The yearly tradition of the Oscars is deeply flawed, Owen Steinberger argues.
SO we’ve made it through another year and the Oscars are here. The Academy Awards have come crawling back, like some sort of shambling golden golem, after surely having been shattered into a thousand glimmering pieces and ground to dust.
Somehow, it’s as if the last Oscars never ended. Hollywood maintains a constant orbit around the awards, the “Oscar nominee?” question hanging over the heads of directors, an ever-present threat, and the #oscarssowhite controversy only served to deliver a glancing blow and to maintain the event’s media presence.
The January purge, when studios dump the worst of the previous years’ work into cinemas hoping to cut their losses and catch a quick buck, comes almost as a welcome relief before the endless cycle repeats. Oscar Fever, the tiresome media hype circus, feels more like a sickness than ever this time around.
“In course correcting after #oscarssowhite… the Academy has embraced a token blackness that should come as an insult to its audience.”
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, ever since its formation, has been a heavy-weight in the film industry, its gravity soon eclipsing all who would stand against it. The sheer gold-plated grandeur of the Awards, celebrities with glowing white smiles abounds, has always been its main attraction.
Founded by Louis B. Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1927 as a scheme to bust film crew labour unions so he could enlist set builders to speed up the construction of his beachfront mansion—seriously—the Academy has thrived on this spirit of grand posturing and empty opulence ever since.
1929 marked the first Academy Awards ceremony, an occasion for the well-to-do of Santa Monica beach to clap each other on the back, a means to distract from Hollywood scandals and to add legitimacy to the Academy itself. So began a tradition of smoke and mirrors, one that embraced specious stories of drama and hardship with all the restraint of the WWE.
That the Oscars have somehow been deemed a measure of the cultural merit of film as art is laughable, given its history, or it would be if it weren’t so sad. Awkward and unnecessary categories and a flawed voting system hint at what lies under the glitz and gold plating—a poorly cobbled-together farce.
The odd distinction made between Sound Editing and Sound Mixing raises some questions, as the nominees rarely differ, and the Best Original Song nomination, a mere vessel for pop music publicity which bears little relevance to the films themselves, sticks out like a black frame.
Flaws like these turn from bad to worse when the Best Picture nomination is split apart. The Best Animated Feature, Best Foreign Language Film, and Best Documentary categories, by existing separately, all imply that they contain lesser types of film that traditional live-action blockbusters and art house cinema.
This division could be seen as positive—separate categories ensure that each genre will receive its share of awards—but it is far more harmful to the film industry as a whole, in its construction of a hierarchy that favours traditional media and excludes others as mere alternatives.
Instant-runoff voting, which routinely favours the most common choices over those ranked highest, further entrenches this idea of what’s most traditionally acceptable as being what’s best. Since the system was set in place eight years ago the Best Picture winners have been good, yet ultimately forgettable films. Who’s even mentioned The Artist since it took the crown in 2011, or Birdman in 2014.
“Gibson… has slowly re-emerged as a Hollywood star after a ten-year ‘hiatus,’ during which he mostly worked to avoid the press and likely lived in a dark bog or swamp.”
There is an argument to be made that the Oscars have become more self-aware this year. Responding to frustrations, it seems, the Best Picture nominees now include three predominantly black films—Moonlight, Fences, and Hidden Figures. And yet only the former features regularly in any other categories.
In course correcting after #oscarssowhite, rather than opening its arms to a range of diverse films, the Academy has embraced a token blackness that should come as an insult to its audience. This is most apparent in the welcoming of Mel Gibson back into the fold, not only with a Best Picture nomination, but also with a personal nod for Best Achievement in Directing.
Gibson, renowned abusive racist and anti-Semite, has slowly re-emerged as a Hollywood star after a ten-year “hiatus,” during which he mostly worked to avoid the press and likely lived in a dark bog or swamp. That his reception has been so warm is proof of an Academy with few moral reservations, a reflection of its reprehensible beginnings.
The Oscars are an overblown affair—more concerned with ratings than awarding great filmmaking. But that’s not enough of a reason to avoid watching. What is, however, is the Academy’s legacy of whitewashing and exploitation, one that continues to this day.
Audiences look to the Academy Awards as a means to address the lack of creativity in Hollywood, hoping that the Best Picture nomination will promote films that stand above the rest. It’s high time to recognise that the Oscars merely reinforce the spineless tactics of the film industry it claims to moderate.
Hollow on the inside, there’s little to be excited about the Academy Awards below its gold-plated surface. This year, perhaps avoid the Oscars altogether, take your pulse, and see how you feel. You may find that your fever has run its course.