The Oscars? Let's Grouch

Picture a caravan of Edsels charging at you with tuxedoed dodos behind every wheel. You've now got some idea of how most movie fans under, oh, 40 or so apparently feel about the Oscars, and who can blame them? Not me. Hitting rock bottom—well, let's hope so—with the recruitment of jackass-of-all-trades Seth McFarlane as last year's host, the Academy's frantic attempts to rejuvenate the proceedings are based on a faulty premise. Really, the problem isn't—or isn't only, anyway—that the show and/or the nominees aren't hip enough to lure an audience not dependent on Depends and revitalized by Viagra. So far as I can tell, the kiddies are increasingly unbedazzled by the ceremony's purpose, a rather more fatal drawback.

The whole, lumbering mystique of the Academy Awards derives from two outdated notions. One was that Hollywood's output had pride of place among America's pop-culture amusements, and the far from unrelated other was that Academy voters' verdict on the year's top movies and performances was authoritative. The first of these has been demonstrably untrue for some time: video games claim a bigger chunk of our entertainment wallet, and  most of us were more eager to gorge on the second season of Netflix's House of  Cards than we were excited about trudging out to cross 2013's lesser Best Picture nominees off our list before Oscar night. As for the second, an organization whose membership is this preposterously dominated by grumpy old white guys (see Anthony Lane's New Yorker Oscar preview for the hilarious stats: I'm just presuming the grumpiness) is bound to be at increasing odds with post-millenial popular taste as well as critics' judgments.

Any movie buff can rattle off countless examples of Oscar's duff track record at recognizing greatness, from the slew of pantheon directors who never won one— Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock, just for starters—to the slightings of Citizen Kane, The Searchers, Bonnie And Clyde, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and dozens of other movies that now reside a lot more firmly in the canon than Around The World in 80 Days (Best Picture of 1956 according to the Academy, which overlooked The Searchers in toto) or Oliver!  (the 1968 winner, when 2001 took away a single gold statuette for technical effects. But cinephiles who think these are injustices worth getting agitated about are a dwindling crew of long-in-the-tooth curmudgeons—a number of whom I'm happy to count as friends, but still. It's not as if Kane or The Searchers has vanished into obscurity as a result, now is it? 

Except in the categories everybody always yawns through—and often not even them—the Oscars were never about honoring film artistry in any serious sense. At their best, they were a satisfying validation of the kind of popular and (sometimes) critical consensus that turns a hit commercial movie into a cultural event, with Gone With The Wind (eight Oscars) being the most famous example and Titanic (11) perhaps the last one. Even to a Saving Private Ryan naysayer like me, Steven Spielberg's D-Day epic was so obviously 1998's movie of the year that Shakespeare in Love's eventual Best Picture win—thanks to Harvey Weinstein's notoriously aggressive campaign for it—did seem awfully silly. For that matter, I'm no huge 2001 fan either, but anointing it over Oliver! would certainly have been gratifying evidence of Hollywood's awareness that the times they were a-changing.  And so on.

But movies that are both genuine popular phenomenons and plausibly worth hailing as accomplishments just don't come along very often any more.  The Academy's last, befuddled encounter with irritated public opinion was when America's fanboys bitched to the skies over 2008's The Dark Knight not scoring a Best Picture nomination—less, I suspect, because they held the Oscars in such awe than because they wanted the Best Movie Ever to win every accolade in sight, from the Nobel Peace Prize to a write-in victory in that year's presidential election. As a result, the Best Picture field got nervously widened in subsequent years to a potential ten nominees instead of the traditional five, an innovation that thus far hasn't had the desired effect of keeping the kiddies captivated.

Instead, it just calls even more attention to Hollywood's paucity of quality product these days. Up against a glorified Hallmark special like The Help, is it any wonder that The Artist—an almost perfect bauble, but a bauble that would have been lucky to win Best Foreign Film in hardier times—took home 2011's big prize?

Glad as I am that Ellen DeGeneres, America's most wholesome lesbian, will be back in the hosting spot on Sunday—no "We Saw Your Boobs" titty-ditty from her, presumably—this year's awards are unlikely to reverse the Oscars's ever-increasing inconsequentiality. On the plus side, they do feature a bunch of relatively worthy movies that people have actually heard of—and even a few that, surprise, surprise, they've actually gone out and seen,  with Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity topping the box-office heap and vying with Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave in critical accolades.  Yet it says a lot about the Oscars' sclerotic side that Gravity would be a bold choice despite its combo of plaudits and profit; the Academy has never named a sci-fi flick Best Picture, and those grumpy old white men are doubtless unnerved by 3-D. In any case, whichever nominee wins, it won't be the ultimate validation Hollywood used to be able to kid us a Best Picture Oscar was—more like a footnote to that movie's ultimate reputation, for better or worse. 

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