It’s January, and that means one thing in movie world – Oscar nomination day. Always an exciting day in the industry, its the time when journalists around the glove list their predictions before questioning the incoming nominations. There are always certain dead-sets – this year, probably The Grand Budapest Hotel, Gone Girl, Birdman – and sometimes, a few surprises – with Nightcrawler for example make the Best Picture nominations? The nominations give the industry a bit of buzz, and even in 2015, the Oscar remains the most prestigious trophy in Hollywood. The general view is that the Academy – a committee made up of around 6000 people somewhere in Hollywood – single out and praise the very best that cinema has to offer. The awards honour the creative geniuses behind the future classics – the innovative, boundary-pushing directors, the raw and exciting acting performances, the striking cinematography and iconic music design. Yet every January, when the Oscar nominations roll in, there’s always a discrepancy between what critics and audiences love and what catches the Academy’s eye.
This issue is further exasperated come March, when the winning movie choices often cause controversy and exasperated yet again a few years later when numerous Best Picture winners are completely forgotten by critics and audiences. Sometimes, it seems, the Academy completely misjudge the moment, and there are instances of terrible movies winning awards they shouldn’t have. As an indicator of classic quality, the Oscars are flawed to say the least. These raises the question – does the Oscar statue actually mean anything?
That’s not to say the Academy gets everything wrong, and should be written off as nonsense. Generally, the films which make it to the Oscar nominations are good movies – there are some greats in this year’s selection for example – and sometimes, the perfect movie sweeps the awards – No Country for Old Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The main issue when it comes to what’s wrong with the Oscars, is that they claim to award art for its greatness, when generally, that’s not what they do at all. The Academy awards a certain kind of art, the art which it believes represents the industry at its best. This is to say, the Academy reward movies which they feel, best reflect the quality of the Academy.
There’s a running Hollywood joke that the Academy is made up of old white men, and whilst that’s probably an exaggeration, the point stands – the Academy are extremely conservative, which means that they’ll promote art within the boundaries of perceived good taste; radical art doesn’t get a look in, and neither does anything which challenges or shakes up cinematic convention. All these factors combine so that generally, the Academy only praises the safest of movies, which tend to be the most forgettable in the long run. There is nothing out-right wrong with say, 2010’s The King’s Speech, or 2012’s Argo, but in ten years, nobody will remember them; people barely remember them now.
The effect is that the truly ground breaking cinematic art is ignored by the committee. The films which really push the boundaries rarely get a look in. It’s a cliché, but the point stands, the Academy are drawn to studio ‘Oscar bait,’ and there are certain boxes to tick if to gain a nomination. In terms of genre, look to period pieces, historical epics, and biographical dramas. In narrative terms, look for stories of underdogs and characters overcoming metaphorical or literal challenges, all with a sentimental edge. For performances, look for any actors who drastically change their look or body size. Science-fiction, indie movies, horror and comedy are more or less ignored by the committee, though they’ll occasionally throw a bone through editing, special effects, or something production related.
As such, the committee has made some disastrous choices over the years, and really misrepresented what critically were the most endearing movies of whatever the year. It says a lot that actors and actresses are only awarded for drama, when any actor would tell you comedy is so much harder. Or how two of the most revered directors of modern times – Hitchcock and Kubrick – never won a single award; Vertigo and 2001: A Space Odyssey didn’t even get Best Picture nominations, yet are widely considered two of the greatest movies ever made. Essie Davies is unlikely to get nominated for The Badadook, despite giving an Oscar worthy performance, simply because The Babadook is a horror film. The fact that it’s an amazing movie and a very well constructed horror movie doesn’t matter; in the Academy’s eyes, it’s still just a genre flick.
This is a common trend; the Academy are incredibly short-sighted when it comes to what will stick. Google ‘Oscar snubs’ and be amazed at which classics never even got a look in. Whilst it’s of course difficult to judge what’s going to be critically praised in ten years time, critics and audiences are always a better judge; Spring Breakers wasn’t nominated last year for anything, but stands as a great example of a movie which will gain attention over time. American Hustle, on the flip side, has mainly been forgotten about. It’s a good film, but not one anyone goes back to.
