets all dolled up and dressed to the nines, The Oscars may have willingly forfeited their fundamental mission to reward excellence and to create a lasting legacy of acclaimed work that should be remembered and cherished forever.  

Or were the Oscars ever about curating a body of excellent work that cinema as a field should hold in highest regard? I can only expect that a knee-jerk answer to this question would be a resounding ‘no’ coming from all corners of the film-loving community. With the small exception of the Parasite win two years ago that galvanized the film-buff world, it is quite rare for The Academy to award its Best Picture Oscar to a film which is generally considered a great pick. In fact, over the years it has become obvious that The Academy has its own taste as they have historically tended to award musicals, war dramas, biopics and sandal epics more often than anything else. This immediately throws into question the entire alleged raison d’etre of the very idea of these awards being considered the highest accolade in the field of filmmaking, even with the assumption that the notion of ranking works of art against one another is going to be guided mostly by personal taste of the collective voting body.  

So, is a Best Picture Oscar truly the best movie of the year? Is this movie an answer to a question of ‘if you were to watch just one film this year, this is the one you should see?’ No. It isn’t. If it were the case, then the AFI Top 100 or Sight and Sound Top 250 lists of best films of all time would be filled with Oscar-winning fare. And they’re not. In fact, finding Best Picture winners among the most important works of cinema is increasingly rare. And it might just be that people are slowly but surely catching up to this idea that The Oscars simply don’t matter anymore, or maybe never mattered in the first place.  

The Academy does not decide what we, the people, consider great and only the everlasting sieve of time can show which movies stand the test of time, while others are consigned to oblivion. Granted, having been awarded a bunch of gold stars boosts one’s chances of being preserved in the collective human memory, but equally I never heard anyone bring up Oliver, The English Patient or The Greatest Show on Earth in a conversation about cinema, unless as examples of terrible movies awarded the Best Picture Oscar.  

Let’s face it: The Oscars are just a curiosity fighting for survival in a ruthless marketplace of user-generated opinion. In a world where everyone is a critic, the opinion of industry-insiders diminishes considerably. Sure, I would never advocate we abolish the tradition of giving out these awards; far from it. Let them have their day in the sun. I just don’t think we have to be a part of it any longer. We are no longer looking up to highly successful socialites with a combination of admiration, jealousy and reverence and it’s time The Academy realized that. Fewer people pay attention to red carpet events, what stars were wearing and who held hands. Hollywood stars are no longer seen as untouchable demigods we desperately seek even a modicum of proximity to. We are here for the movies, and I don’t think The Academy is fully aware of that fact.  

If they were, they wouldn’t shorten people’s speeches or relegate some categories to be handled off-screen, especially considering feedback coming from the very people interested in following these awards. The Oscars seem disinterested in remaining relevant by way of embracing the admittedly corny idea of celebrating cinema, their supposed fundamental mission. Instead, they are behaving like a bunch of boomers trying to reverse engineer what young people might like without asking them. They think we have short attention spans. They believe we want to see Ellen DeGeneres take a selfie or Billy Crystal use slang words in a sentence. They desperately desire to engineer viral memes which would last in the zeitgeist for more than half a second.  

Well, for better or worse, this year they managed to stay relevant for more than the customary Monday morning debrief because even two days later the conversation about Will Smith slapping Chris Rock continues unabated. People take sides, express strong opinions, radio hosts invite alopecia sufferers to tell their stories, comedians defend their right to offend and all that jazz. And all this proves that The Oscars have never been about movies. They have always been about us giving attention to people clinically desperate to have it. And I think it’s time we let them sort out their emotional insecurities on their own time instead of allowing them the space to demand we continue to feed them. 

Everyone and their mother have a top 10 best movies of the year list somewhere on their Twitter, Instagram, blog or YouTube channel. We know what we like. So why should we care what The Academy voters think anyway? In fact, we clearly don’t because nobody seems interested in talking about CODA winning Best Picture or about Samuel L. Jackson receiving a lifetime achievement award. All we care about is Will Smith’s outburst or Kristen Stewart shaking her head in disbelief when Jessica Chastain got the Oscar for The Eyes of Tammy Faye. We cared when Jennifer Lawrence fell on the stage, when Seth McFarlane sang a song about boobs and when Warren Beatty erroneously announced La La Land as the Best Picture winner instead of Moonlight, more than the movies being awarded. It’s nothing but a self-indulgent festival of pandering and political virtue signalling that with each passing year has less to do with celebrating cinema as an art form and more to do with overt attention-seeking from very rich people.  

So… I think the world is ready to move on. I certainly am.  

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