Tomorrow night, Hollywood’s shiniest celebrities will meet again for the 91st time to honour exceptional acting, directing and producing. But much has changed since the first Academy Awards: a small celebration of the art of cinema has turned into a media event focusing on raising political awareness and increasingly neglecting the art of filmmaking.
Have you ever seen the first Academy Awards Ceremony? No? Well, it would be very surprising if you had. The first ever Oscars in 1929 were not even broadcasted on television. Instead of the big media event they are associated with today, the Awards started off as a relatively small gathering of celebrities, dedicated to honouring the most valuable productions of cinema.
However, 90 Academy Awards later, the spotlight has moved from appreciation for art, to delivering political statements.
In the times of increasing social and political issues all around the globe, it’s no wonder that one the most prestigious award shows in the world is used as a stage for political and social criticism. Admittedly, it does provide a suitable platform for doing so. After all, by featuring some of the most famous people in the entertainment industry and reaching an audience of over 26 million people, the Academy Awards can operate as an important tool for raising awareness over important issues. Indeed, particularly in the recent years, the addressing of political matters seems to have become the primary incentive of the show. Possibly in an attempt to battle the catastrophic decrease in the number of viewers – the last Oscar ceremony was marked by a 20% drop compared to the previous year – politics of representation are steadily gaining importance.
But how can this tendency be in accordance with the philosophy of the founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences? Is their most prestigious award not originally based on the idea of promoting the art of filmmaking? Indeed, it is and promoting political messages over the art of filmmaking completely breaks with it.
By introducing political commentary into the Award Ceremony, the Academy allows the attention to be stripped from the nominated films. It abuses the attention accumulated by the extraordinary popularity or fineness of these films for raising the popularity and political impact of the ceremony. And what makes this worse, is that the political messages delivered at the ceremony are often even completely unrelated to the films they are connected with.
This practice creates a new perception of the entertainment industry, in which films are no longer viewed as artistically valuable or popular for their own sake, but rather for the one of the political statements presented alongside them. Using an award ceremony to promote political ideas, therefore, reduces the artwork to the status of a instrument, which is in radical contradiction to the Academy’s original aims.
Beyond an art versus politics debate, the impact of political or social controversy at the Academy Awards is questionable As pointed out by the strategic director of the Human Rights Watch film festival Andrea Holley, gestures and statements at the Academy Awards are by far not enough to make an important difference. “If there is one thing you learn at Human Rights Watch, it is that lasting change takes time,” she said about the importance of follow up actions.
It is exactly for this reason that, instead of focusing on making political statements as a part of the Awards ceremony, the spotlight should be directed at the underlying commentaries of the awarded films. As well as honouring the artwork of actors, directors, writers (and many more people involved), awarding films that convey impactful and relevant political messages is an excellent way to spread these messages among the greater public. Not only does this increase the general appreciation for the awarded film, it also boosts its potential for raising political awareness – much more so than brief statements by celebrities at the award ceremony. And this can be done best by building the ceremony around the discussion of the artform. In the end, communicating relevant messages is even aided by focusing on what should really matter for the Oscars: the art of cinema.