As we've heard from countless acceptance speeches, receiving an award is an honor, a priviledge, and a deeply humbling experience, but giving out awards is a far more cynical act than accepting them. For starters, it takes an enormous amount of chutzpah for any organization to decide it has the authority to judge the “best picture,” “best album,” or (in the Nobel Peace Prize's case) “best human being.” Awards are never given in the spirit of altruism—the purpose is to honor the recipient, but also to elevate the ones doing the honoring. Award ceremonies satisfy a fundamental human need: everyone involved gets to dress up, make speeches, and feel important, even if all they did was make a film about blue people fighting tanks.
For the major award-bestowing organizations, then, the problem is to get the general public to care about the award they're bestowing. The Grammys do this by endorsing whatever music happens to be popular, to the point where people who love and care about music universally agree that the Grammys are a complete joke. This is obviously not ideal. The Nobel Peace Prize committee, perhaps tired of honoring humanitarians from countries no one has heard of, recently took a page from the Grammys' playbook and forced itself upon Barack Obama on the grounds that a lot of people liked him. (The war in Afghanistan counts as Bush's war, I guess, just like a relief pitcher in baseball isn't charged with runs scored by runners who were already on base when he came in.)
The Academy Awards face the same difficulty the Nobel people do. Most people do not know the names of the world's greatest humanitarians; neither do they see movies that deserve to be called the best movie of the year. We don't like to pay 11 bucks and sit for two hours to be challenged or disturbed or changed, which a good movie might try to do to us. As the top-10 grossing movies of 2009 indicate, we like shiny, shiny garbage, preferably with a message that we already know, like “be true to your friends,” or “don't give up on your dreams,” or “peaceful nature-loving aliens with disturbingly sexy bodies are preferable to evil corporations who employ sadistic ex-Marines.”
If the Oscars were the Pulitzer prize, or the PEN/Faulkner award, or the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, everything would be fine. Those awards frequently go to people who have accomplished things that—to be blunt—most people don't give a shit about. But the Academy wants to be loved by everyone—film industry folks, professional film critics, and the average joe who saw and loved both Transformers movies and thinks “Fellini” is a kind of Italian sandwich. Most of all, the Academy wants everyone to watch their award ceremony, and this is the real problem, because watching that ceremony is the dullest four hours anyone can have outside of a doctor's office waiting room.
For starters, there are the technical awards that not even most of the attendees pay much attention to: Makeup, Cinematography (vital, but ignored by the world at large) Art Direction, Film Editing, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing (do you know the difference? Does anyone?), and Costume Design. Those awards are for people in those industries, everyone else can go grab a beer while they're being announced. Then there are the best short films, the best documentaries and the best foreign film, none of which anyone has ever heard of, and then there's the Best Animated Film, which is just whatever Pixar movie came out that year. The Oscar for Original Film Score gets awarded each year, sometimes not even to John Williams, and the world greets it with a collected grunt. The award for Best Original Song is only interesting because it led to a period of time when Three 6 Mafia had an Academy Award while Martin Scorsese didn't. Best Supporting Actor and Actress are sometimes referred to as major awards, but I dare anyone to name a specific winner from last year or any year. Best Director is a major award, of course, but also the most confusing besides sound editing/mixing—isn't the best directed movie also the best movie period?
The only awards that the general public cares about are for Actor, Actress and especially Best Picture, which is why those come near the end of the marathon ceremony. And this is where the Academy decided to tweak things to get more people interested. They expanded the field of nominees for best picture from five to 10, essentially to make sure that at least one or two bonafide blockbusters could get nominated. Thus, Blind Side got nominated despite middling reviews (a 52 on Metacritic), and District 9 slipped in even though it was the kind of thoughtful sci-fi film that usually get ignored by the Academy (see Men, Children of*). Actually, this year Avatar would have probably got a ton of nominations and therefore dragged in a lot of viewers for the Oscars even if there were only five Best Picture slots, but the important thing is that the Academy has no problems tweaking its format to bring in more eyeballs, and that might be a step toward Grammy-style critical irrelevance.
John Farr, the film writer for the Huffington Post, recently wondered if the Oscars were being corrupted by all the behind-the-scenes marketing and lobbying—if, in other words, the great and venerable Academy Awards were collapsing under the weight of two much hype. (The infamous letter that Hurt Locker producer Nicolas Chartier wrote was only condemned because he directly insulted another film.) This complaint seems a little off-kilter. The Oscars are all hype and marketing—PR flacks sell the films to the Academy, and the Academy tries to sell the pomp and circumstance to the viewers. Complaining about marketing in the Oscars is like complaining about the pumpkin in pumpkin pie. To stay popular, the Academy Awards are going to have to endorse whatever movies are popular.
Farr ponders aloud whether the winning film will win for “lasting creative merit, or sheer popularity, as evidenced by box office?” This is something only a professional film critic who cared about awards would say. For film executives and producers, “sheer popularity” is the only thing worth caring about, and the best thing about winning an Oscar is that your film becomes more popular and rakes in the money on DVD sales. And unfortunately, the Academy also cares about popularity more than anything. So I'm betting that Avatar will win Best Picture, even though there are movies I think deserve it more and would benefit more from the wider audience that a Best Picture pedigree would provide (coughThe Hurt Lockercough!). But for Avatar, tonight's just a victory lap. It already won the box office, which is Hollywood's real highest honor.
*I know, Children of Men was nominated for three Oscars. But it didn't get a whiff of Best Picture, even though it was one of the best photographed, best written, and best edited films of the year. That was the year The Departed won for being directed by a guy who should have won a Best Picture Oscar 25 years ago. High five, Academy!
(Image from a Dan Savage column, by Misako Rocks!)