My housemates and I had an Oscar party last week. Celebrating the Oscars has been a long-standing tradition for me. In high school, my mom had friends involved in the theater scene in Boston, and they always invited us to a black-tie formal event replete with rented hall, catered food, flowing champagne, and the largest Oscar scoreboard I’ve ever seen. In college, my fellow Film Studies majors staged smaller, poorer, but no less enthusiastic shindigs. This year, two of my housemates set up a makeshift podium and surprised us with a scripted presentation of the First Annual Casa Guadalupe Academy Awards. We each received one of eight awards, which were presented during the real telecast’s commercials. Some were for Best Costume Design (for Sara, who is always letting our housemates borrow her dresses) and for Best Musical Performance (for Amy, our resident floutist). Mine was for Best Dramatic Performance, because apparently I not only launched into a three-minute monologue one evening rhapsodizing about the beauty of a nectarine I was too enamored of to eat, but am so effortlessly dramatic that I don’t even remember the incident, which had left my hapless audience slack-jawed in shock. Best of all were the physical “Oscars” themselves: little Oscar the Grouches cut carefully out of green and yellow construction paper.
Yet I think that what our personal festivities did, more than anything, was point up precisely how boring the ceremony really is. This year was the first time that I really thought about how unusual it is that people actually watch it. True, there is always the obligatory Oscar pre-show, with the vapid red carpet interviews and commentary on dresses which could probably feed a small country for at least a week or two. These are fully in keeping with what we imagine the expectations of shallow American minds to be. But the Oscars rarely run under three and a half hours, the speeches are usually dull, and the vast majority of the categories are for technical elements that even I don’t care about as a former filmmaker. Most people in the audience, I think — at least, the home viewing audience, and not the kind of rare audiences I encountered at my mom’s friends’ Oscar banquet — haven’t seen most of the nominated pictures, either.
That the Oscars are boring has not gone unremarked upon, of course, but that makes it all the more surprising to me that people watch it. From one, cynical point of view, it’s a stroke of genius for whoever markets them that they can brainwash a disinterested populace into pretending to enjoy something completely unenjoyable. My housemate’s boyfriend, who is from Georgia (“Georgia — the country of Georgia,” he always clarifies), theorizes that only the commercial breaks make it watchable, and that one of the main reasons that soccer has not and will never catch on in the United States like it has in Europe is not that it’s too slow (baseball does just fine on these shores, and that’s a Tarkovskian sport if ever there was one) but that its action is continuous and doesn’t allow time for commercials. I suspect he may be right, although it’s all the more fascinating that unlike the Super Bowl and the Olympics, the Academy Awards are not famed as a venue for clever, funny, or touching commercials. Commercial spots during the Oscars are themselves an exercise in dullness.
It may be that slowly but surely, as the Academy Awards inch towards their centenary (in under two decades), they are in fact advancing in maturity. It’s encouraging that Barbara Walters has retired from the pre-show; it was hard for me not to feel sickened and sorry for her last week as she identified getting an embarrassingly prolonged lap dance from Hugh Jackman on 2009’s interview show as the highlight of her Oscar-covering career. Furthermore, I am told that Ryan Seacrest, making his red carpet debut this year, raised eyebrows precisely by neglecting to ask the stars a single question about their clothing. Good for him.
These coincidences are contingent on individual personalities and could change on a year-to-year basis; yet perhaps most telling is the result of Academy president Sid Ganis’s expansion of the number of Best Picture nominees from five to ten. A disclaimer: I worked in Ganis’s office at Sony Pictures for a summer and have nothing but respect for him. He was one of the kindest and most genuine industry people I met in Hollywood. That was not much of a contest, but he really was very kind and very genuine. He’d invite all of us interns into his office every couple of Fridays and tell stories and answer our questions and it was clear as he encouraged us that he really had been in our place once upon a time and that he was profoundly aware that he was no better a person than any of us. That said, I found his decision to nominate ten nominees to be a cynical one. In the past decade or so — I would say that the revolution began with the Best Picture win for American Beauty in 1999 — independent films have become more and more popular with the Oscars. Traffic. Lost in Translation. Million Dollar Baby. No Country for Old Men. There Will Be Blood. Films most of the viewing audience hadn’t seen, yet which were artistically compelling enough that industry voters — who had naturally seen all of them — would vote for them. As the Oscars have begun to tilt in the favor of critical mass rather than commercial success, Ganis seems to have decided to expand the race not so that these “little gems” could compete against the massive Hollywood epics, but so that the blockbusters which drew crowds could find a place alongside the esoteric, legitimately artistic accomplishments.
Not that the two “types” of filmmaking have always forged separate paths, especially recently. At the time I was in college, student filmmaking communities were painfully aware of how, since the popularity of independent festivals like Sundance, major performers had begun to take an interest in those cutting-edge indie filmmakers and the unusual roles they offered. The celebrities — Kevin Spacey, etc. — would sign on to these projects and bring with them enough of a dramatic pedigree and enough financial clout to nearly guarantee a win. Nowadays, festivals which used to represent the last best chance for resourceless yet talented up-and-coming filmmakers are turning away submissions that don’t have big stars playing against their image and don’t look, essentially, like studio pictures dressing in drag as gritty independent dramas. If Hollywood is slowly lifting Sundance to its level, it would have to let the Oscars slip a little further out of its grasp for a certain studio-vs.-independent balance to be maintained.
It’s against this backdrop (which I’ve sketched very hastily and perhaps unpersuasively) that The Hurt Locker, probably the least-seen Best Picture winner of recent times, beat out a swollen total of nine other titles — including its chief competition, Avatar, which I believe (it’s hard to keep track, since the record is being surpassed all the time!) is now the highest-grossing motion picture of all time. This, for me, is reason enough to say “Hooray for Hollywood,” although it’ll be interesting to see what exactly it portends: will the viewing public validate the Academy’s artistic ambitions and begin to see the films which are earning laurels? Or will the public grow disenchanted with an obscure and elitist ceremony and force Sid Ganis to expand the number of Best Picture nominees to twenty (or else fail to tune in to the awards show at all)?
I’m not enough of a film historian — particularly not of American cinema, and particularly not now, years after receiving my degree — to have any clue. I do know that the 1970s, one of the richest decades for independent American filmmaking, gave way to the 1980s, the bleakest cinematic landscape (in artistic terms) in American film history. I might surmise that this was because the 80s were a comfortable time politically, while it’s doubtful whether Obama, whose honeymoon already seems to have ended, will put to rest a Bush-era climate of cynicism and fearfulness and reinstall a Democratic version of Reaganite complacency and aesthetic insipidity. I don’t mean to imply that I prefer anguished artistic masterpieces over political stability, but given that we live in the times we do, we might recall the infamous and ironic words of Harry Lime in one of the English-speaking cinema’s masterpieces, Carol Reed’s The Third Man: “In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”