The late David Foster Wallace was, it may not surprise you to learn, no fan of the Academy Awards.
“We pretty much all tune in,” Wallace wrote in Premiere, “despite the grotesquerie of watching an industry congratulate itself on the pretense [that film is] still an art form, of hearing people in $5,000 gowns invoke lush cliches of surprise and humility scripted by publicists.”
I was an editor and chief film critic at Premiere when Wallace published those words in 1998, and his opinions were, to put it mildly, not within the mainstream of what the magazine represented. I certainly didn’t think that the disparity he cited between what Hollywood does as an industry and where cinema sits as an art form entirely deserved that crack about pretense. But much of what he wrote is not so easily refutable, even nearly two decades on — in fact, I’d argue that many aspects of the ceremony have only gotten more nakedly two-faced. So, no — I’m not much of an Oscar fan, either.
I can guess what a few of you are thinking: All right, here’s another one of those film-buff bores who can’t get over the fact that How Green Was My Valley beat Citizen Kane for best picture. Not quite. I think How Green Was My Valley is a great film, and it’s not that movie’s fault that its aesthetic was more ostensibly Academy-friendly than Orson Welles’s maverick movie. Similar considerations have informed my acceptance of Ordinary People (a picture I respect but don’t love) “beating” Raging Bull, or Dances With Wolves (a picture I don’t have a strong opinion on) “beating” Goodfellas. As for Martin Scorsese finally getting his best director Oscar for a movie that cannot by any yardstick be said to reflect a career high — I’m talking about The Departed, a film I enjoy in spite of its glaring flaws — my feeling is, well, that’s life.
Over the years, I’ve befriended some film industry professionals, and I admit there are movies that I’m passionate about to the extent that when I see them nominated, I’ll root for them. But at the end of the night, there’s little trauma involved if my guy or woman lost. And when I remind myself that the Oscars have their origins as a scheme to head off organized labor, when mogul Louis B. Mayer concocted the Academy to be a studio-run alternative to unions — I come around, again, to believing that the art of film, such as it is, really doesn’t need the Oscars.
No matter what anybody tells you, the fact that the Oscar exists is not the sole reason that good movies can or will get made in Hollywood.
This year, the Oscars are the focus of an important movement pushing for more, as well as more meaningful, diversity in popular entertainment. Considering the symbolic status the awards hold over the industry, this is admirable. Yet in another sense, the “Oscars So White” campaign bestows on the Academy Awards more credibility than they arguably deserve.
But, some will say, the Oscars are fun. Are they really? Following what I’ve heard more than one film professional call “the silly season” can be diverting — if you can also manage to filter out everything potentially repellent about it. The journalist or critic covering, or just keeping up with, Oscar campaigns (because, let’s face it, all pre-statuette action is an Oscar campaign) is obligated to consume an awful lot of pompous, humorless, strident, and self-important prose. And if you really think that the Oscars should be “all about the movies,” consider that some estimate that, collectively, studios spend as much as $150 million a year on their Oscars campaigns. That’s three to 10 potentially fun movies — maybe even great ones — that won’t get made because of the Oscars.
A proposed innovation this year will try encouraging winners to eschew a tedious list of “thank yous” by showing the recipients of gratitude on an on-screen scroll, from a list each nominee submitted in advance. But the idea that this will free up the recipient to do much more than concoct more cliches — believe-in-yourself bromides, rather than sucking up to various studio bosses, agents, and hangers-on — is dubious.
Then there’s the, yes, “pretense” of honoring the art form, as Wallace put it. Well, how can you not admit it’s at least partly a pretense now that the Academy has exiled the lifetime achievement awards to an off-site dinner? The Academy’s disinclination to give older performers and craftspeople — the industry’s most experienced and accomplished artists — their time in the television spotlight is shameful. It casts the hypocrisy of the show’s self-congratulation in the harsh light it deserves.
What it might boil down to is this, and I think this is true for all of us, if we’re being entirely honest: We love the films we love for themselves, not because they’ve received some award. My relationship to The Silence of the Lambs is not affected one iota by the knowledge that it’s the first and only out-and-out horror movie to win a best picture Oscar. That’s a handy tidbit to have with you on Pub Trivia Night. But beyond that? You tell me.
ESTIMATED BOX-OFFICE BOOST FROM AN AWARD WIN:
> Value of a Golden Globe — $14.2 million
> Value of an Academy Award — $3 million
Source: Edmund Helmer, Reuters, 2013