With the Academy Awards/Oscars just one week away, I am beginning my yearly ritual of asking myself why I actually watch them year after year. This is the time of year when many critics and bloggers dedicate a post to why they don’t watch and go into detail about why. The reason most often given is that the films that have been nominated are not actually the “best” films and performances of the year. When this criticism is launched, the critic generally discusses the various films, usually foreign and/or low-budget and/or independent and/or arty, that should have been nominated instead. The problem with these posts is that very few, if any, of these supposed better films have been seen by a wide enough audience. They show at festivals that not everyone can attend or only in “select cities.” Another problem is that the critics that compile these alternate lists rarely agree. There is no consensus precisely because not everyone has actually seen these hard to find gems. Another criticism, usually from more popular critical sources, goes to the other extreme and complains that the nominated films are only critical darlings that have not been seen by a wide enough audience. For example, Brent Lang of Variety called this year’s nominees “lightweights” and “the weakest crop of contenders from a box office perspective in recent history.” So, one extreme believes the nominees are too popular while the other doesn’t believe that they are popular enough. The result is that a majority of cinephiles will ignore the Oscars and probably spend the evening watching a movie that they believe should have been nominated.
Not me. I will be sitting on my couch in front of my television with my ballot in hand, keeping score of my predictions. Like many critics, I think the Oscars are too long, too self-congratulatory, and have too many unnecessary song-and-dance/performance numbers. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind watching performances of the original songs that have been nominated, but when Peter Gabriel isn’t allowed to perform but has his song included as a medley in order to make room for not one, but two musical productions, I get a little miffed (particularly when one of the musical numbers is a tribute to musicals in a year when no musicals were actually nominated). I know that there are deserving films that won’t win (or weren’t even nominated). I know that some of this year’s winners will be forgotten down the road and join the ranks of the undeserving (Crash anyone?). But I don’t care. I watch for one simple reason. Of all of the awards handed out by the various guilds and critics’ circles, the Academy Awards are the only ones that award the range of people that it actually takes to make a movie. The guilds award only in their area, as they should, with actors recognizing actors (SAG), writers recognizing writers (WGA), directors recognizing directors (DGA), and so on. The Golden Globes branch out by awarding the big awards (picture, director, actor, actress, supporting roles, writing, and music), but are afraid to make hard choices by having musicals and comedies go head to head with dramas. So we end up with two best pictures, two best actors, and two best actresses.
Of all of the critics’ awards, the Critics’ Choice awards come closest to the Oscars by recognizing all of the major categories but also branching out to include cinematography, art direction, editing, costume design, hair and makeup, and visual effects. But they follow the Globes’ tendency of wanting to send everyone home with a trophy, so in addition to the overall best picture, we have Best Action Movie, Best Comedy, Best Sci-Fi/Horror Movie, with the representative Best Actor/Actress in each of these categories. There is no Best Drama category, the assumption being that Best Picture is actually Best Drama. They also have a category called Best Acting Ensemble, similar to SAG’s Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. But the latter is generally considered equivalent to a Best Picture award. The Critics’ Choice has that category, so why the acting ensemble award? Again, it has to do with wanting to reward everyone. By including this category, Boyhood was able to win Best Picture, with Birdman taking Acting Ensemble, and The Grand Budapest Hotel winning Best Comedy. No one gets left out.
But the Academy Awards are willing to leave people out. They have a history of completely shutting out films that lead in nominations (e.g., The Color Purple). They have a history of sometimes going with the popular vote (e.g., Forrest Gump) and sometimes going against it (e.g., The Hurt Locker). They are the only awards this year that will force Boyhood to battle it out against Birdman, that will say it’s either Michael Keaton or Eddie Redmayne it can’t be both, and that will recognize all of the technical awards alongside the “major” awards. It’s the one night when it’s comedy vs. drama vs. action vs. sci-fi. And, regardless of the speeches heard so far, the thank yous, and the tears, it’s the only one that actually matters. This is the award that all of the players in Hollywood actually care about. Just ask Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, or Leonardo DiCaprio if they’re completely satisfied with their Golden Globe or if they would happily give it up to have an Oscar on their mantles instead.
Of course they’ve gotten it wrong in the past and they’ll continue to get it wrong. Yes, it’s a travesty that The LEGO Movie wasn’t nominated. But that doesn’t change the fact that when someone wants to study film either professionally, academically, or just for fun, the list of past Oscar winners is often where someone has to start. It’s the best testament to not only what has been considered great in the past and may still be considered great, but also what has been considered great in the past but has lost that appeal over time but still tells us something about the age that praised it. It’s why this year I’m dedicating myself to watching the past winners in order. Keep a watch out for posts about that experience. And watch for my predictions later this week. I’ll get a lot wrong, but I’ll have fun choosing them.