Most serious movie buffs—and not even only those of a certain vintage, which does at least provide an excuse for bitterness—never tire of expressing contempt for the Oscars. One of their favorite damning proofs of the Academy's puerility is that 2001: A Space Odyssey didn't even get nominated for Best Picture of 1968. That is, going on half a century ago, and talk about holding a grudge.
In 1968, to put things in perspective, Christopher Nolan (director of The Dark Knight Rises) hadn't been born yet. In 1980, when Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull scandalously—scandalously!—lost the Best Picture sweepstakes to Ordinary People, Wes Anderson was 11 years old. Perhaps the shock traumatized him into wanting to live inside painted boxes, but more likely it didn't.
I don't recall any permanent damage myself. Nor do I get wrought up because, say, the obvious real Best Picture of 1990—at least to the handful of crazies who saw it—was Guy Maddin's gleefully obscurantist Archangel, not Dances With Wolves. That's only a mild exaggeration of the unearthed ancient grievances you can find online by the truckload this week.
Like Sicilians resurrecting a musty blood feud originated by their great-grandfathers, all sorts of otherwise sensible adults I know can be counted on to keen and rend their garments when they brood over Oscar's track record of insults to the true art of cinema. Just look at the greats who never nabbed one, other than the non-competitive kind the Academy fobs off on overlooked titans due for drool cups. Howard Hawks, Hitchcock, Robert Altman! Cary Grant, for Pete's sake! Peter O'Toole, for Cary's sake! And doesn't it make your blood boil to this day—or at the very least, tickle your sense of the absurd—that Citizen Kane only won for Best Screenplay back in 1941?
Well, frankly, no, it doesn't. The Kane fan in me couldn't care less and doesn't see why he should. When an institution has proven itself incompetent at vetting cinema greatness almost since its inception, what's the point of holding it to that largely notional standard in the first place? Presumably, most middle-aged movie buffs' childhood trust in the Oscars as a reliable validator of merit got shot to hell not too long after Santa's non-existence left them devastated. The surprise, at least, should have worn off by now.
Consider the terrible consequences of an Academy snub. It isn't as if 2001 has vanished into obscurity, after all, or as if its fans hesitate to call it great because Oscar didn't agree way back when. Nor did winning Best Picture that year exactly guarantee Oliver! a place in movie immortality. The Academy Awards have never played a significant role in determining which movies stand the test of time; any poor souls convinced to watch Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth on TCM because it was named Best Picture of 1952 are ruining their afternoon, not mine. Besides, Citizen Kane and Raging Bull 's reputations—like Cary Grant's—were doing just fine last time I checked. All in all, waxing wroth over Oscar slights and omissions has never made much sense to me.
So why do naysayers still pretend the Oscars count, almost like they're boosters in disguise or something? Well, first off, because it's fun. Increasingly, though—with video games chewing up a bigger chunk of the world's leisure dollars, not to mention once-despised TV delivering more grown-up art and complexity than you can find at the multiplex—the awards are everyone's big chance to act as if movies still count. That's one passion cinephiles share with the industry, even if cinephiles show it by venting negatively about the awards' traditionally lousy aesthetic priorities.
Which are, ironically, becoming less lousy, if only by default. Thanks to Hollywood's declining commercial interest in putting out middlebrow fare that's both crowd-pleasing and award-friendly, movies that would once have been considered esoteric art flicks now stand a decent chance of ending up as Oscar contenders instead. Significantly, in recent years, audiences have complained—and ratings have declined—because they've never heard of so many of the nominees. That isn't the case this year, thanks to the high media profiles of Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, and Argo, among others. But it's still the overall trend.
As a result, the Academy Awards have actually gotten a good deal less jeerable as a measure of the year's genuine artistry. Yet the trade-off is that they don't reflect either box-office clout or genuine, widespread popular affection the way they used to, with Les Mis being the big exception among this year's nominees. Along with Silver Linings Playbook, it's also the only potential Best Picture winner on Sunday night that's likely to provide the pleasure of howling at a travesty of justice, in that "I just googled it, and can you believe what Zero Dark Thirty lost to?" way inveterate Oscarphobes dote on.
If anything, at this rate, the day may not be far off when hardcore cinephiles are the only people who stay glued to the Oscars, even as they try to remember what they used to grumble about. But I'm a realist, not a dreamer, and I can accept that Guy Maddin's best chance at an Oscar is one of those lifetime-achievement awards when he's in his dotage. All 17 of us still tuning in will hobble to our feet and cheer just the same.