A look into the merit of the Oscars.
I’ve watched the Oscars every year since I was about 13. Every February, on the designated Sunday — or Monday morning for me, given the time difference — I would set my alarm to wake me in the middle of the night. Disorientated, I would pull my body out of bed, walk downstairs and, through heavy eyes, watch the host's usually not-so-funny opening monologue which signalled the start of the biggest night in Hollywood. As a child obsessed with everything cinema-related, this was a major event in my calendar. It became a tradition, or perhaps even more of a ritual.
If you watch the Oscars enough times, you start to notice that every year is basically the same. Unsurprisingly, its predictability has made it the basis of many drinking games: someone always makes a joke about how boring the Oscars are; the Academy always forgets that women make movies too; the winner from some obscure category always gives the longest speech of the night and is forced to battle against the exit music as they frantically try to thank every person they’ve ever met before their microphone is inevitably turned off. I would come into school only a couple hours after it all finished, dangerously sleep-deprived, partially dazed, and miserable that I would have to wait a full year to do it all again.
Perhaps naively I used to believe that the winner of every category won their little golden statue based purely on merit. That was until last year, when I discovered that every production company spends millions of dollars (about $25 million each, to be precise) on voters. This was the start of my falling-out-of-love-story with the Oscars. In preparation for last year’s ceremony, Sony sent branded t-shirts, posters, and notebooks with the lyrics to Shallow handwritten by Lady Gaga on them to every Oscar voter as part of its campaign for A Star is Born. Netflix hired Dolly Parton to perform at a catered dinner at the Four Seasons ballroom in Los Angeles. Universal pimped out Ryan Gosling to a barrage of luncheons to promote First Man. Another legendary Hollywood hotel, The Chateau Marmont, was the setting for the Best Foreign Language Film winner Roma’s extravagant opening night celebration aimed at voters — they even threw in a nice branded pillow and a coffee table book to take home. The Oscar race is run with all the financial investment, calculated strategies and fierce competitiveness of a political campaign — as Paul Begala’s famous saying goes, “Washington is just Hollywood for ugly people.” What all this extravagant bribery results in is a disillusionment with the idea of award ceremonies as a whole, and the reduction of the Academy Awards to what has effectively become a glorified ad campaign for major studios.
I don’t mean to suggest that anyone with enough money can just buy themselves an Oscar, although that isn’t wildly removed from reality. Looking at this year’s nominees — Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, Marriage Story, and The Irishman, amongst others — it is inarguable that award ceremonies recognise some of cinema’s best exports. The only problem is, regardless of which film’s name is read out by two glammed-up Hollywood actors, the perception of every nominated film has already been firmly established by critics and public opinion. The legacy of Green Book as preachy, outdated, and dull wasn’t cancelled out by it winning Best Picture — if anything, the platform only helped to louden the collective sigh towards the white saviour melodrama. And as the ratings continue to dwindle, there’s no reason why this year’s ceremony should be any different.
Timothée Chalamet lost out on a Best Actor nomination last year for his role in Beautiful Boy, and he won’t win anything this time for his turn in Little Women, yet that hasn’t stopped him from being catapulted into his role as Hollywood’s - and the world’s - latest obsession. One of last summer’s most talked-about films, the hilarious and horrifying Midsommar, won’t even be acknowledged at this year’s ceremony. Neither will the adored, yet perpetually Oscar-less, writer and director, Greta Gerwig.
A year from now, the current Best Picture hopeful Marriage Story won’t be remembered for whether it did or did not win the award. It will be remembered for making everyone realise that maybe Scarlett Johansson isn’t awful after all, and for elevating Adam Driver to his new status as bankable leading man. More importantly, it will be remembered for the tonally-jarring scene ridiculed and immortalised by the memes of "Film Twitter", where Driver inexplicably punches a hole through the wall of his brand new bungalow, prays for his wife’s death, and cries on her lap. I could go on.
Ultimately, the Oscars are no longer the deciding influencers on which films garner respect and longevity, and they haven’t been for some time. And whilst it’s easy to feel sympathetic when watching the slow, agonising demise of a Hollywood institution, the likes of which Driver’s character can only fantasise of, it’s hard to shake the feeling that they brought it all upon themselves. That’s not to say that the Oscars will ever disappear entirely, but as Twitter’s approval becomes the new five-star review, and as the industry churns out an ever-increasing amount of content, one ceremony’s seal of approval of a few cherry-picked titles no longer garners the same revere.
I no longer consider myself the awards season fanatic I once was. Maybe all those middle-of-the-night viewings burned me out too soon. Maybe I’m still just bitter that Glenn Close didn’t win Best Actress last year. Whatever the reason, I don’t think I’ll be setting my alarm for 3am this year.
I’ll probably still watch the highlights though.