Sunday, February 22, 2009

Why the Oscars Matter—to Me

The Academy of Motion Pictures has been giving awards to itself for a long time now, and for almost as long, they’ve been letting the rest of the world in to watch. A more recent, but by now well-established tradition, is the pre-Oscar magazine article about what’s wrong with the Oscars, why they don’t mean anything, and why the Academy always gets things wrong.

I read one such report recently in which it was observed that the combined earnings of the five nominees for best film—“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Frost / Nixon,” “Milk,” “The Reader,” and “Slumdog Millionaire”—are about half of what the most recent Batman film, “The Dark Knight,” has raked in. So? The reporter went on to put the case in historical perspective by observing that between 1981 to 1985, the Academy Award for Best Film went to “Chariots of Fire”, “Gandhi”, “Terms of Endearment”, “Amadeus” and “Out of Africa”, while during that same period “The Empire Strikes Back”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial”, “Return of the Jedi” and “Ghostbusters” were largely neglected. I suppose the implication is that the Academy missed the boat, time and gain. Yet it seems to me that this roll-call of winners is precisely as it should be, in so far as the films in the first group are all far better than average, while those in the second are all matinee fluff.

Perhaps the only really meaningful remark in the entire article is this one: “What viewers will see on Sunday night is an industry talking to itself.”

That’s exactly the point. Oscar night is the only time when we see the movie industry talking to itself, rather than talking to us—which means trying to move us, scare us, or sell us something. And that’s interesting. The jokes are sometimes good, though the music seldom is. Yes, there will always be a speech or two in a earnest and boring tone by some film executive we've never heard of. And then there are the lifetime achievement awards, which can sometimes be embarrassing. On the other hand, there are the glamorous faces, the movie clips, and the roll call of those who have died. There’s the Red Carpet show, where we might catch a glimpse of Robert Downey, Jr. streaking across the sky in the distance. And if we’ve nothing better to do while the broccoli and red pepper appetizers are cooking, we might even watch the Barbara Walters interviews.

I have seen relatively few of the nominated films this year. “Slumdog” was very good, I thought. "The Reader"? I read the book. “The Wrestler” was a perfect example of everything that’s worst about America—violent, crass, dumb, and sentimental. Few among my favorite films were nominated for anything. But do I care?

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