Oscar award: Is it the gold standard or a statuette of limitations?
It’s not just that the Oscars are long. It’s that they’re dull. No one takes fashion risks anymore — women put on well-behaved gowns and save the shenanigans for the Met Gala. Young actresses gush over Meryl Streep, even if she’s playing a terrible singer, terribly, in a terrible film. Everyone’s practised their speech/gracious-loser expression. The host’s one-liners will land somewhere between celebratory and critical.
And in India, by the time you wake up on Monday, the whole thing’s over. The red-carpet styles are already funnelled into hit-and-miss who-wore-it-better listicles. The gold statuettes handed out. The tears, zingers and highlights clipped into digestible bits on YouTube. You’ve missed nothing.
Even Americans don’t watch the Oscars any more. Viewership was highest in the year 2000. Some 46.3 million watched American Beauty win Best Picture, and a young Angelina Jolie pick up Best Supporting Actress for Girl, Interrupted. Last year, only 29.6 million Americans tuned in. The Oscar ceremony, it seems, is going the way of the variety shows of the 1970s and the Top-10 music countdowns of the 1990s. Its glory days seem to be in the past.
It doesn’t help that the ceremony, carpet to credits, is more than three hours long — and so repetitive that it feels much longer. You could watch this year’s Oscar-nominated The Irishman in that time; or the 1977 winner, Annie Hall, twice.
To be fair, the body that hands out the awards, has been trying to liven up the telecast. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences have dropped the host. Awards for minor categories have been handed out in the aisles. The Lifetime Achievement segment is staged separately. For the 2019 edition, they even tried to add a category called Achievement in Popular Cinema. It was dropped amid confusion and criticism.
But it’s not just about how many people are catching the Oscars live. Ratings aren’t where the prestige lies. Since the awards were instituted in 1929, the draw has been the prizes. And that’s where the plot starts to get a little complicated.
JUDGE AND JURY
Think of the Oscars as a sort of annual State of the Union address for Hollywood. Nominated and winning entries represent not just the best of the best, but the American film industry itself. The 9,000 lifetime members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences vote within their categories. Actors nominate actors, editors nominate editors, and so on. Peer approval matters. So even if Meryl Streep is playing a terrible singer, terribly, in a terrible film, someone’s noticing that the costume design is exceptional.
And yet, despite stellar work from dozens of women directors this year, not one has been nominated. Of the nominated actors, only one is black. Four very white, very male films (Joker, 1917, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood and The Irishman) have ten or more nominations each. It’s not so much a reflection as a distortion.
Here’s why: Of those 9,000 Academy members, only 32% are women and only 16% are people of colour. The Academy is largely white and male. Many members haven’t worked in years, are out of sync with Hollywood’s own global market, and their bias is now driving young movie watchers to other metrics of excellence, like the Baftas, the relatively low-key British equivalent; and crowdsourced resources like IMDb.
The Emmy and Grammy awards have accommodated reality television and electronica. MTV’s acting awards are gender-neutral. The Academy is still struggling to squeeze in a stunt category. It’s changed Best Foreign Language Film to Best International Feature Film this year, adding more confusion than clarity. It just won’t let the rest of the world in; even British filmmakers and actors rarely win. And it’s still too long.
To update the Oscar ceremony, they’d need to first reboot the Academy. Especially now, when new platforms, new markets and a political upheaval around gender and colour are fragmenting the audience.
For an overwhelming majority of film lovers, an Oscar nod is still the first spark of interest in an otherwise unknown film, genre or actor. It needs to share those nods more equitably, so that more of us have a reason to stay up and watch the awards again.
Snubs and snubbed
Since the Oscars were instituted in 1929, only six black men have been nominated for Best Director. John Singleton in 1992 for Boyz n the Hood, Lee Daniels in 2010 for Precious, Steve McQueen in 2014 for 12 Years a Slave, Barry Jenkins in 2017 for Moonlight, Jordan Peele in 2018 for Get Out and Spike Lee in 2019 for BlacKkKlansman. No black director has won. No black woman has even been nominated for directing.
Marlon Brando, knowing he would win the acting Oscar for The Godfather in 1973, sent Apache actress, Sacheen Littlefeather, instead to accept it for him, and deliver a speech about Hollywood’s treatment of Native Americans.
Eddie Murphy, when presenting an award in 1988, said he hadn’t wanted to attend, because the Academy had not recognised the contributions of blacks. He then counted Oscar-winning black actors on one hand. “I’ll probably never win an Oscar for saying this, but... I gotta say it,” he said.
Only five women have ever been nominated for best director: Lina Wertmüller in 1977 for Seven Beauties, Jane Campion in 1994 for The Piano, Sofia Coppola in 2004 for Lost in Translation, Kathryn Bigelow in 2010 for The Hurt Locker and Greta Gerwig in 2018 for Lady Bird. Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to have won.