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Why Do We Care About the Oscars?

Go here to see the list of 2014 Oscar nominees.

<> on October 19, 2009 in Santa Clarita, California.
An army of sword-wielding Oscars. 

Tonight, the film world turns its weary eyes toward a dapper bald man named Oscar, who will be going home with at least 24 different people (because there are 24 categories). Wow. That Oscar is a real man-whore. I refer, of course, to the 85th Academy Awards, which, by the way, is now officially just called The Oscars, effective this year. But do we even still care about the Oscars? And if so, why?  Joaquin Phoenix sure seems to think they are pointless, and don’t tell that notorious method actor any differently for he will likely slip back into character as Johnny Cash and shoot you just to watch you die, even if you are not at the moment in Reno, Nevada.  So, maybe it is best to start by answering the question of whether or not I personally care about the Oscars.

The Oscars have always been at least kind of fun for me.  As someone who gravitated more and more toward the subject of history throughout school, the Oscars were a natural fit for me.  It is 85 years of film history broken down into memorizable names, dates, and events. What’s not to love, and I say that without a trace of sarcasm?  Beyond hitting a history student’s sweet spot the way baseball does for statisticians, the Oscars also seemed a valuable resource to determine which classic films were mandatory viewing.

This all, of course, horribly misses the point of the Oscars. Because, as everyone knows, the real point of the Oscars is…is…wait, I know this one. I want to say to keep those damn unions in line. No, that’s why the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) was founded by Louis B. Mayer in the first place. So, why do the Oscars even exist again? Because Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., the first president of the AMPAS, decided they needed to have “awards of merit for distinctive achievement.”  That is all fine and good for 1927, but Fairbanks had no way of knowing the Oscars would, with alarming consistency, historically fail to award films, performances, and directors that history ultimately deemed to be classic. As such, talking about the Oscars often means talking about the things you liked which they either failed to nominate or did nominate but gave the award to something else (I’m looking at you Crash and Shakespeare In Love).

This upset Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture in 1998. Truth be told, I only saw it for the first time last year.  Glorified Shakespeare porn? Yeah. But, dangnamit, it’s delightful.

The Oscars are a cross-sectional snapshot of the majority opinion of the AMPAS’ membership at the time of the voting window allotted them before the actual show.  Based on Entertainment Weekly’s annual profiles of anonymous AMPAS members and their explanations of the who and why of their voting we’re dealing with some serious response bias issues here. So, yeah, the methodology (spelled out in more detail here) features some severe, inherent limitations, but expecting AMPAS to pass the academic smell test for rigorous scientific standards is a bit much.  Relatedly, historical mistakes have certainly damaged the validity of the awards. However, it is still fun to talk about, right?  That’s what I thought until…

I remember the cinephile faux pas well.  A sophomore in college, I had just asked my Writing About Film course instructor whether or not he had watched the Oscars over the weekend.  My fellow students made not a noise while the Big Giant Brain, an odd-sounding but truly affectionate nickname I had developed for the professor whose level of film knowledge I so admired, paused presumably to ponder my wide-eyed query.  What followed this pause was a rather respectful and articulate, “No, and here’s why…,” but what I heard was, “You watch the Oscars?  Get out!  There is no room for your kind among the true film lovers of the world!”  Again, he in no way actually said that, but his intelligent breakdown of subjective vs. objective and rejection of the Oscars based upon its shaky presupposition of bestowing objective greatness upon that which is inherently subjective made me feel wholly inadequate.

Maybe the Big Giant Brain was right, which is about what you’d expect given that nickname. Why are we even attempting to award art in this manner? Even if you can accept the notion of awarding art being valid the method by which the Academy does it is flawed, as described above.  So, why do we even care about the Oscars?  We know why Hollywood cares.  The Oscars can have a beneficial impact on a film’s box office and can make a person’s career.  However, again, why do we care?

I’ve seen arguments that if you like film you watch the Oscars, you just do, the same way an American football fan watches the Super Bowl.  But why?  There are any number of answers.  Tradition (i.e., we care because we’ve always cared), celebrity-worship, the competition, the build-up during awards season, validation (the thing we like winning an award validates our view of it), to see how the host does (i.e. the spectacle of it all), etc. I think a lot of is due to tradition and that the Oscars still feels like a big event, even after so many other awards shows have become televised occasions in the recent past. As part of that event atmosphere, the Oscars make for a communal experience. For example, have you ever entered into Oscar ballot competitions? Holy crap! It’s like March Madness but with movies instead of college basketball. In fact, one of my most enjoyable Oscars viewing experiences came when everyone in my family completed ballots beforehand and were keeping score throughout the show to see who would have guessed correctly most often. I don’t even recall who won, just that we were all guessing blindly in the short film categories.

So, should I now, in closing, give you my picks for who should/will win?  Nah.  But I’ll tell you which of the nominated films I’ve seen I liked the most, and it is far and away Silver Linings Playbook.  It is in several ways as much of a standard Hollywood movie as Argo, particularly the standard genre manipulation and plotting of the last act.  However, it just askew enough to still work and feel fresh, and I find its treatment of mental illness respectful and enlightening (others do not share this opinion).  Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence as the romantic pair at the center of the film deliver astounding lead performances, and will now undoubtedly endure a wishful public longing for the two to become a couple in real life (which ain’t going away since they play a married couple in a movie coming out later this year).  And for the first time since I can’t remember when I was genuinely moved by a Robert De Niro performance.  Two of my favorite scenes from any films of last year come from this movie, one being De Niro’s bedside chat with Cooper about wanting to spend time together and Jennifer Lawrence watching Cooper read a letter said to be from his estranged wife.

Jennifer Lawrence & Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook. A perfectly framed shot from the film. Dysfunctional in foreground, seemingly functional in background.  Not subtle, but effective.

So, should the Oscars bestow awards upon Silver Linings Playbook it shall validate my view of the film, and if not it will prove just how stupid they are.  Wait, that doesn’t really make any sense, does it?  But, then again, that’s just the Oscars for you.

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