Renée Graham

The Populist Academy Awards? [eye roll]

An Oscar statue inside the ballroom at the 89th Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon in Beverly Hills, Calif.
An Oscar statue inside the ballroom at the 89th Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon in Beverly Hills, Calif.Danny Moloshok/Invision/APb

Oscars so desperate?

That’s exactly what cultural elitists are saying about the Academy Awards’ addition of a new category: “outstanding achievement in popular film.” Those are the kinds of big box office movies that “real” people enjoy — unlike this year’s best picture winner with that deaf woman falling for some kind of yucky man-sized sea urchin.

(For the record, I adored Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” but then I’ve been called an elitist.)

Think of these as the Populist Oscars — now with a category for people who like their steaks well-done, smothered in ketchup, and washed down with a Diet Coke or four.


It sure took those Hollywood types long enough to figure out that neglecting each year’s commercial hits was a recipe for failure. Perhaps they finally learned that crushing lesson when this year’s ratings for the Oscar ceremony cratered to its lowest in history. In 1998, the year of “Titanic,” more than 55 million people watched the Oscars; 20 years later, that number dropped to 26.5 million.

Now the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hopes to garner something from all those money-gobbling movies it has generally ignored: massive viewership.

With the pretense of “separate but equal” as American as a white supremacist rally in the nation’s capital, the Academy is keeping its sharp line between art films and popular movies. Still, we now have the potential to hear, “And the Oscar goes to. . . ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp!’ ”

Whichever film takes the popular prize, it’ll be just one more winner you’ll have forgotten by the next year’s ceremony.

Film critics, of course, are already clacking about what a disaster this is for God and country. They don’t understand. Sloshed on its own self-importance, the Academy will do anything to attract more eyeballs to its annual prom. If you build it, they will come to see T’Challa, Deadpool, and a computer-generated T-Rex compete for those coveted gold statuettes.


Let’s face it — the Oscars have always been a popularity contest. If the year’s best actress or best film actually wins, it tends to be a happy accident. Who wins often has more to do with expensive studio campaigns designed to push its nominees across the finish line.

Then there’s the strange idea of someone being “due” for the big prize. Al Pacino was snubbed for “The Godfather, Part II” and “Serpico.” Years later, he won for “Scent of a Woman” because voters believed he was “due.” Never mind that his performance was so hammy, it almost convinced me to give up pork for life.

Same with Leonardo DiCaprio taking home the prize for 2015’s “The Revenant.” There was such a swell to get Leo an Oscar, you’d have thought it was an organ donation drive.

The Academy Awards is an infomercial for fashion designers, jewelry makers, advertisers, and Hollywood. These scrappy popular films, with their nine-figure budgets and ginormous box office hauls, need the extra attention as much as the wealthy need a tax cut.

Still, even as the Oscars add, it’ll also subtract. That interminable four-hour ceremony will be slimmed down to three hours, mostly at the expense of so-called “smaller” categories. Great sound or film editing is no less vital to a movie’s success than a lead actress or director. Yet the Academy will consign some of those awards to commercial breaks, then shove them into an edited montage dropped later in the show. Stealing even a brief spotlight from those who toil hard and mostly anonymously behind the scenes feels like just another sign of our ungracious times.


This is also an age when we have in the White House a man who believes ratings are everything. That makes the Oscars’ move very on trend. It is merely doing whatever it can to get viewers, especially younger ones, to start watching their show again. It likely won’t end there. But at least it hasn’t plunged to the Emmys’ 2017 depths by inviting some complicit Trump administration castoff onto its stage for awkward laughs.

Well, at least not yet.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.