Friday, December 27, 2013

ARE THE OSCARS STILL RELEVANT?



I often have a cynical take on the annual Academy Awards broadcast, finding myself comparing it to the super bowl: both have absurd amounts of hype and analysis, culminating in a broadcast that goes on for far too long, has lousy musical numbers at the half way point, and tries to wring suspense out of which extremely well paid group of people will beat out another extremely well paid group of people.  Really, do we need to heap even more fame and adulation on movie stars who already are wallowing in it?
And yet, if you think that cinema is an art form with an enormous potential to entertain and enlighten, as I do, then the idea of the Oscars is not a bad one.  For most of the year, coverage of movies in the media is all about which films are making money and which ones aren't, with movies being seen more as a product than an art form. But the Oscars at least allows Hollywood, for one night a year, to admit that while movie making is a money driven business like any other, it is also about creating art.  Even with the reality of studios aggressively marketing for nominations, there is still a sense that the awards are about praising the best movies, even if they don't make a lot of money.  When SHINDLER'S LIST won best picture in 1993, for example, it made less money at the box office than movies like MRS DOUBTFIRE and THE PELICAN BRIEF, but it's a film that will be looked back on decades later while those lesser films are long forgotten, so it's victory was perfectly logical.  And more importantly, Oscar glory can shine attention on unknown films and make them more popular, leading to Hollywood having more incentive to make films like those.  I remember that back in 1996 there was some surprise that four out of the five best picture nominations were independent movies (THE ENGLISH PATIENT, SECRETS AND LIES, SHINE, FARGO) with only one big budget star vehicle represented (JERRY MAGUIRE), but I say, so what?  If independently produced films, (with their smaller budgets and more challenging stories) were making better films than the big studios that year, (and I think they were) isn't it right for the Academy to represent that?  And putting it simply, if it weren't for the Oscars, the big studios would almost never make interesting and challenging films at all.  Why?  It's simply a question of changing audience demographics.
To fully understand this, it's best to go back to the beginning; when the Academy was first formed way back in 1927, movies were a popular but much maligned art form, with many people looking down on them or seeing them as indecent.  By rewarding what they felt were the best films of the year, Hollywood hoped to make movies more acceptable.  This explains why many best picture winners from the 1930's, (like say, 1937's THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA or 1933's CAVALCADE)   are forgotten today; they were seen as "important" and "relevant" at the time, the kind of movies that Hollywood felt it should be making, but they seem dull and stuffy now.  Meanwhile, more enduring films from that era that were also popular in their day, like 1933's KING KONG, 1931's FRANKENSTEIN, or  the Astaire Rogers films, were never given best picture awards, and they were rarely even nominated.  But, with the enforcement of the movie production code, which limited what could and could not be shown on screen, and the growing acceptance of films as a respectable art form, the Academy started awarding more popular entertainments, culminating in 1939's  enormously successful GONE WITH THE WIND also winning best picture.


Admit it, you're probably drawing a blank on these two

For years after that the Academy would often reward financially successful films with Oscar glory; discerning between "art" and "popularity" wasn't necessary.  But that all began to change in the 1950's with the rise of television.  It's hard to believe today, but TV was once seen as the enemy of Hollywood, so much so that some believed that movies themselves would die out.  The studios responded to the challenge by  luring audiences with gimmicks like 3-D and Cinemascope.  But something else happened; Hollywood discovered that while parents were more likely to stay home and watch TV at night, their teenage sons and daughters were more likely to go out to see movies on dates.  That meant that for the first time ever, films could be made explicitly for the teenage audience and still make money.  For years, few films were ever made about teenagers, and those that were, (like the Mickey Rooney starring ANDY HARDY movies) made sure that the parents in the film were wise  and thoughtful and that the teens were, at worst, misguided, and not severely troubled. That all changed in the 50's; now James Dean in 1955's REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE could get involved in actual crimes (like knife fights), while his ineffectual parents were now part of the problem instead of the solution.  The rise of rock and roll added to wave of films that catered to younger audiences, and not surprisingly,  the older Oscar voters began to reward films that were clearly for grown ups and not necessarily box office hits. While a best picture win could certainly give a boost to a film's box office, films that were already popular before the awards were often ignored.
That trend continues to this day, and may even be more dramatic now; the simple fact of the matter is that the demographic who go to the most movies in the theater today are young men and teenage boys, so, generally speaking, most mainstream films need to play to their interests.  And, in my opinion, young men and teenage boys usually have pretty lousy taste, preferring loud, dumb special effect movies where lots of things go boom, or loud, dumb comedies where grown men act like obnoxious bratty children.  I'm not saying I hate all mainstream films (for a while there, the Pixar studio showed that a film could have broad appeal, box office success, and still be excellent), it's just that the pattern  recently has been that for the first ten months of the year, Hollywood tends to release mostly dire mainstream movies, followed by two months of Oscar contenders rolling into theaters like a breath of fresh air, welcoming audiences interested in something more original or challenging.  Without the Oscars, it's likely that the only kind of movies that get made are ones for that young adult male audience who flock to see the TRANSFORMERS movies, and that would really be a shame.  So, I guess what I'm saying is that I'll take the Oscar broadcast, as long and overblown as it is, as long as I get to see films like 12 YEARS A SLAVE.