Were they ever? It’s hard for me to say seeing as I’ve only been around twenty-five years, fifty-eight less than the Academy, but I seem to remember a time when I thought winning an Oscar would have been the greatest thing to happen to anybody. I used to practice my acceptance speech in the bath, almost certain that it was just a matter of time before I made a film good enough to win one of the coveted golden statues (this was quite a while ago now).
Looking back, this was a time when Dances With Wolves (1990) had already beaten Goodfellas (1990) in the Best Director and Best Director Categories, Marissa Tomei had already won for her role in My Cousin Vinny (1992), and Forrest Gump (1994), a movie which essentially tries to suggest that you’re lucky if you’re mentally retarded, had inexplicably won over the entire world’s population and completely cleaned up at nearly every single awards ceremony there is. If I’m not adequately conveying my tone, it’s probably best I note that I think all of these decisions are exceedingly insane.
I would like to say that things have changed since then, or that things were better beforehand, but the truth is that they aren’t and for the better part, they weren’t. Look back at the last decade or so of Best Picture winners. There is no serious case that anybody could make that A Beautiful Mind (2001), Million Dollar Baby (2004) or Crash (2004) were genuinely the BEST FILMS OF THE YEAR. I can’t remember the last time I even threw a thought towards any of those films. I’d also like to stress the point that I’m not suggesting any of these films are bad films, simply that the Academy Awards are surely mistaken if they think we should be celebrating these films as the best the industry has to offer.
I’m aware that the power of hindsight is probably helping my case, but even back in 2009 I could have told you that Sandra Bullock’s ordinary performance in The Blind Side was pretty similar to Sandra Bullock’s ordinary performance in Speed (1994) or Sandra Bullock’s ordinary performance in Crash. This is the leading film awards ceremony in the world that we’re talking about, do they really want to encourage mediocrity and unoriginality? How has the term ‘Oscar-bait’ come to mean a film or performance that’s overblown and emotionally garish? And is the Academy not aware of this?
I recently heard an interesting question regarding the contemporary validity of the Oscars ceremony.
Do people still actually watch it for the awards themselves, or has its become a glorified showcase of celebrities? I know that I stopped holding the winners in the high regard I had for them as a child years ago and yet I still watch the ceremony every year almost without fail. And almost without fail I’m disappointed with the results, so why keep tuning in? I know more people who watch the ceremonies for the dresses on the red carpet, a glimpse of Leonardo DiCaprio or a chance to see somebody famous embarrass themselves than I know people who even remember who won Best Picture last year (last one to win was Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist).
Everybody remembers Sally Field’s horrible acceptance speech for her second Academy Award (“You like me! Right now, you like me!”), but probably a fraction of those people could recall which film she won it for (Robert Benton’s 1984 Places In The Heart). One of the few nights of the year in which cinema should be celebrated on a global scale ends up as just a way of laughing at how self-congratulatory and detached most celebrities are.
Which sort of but not really brings me to my next point – have the Oscars become more focused on the public or majority vote than actual quality? Do we no longer wish to congratulate films that push the industry intellectually and creatively, but instead nominate Avatar (2009) for Best Picture? (for the record, I’m not an Avatar hater, it was pretty exciting to watch and the technical shit was amazing, but surely that only constitutes a handful of technical awards?).
Granted there seems to have been a slight push towards rewarding lesser-known and perhaps more intellectually stimulating films of late, but this really just seems like an attempt by the Academy to pretend like they’re aware of the problem. The Best Picture still goes to……The King’s Speech (2010). Oh lucky, because that year I thought it wasn’t going to go to a period piece about an historical figure who has some scenes where he yells a lot and some scenes where he cries even though he’s normally emotionally strong.
But all of these flaws and inconsistencies pale in comparison to the most frustrating aspect of the entire Academy Awards – their tendency to ‘make it up’ to people. ‘Woops, we didn’t give Martin Scorsese an Oscar for Raging Bull (1980) or Goodfellas (1990), arguably two of the greatest films ever made, so we better give it to him for The Departed (2006), a fairly entertaining flick he could have farted out overnight.’ At least, that’s what I’m guessing their train of thought might be.
I’m aware that this tends to happen quite a bit with awards ceremonies, but I don’t think that should be any reason to let the Oscars off lightly. I can’t be the only person in the world that believes this sort of practice completely undermines any legitimacy the Academy Awards might have. Was Denzel Washington the BEST actor the year he won for Training Day (2001)? No, probably not but he’s been good in the past so we should pretend he was.
If the problem lies in the voting system, then that system needs to be revised. If politics are too involved in the results, then politics need to be stamped out of the equation entirely. The film industry deserves an awards ceremony as prolific as the Oscars, but not when the system and the industry render the awards meaningless. Winning an Oscar should mean as much as I thought it did when I was a kid. How has the term ‘Academy Award Winner’ come to suggest absolutely nothing?