Then there are the absurd winners. These are films which were probably popular in the day, but would quickly disintegrate with repeated viewings. Sometimes these are good films, but good films up against incomprehensibly ignored competition. In 1990, Dances with Wolves beat Goodfellas to Best Picture. In 1977, Rocky beat Taxi Driver. In 1996, The English Patient beat Fargo. In 1997, Titanic beat L.A. Confidential. The Return of the King beat Lost in Translation. It’s not these Best Picture winners were bad movies, but when compared to the competition, they really do start to look weak. Have a look online now – how many critical ‘Top 10s of the 90s’ will feature Fargo but not The English Patient? Probably most of them. The Academy is drawn to sentimental, life-affirming movies which date quickly. Rocky for example, is decent, but sentimental, overly-positive American dream drivel; it’s not even in the same ballpark as Taxi Driver, one of the most innovative and expressive movies of all time, and one which regularly tops ‘best ever’ lists.
The most infamous screw-ups, however, are 1994’s Forrest Gump, 2005’s Crash, and way back in 1941, How Green is Your Valley? Forrest Gump is a bad movie and always was. Like Rocky, (notice a theme) it’s an overly sentimental movie, filled with American dream-pushing blandness, made all the worse by how heavy-handed and emotionally manipulative it is. It’s a lazy movie. Forrest Gump, however, appealing to the Academy’s views, beat Pulp Fiction to Best Picture. That’s almost impossible to comprehend now, considering how influential and important Pulp Fiction was to modern cinema; it says a lot about the Academy’s fear of the new and the creative.
Crash is particularly offensive too; like Forrest Gump, it’s emotionally manipulative, lazy, and heavy-handed. What makes it worse however is that Crash is a movie about racism – a subject which deserves respect and tact. But Crash is so broad and clumsy; as though it was written by old white men who had never been outside. Worse, it stole the Best Picture from great LGBT movie Brokeback Mountain, in a move which says so much about the conservative ideals of the Academy. Brokeback Mountain is not only a far better movie than Crash, but with its subject matter, awarding it Best Picture would have been a liberal and progressive move – the kind of move the Academy thought it was making by crowning Crash winner. No one has heard of How Green is Your Valley. They’ve heard of Citizen Kane though, the movie it beat to Best Picture.
Adding to these problems, are the ‘late’ awards. These come when the Academy realise they’ve snubbed someone great too many times in the past, and to make up for it, they give the Oscar to said snubbed party based on whatever random film they’ve made or appeared in that year. This is how Martin Scorsese didn’t win for Taxi Driver, Raging Bull or Goodfellas, but then won for The Departed. Kate Winslet didn’t win for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but did for The Reader. Whilst its good the Academy recognises its mistakes and awards the deserving, this approach tends to skewer results; The Departed is a good movie, but far from Scorsese’s best, and awarding him the Oscar takes away focus from any new directors at the time – probably exactly what happened to Scorsese himself when he was younger. It seems you have to earn credibility to even get a look in, which means that winning movies – despite the prestige of the award – are often not representative of the filmmaker at his or her best. A lot of directors therefore are awarded years after losing their spark.
Of course, the Academy don’t get it all wrong, they do have great runs – last years Best Picture nominations – including 12 Years a Slave and Gravity – were very strong – and the Oscars still retain a great deal of clout in the industry, but there’s no denying that they need a shake up – more kinds of movies, more genres, and less fear of what’s exciting, new or different. The safely sentimental, conservative and pro-Americana rubbish needs to be dropped, otherwise yes, the Oscars, the award and Oscar statue, will become more of a joke every year. For now, they don’t stand as a solid cross-section of cinematic greatness – check the National Film Registry instead.
*Update – the nominees are strong this year, especially in Best Picture. But how the hell did The Lego Movie not get nominated for Best Animated Film?*
This post has been updated from one I wrote for Vada Magazine last year. Let me know if you agree with me in the comments!