By Justin Waters
Do you see them? Those glinting gold soldiers on the march. Arrayed in battle formation on their velvet stage. Their bald pates exposed. Their lack of clothing a mere facade of meekness. Make no mistake. These are not cultural ambassadors. For what is it they carry? Why the sword of course. These are conquerors. Mutual appreciation is their prey. And we, my fellow movie lovers, are the victims. Yes, God help us, the Oscars are coming. Laying out before them their carpet of red. A land of unbearable judgment. Those who walk it will be analyzed to their molecules under the hot glow of a thousand flashbulbs ringing out like gunshots. At least the Mani Cam is gone. Relegated to a CIA black site to be used as an instrument of torture of such cruelty Congress is still debating it’s legality. But I saw it once. We all did. We are damned.
The Oscars are coming. The Oscars are here!!!
From what ooze did this nefarious organization known as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences emerge from? Well for that we have to go back to a golden age of capitalism: 1927. A time of peril for big business. A powerful enemy was on the warpath threatening to slow the vital fuel of profit. An enemy called unions. The moguls in la la land were not immune to fear. They understood what lay ahead if their massive staff of technicians and writers joined together. They feared the publicity made if actors joined the cause. And inevitably they would considering the contracts they had to sign giving complete control down to loopholes chaining the actors to the studio for as long as the studio wanted. Giving studios the ability to kill the career of any actor that became too much trouble for their own good. Yes, unions were a threat to the very fabric of Hollywood. But how to get rid of them?
The answer to that came from the mind of one of Hollywood’s brightest lights; Louis B. Mayer—the head of MGM, studio of the stars. Mayer had an ingenious idea. Why fight the unions, when you can make one? A union ran by the studios. He pitched his idea to the other moguls and thus was born the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences; an organization to handle worker disputes without the need of oversight.
Once formed the academy did exactly what the studio heads had wanted. It eliminated the need for any sort of unionizing effort. The only thing it lacked was legitimacy and—being Hollywood—glamor. At first, this was limited to a banquet and the awarding of honorary membership to a respected guest. This was not enough, they need more attention drawn to their union crushing milestone, something that would not only further glamorize their organization but attract new members to it thereby further reducing the risks of off-brand employee groups. Why not awards?
And on the seventh day God got gaudy…The Oscars were born.
Originally the Oscars were voted on by the studio heads. The process resembled more a trade room than a ballot box with each mogul lobbying to come away with enough awards to add prestige and box office success for their studio. So MGM could win Best Picture, but only after it was agreed the Warner’s would get Best Director and Best Screenplay and if they agreed, then Paramount could walk away with a couple of supporting actor awards, etc. I actually prefer this system to the modern one. It is less hypocritical. There is no such thing as a “best” in the art world when everyone is operating at their peak. It is all decided by the ability of the campaign arm of each studio. Might as well be honest and upfront about it and have the studios choose it themselves. They are the beneficiaries anyway.
The Oscar era we have grown up in could be best summarized as the Weinstein era. The era where the Oscars have become a central marketing tool. Sadly, the shrine to human filth that is Harvey Weinstein has had the biggest impact on the academy since being first televised, changing completely how campaigns are run. Oscar-winning movies always had a boost in box office and home video sales, it paled in comparison to how much Weinstein could squeeze out of marketing campaigns centered around an Oscar win.
He would become ruthless in his pursuit of statues. Starting controversies about competitors (ie, The Social Network and Zero Dark Thirty) or coercing Martin Scorsese into a sad and desperate campaign with the promise of securing a directing Oscar for Gangs of New York only to abandon Scorsese and the movie when Chicago started to gain ground. The Oscars may have had only pretension to art before, now they are merely a tool for a marketing campaign geared towards filling theater seats out of a sense of necessity rather than enjoyment. Many of these movies are alive and exciting. Now they are assigned to people like junior-high reading assignments. Something one must see out of obligation, not enjoyment.
The last full Oscar telecast I watched was in 2007 when Scorsese finally won his long-sought Best Director award. It meant a lot to me. I had held ridiculous grudges against Robert Redford and Kevin Costner for beating him when he had his best chances. I also looked down on the movies Ordinary People and Dances With Wolves for the same reason. With Marty finally securing a win all the goofy antagonism dissipated and I could go back and watch those movies without a sports mindset. They are both very good. Sure, I like Raging Bull and Goodfellas more but what does that matter? Do they not all have their own merits? And that is when I realized the damage caring about the Oscars has done to me as a movie-loving person.
Oscars have turned art into a sport. Now we have something to root for…and something to root against. But what are we gaining from it? What achievement are we marking? In football, a quarterback can throw a first down pass. We cheer because he made a first down. What exactly are we cheering at with the Oscars? A good movie was made months before and other people we do not know—who we probably would not respect—agree that it was better than this other solid movie. Better how? What was accomplished beyond the love of the movie we already have? Are we so limited that we cannot simply love two separate movies? Sometimes I feel like watching The Godfather. Sometimes I feel like watching Predator. Oh, one of them has an Oscar? Guess I am the idiot for finding both great in their own way. Thank god someone was there to tell me which were actually good. I believe it was Bogart who said, “the only way to find the best actor would be to let everybody play Hamlet and let the best man win”? All of these movies are great. Do not let this pointless competition affect your judgment of the movies themselves. In 2016 when The Revenant won Best Cinematography over the perfect Mad Max: Fury Road I was furious. Could they not see that Lubezki was doing what he had already done on The New World? Had he not already won two years in a row? Was Fury Road not the most exciting film to hit theaters in over a decade. Did it not deserve at least one of the premier awards for its brilliance? Dumb. The Revenant is beautifully shot, the same as Fury Road is. It is beautiful two films shot with that level of craft and sophistication came out in the same year. It is something to be cherished not denigrated because the one I enjoyed more was not given a bauble somehow signifying it “better.” I have not watched an Oscars telecast since.
All that being said, the Oscars do have positives. Receiving one can propel the career of difficult struggling artists whose films which are hard to market. Having an award mentioned on the poster goes a long way toward filling theater seats on future projects. I am the type of person that would seek out those movies anyway. I have to accept that many would not. A win that turns a movie into a hit could mean wonderful things for a director, writer, or actor. Bigger budgets, larger shooting schedules, long-dormant passion projects can suddenly be given new life. So though I will not be watching the Oscars again this year there is still a small voice inside of me hoping that one of the most exciting filmmakers of his generation will, if they win, make the most of it.