Are the Oscars out of touch?

In 1932, the great filmmaker Josef von Sternberg resigned from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, calmly announcing that the Academy “has nothing to do with art and even less to do with science.” That was 73 years ago, and, as the 77th Academy Awards proved on Sunday night, nothing much has changed in all that time.

Not that I expected anything different in the first place. Last year was an unusually rich one for movies, yet it resulted in the safest, most completely reactionary list of Oscar nominations imaginable. It was, I’m bound to say, almost exactly the list I expected to see in our America of newly heightened “morality.” All of the nominated films — except for this year’s token indie fave (which never wins) — were rated either PG or PG-13. And frankly, with the exception of Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, this was a pretty mediocre lot.

We had a sugar-coated biopic of J.M. Barrie that traded truth for gentle — and not very effective — whimsy. We had an awkwardly structured, simplistic biopic of Ray Charles that was held together almost entirely by Jamie Foxx’s performance. There was a boxing melodrama made mysteriously “significant” by grafting on a soap-opera finale that gave the illusion of tackling a tough issue. There was this year’s male midlife-crisis entry from the land of independent film. And there was Scorsese’s Howard Hughes biopic, which, though flawed, at least benefited from brilliant filmmaking.

But where were the year’s truly daring movies? Where was Bill Condon’s Kinsey? Where was David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees? Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou? Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? Mike Nichol’s Closer? Swept under the carpet, where they wouldn’t upset anybody, is where they were. Oh, sure, give Eternal Sunshine a screenplay Oscar, since only hardcore movie geeks care about those anyway. Fob off a supporting actor- or actress-award nomination on Kinsey and Closer, but don’t make an issue out of it. The boldest move was nominating Kate Winslet for Eternal Sunshine — and that wasn’t all that bold, since she never stood a chance of winning and everyone knew it.

I’ve already gone on record as not being one of Million Dollar Baby‘s admirers, so I’ll just reiterate that I found it to be a dreary and depressing film, grotesque and cartoonish in its characterizations. However, a lot of people are convinced that a movie — or any other artistic work — is only truly artistic if it has the quality of “nasty medicine” that’s good for you. And the movie certainly has that, in a large dose. That factor, combined with the sentimental reverence with which Clint Eastwood is viewed by Hollywood, made the film a serious threat to Scorsese not getting the award he deserved.

And that’s exactly and predictably what happened.

Or, as my reviewing cohort, Marci Miller (who very often doesn’t agree with me), said, “I’ll never understand why Eastwood was given the Oscar for best director over Scorsese, nor do I see how Million Dollar Baby could be judged the best film. I see no logic for it whatsoever, [and it’s] proof, as if we needed any more, that awards in general, and the Oscars in particular, have little if any basis in reality.”

So, in many respects, the Oscars were just business as usual, which Marci neatly summed up as, “Good cleavage, good earrings, gracious and elegant; but about as exciting as a night out with the local Rotary Club.”

But not quite. Choosing Chris Rock as the host for the event signaled the fact that the Academy realizes all is not as it once was with their “private party” (which just happens to be viewed by a good deal of the civilized world). Typically, they chose Rock a year or two after he was really hot, but the choice was telling all the same. Clearly it was a bid to attract the younger movie-going crowd to an event that has long failed to hold much significance for them.

It wasn’t a bad choice, either. Rock was in generally fine form (though I was glad to see Sean Penn tag him on his Jude Law remarks). He started with a blistering bit of Bush-bashing (reaction shots of Clint Eastwood were conspicuously absent), then barged headlong into a taped segment that came close to addressing the problem with the Oscars, as Rock interviewed moviegoers who had seen none of the nominated films and listed favorite movies like Alien vs. Predator. The bit was in fun, but it was still indicative of why the Oscars don’t hold the power they once did.

The awards have simply become irrelevant to the younger audience. And let’s face facts: The younger set is by far the largest movie-going audience, while the Academy is still playing to their parents and grandparents. In other words, they’re appealing to people who go to the movies once or twice a year, if they go at all, and not to people who go once or twice a week. Look at any poll of younger viewers. They weren’t pulling for Hilary Swank, they were pulling for Kate Winslet.

Of course, the argument can be made that the Oscars are about quality, not popularity, but that’s simply not true. More than anything, they’re a marketing tool — but they’re fast becoming a marketing tool that doesn’t have that much clout. Oh, sure, there will be a bump in ticket sales for Million Dollar Baby, but it’s unlikely (though not impossible) that this will turn the movie into a blockbuster. Those days are pretty much gone, because the little genitally-deprived golden gent just doesn’t mean what he once did.

And even a “hip” host won’t change that. Instead, it’s going to take a serious rethinking of what the awards themselves are about. Whether the Academy will do that is another matter.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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