There’s this funny joke that goes something like this, why does a dog lick his own balls? The answer; because he can. Why does the Academy vote the way they do? Because they can.
The Academy has made concerted efforts to diversify their membership with more voters of color and women. Of course, it’s like pissing in the ocean, truth be told, because the whiteness is overwhelming and added to every year. Look at all ten writing nominees: mostly white dudes except the Birdman writers. Directors: four white guys and one Hispanic director. There are women in the producing category and in one in editing. There are two women directors in the documentary race. The power seat remains white males. Something has to change. For their sake – or else they risk really being written off as an exclusive club that caters only to a certain kind of person – they no more represent the face of America than our government does. What are their choices? Improvise, adapt, overcome. What is their alternative? Let them eat cake. We all know how well that turns out.
On Bill Maher’s Real Time last night he made several jokes about the lack of diversity of the Oscar movies, and it was clear that the audience agreed – but there was also a sense that there was an even bigger problem with the Oscars: they have become mostly irrelevant except to note their lack of diversity. As guest on the program, Kathryn Bigelow acknowledged there a big problem and that it was, frankly, “embarrassing.”
The culture is evolving around them and they’re staying the same. You can make the argument that, well, who cares? These are the films they think are best. The only problem with that is their annual telecast is supposed to be an all-inclusive event like the Super Bowl. But the Super Bowl is a game where two teams played against other teams to emerge as the best of the year. It is fair, it is not discriminatory. The Oscars reflect the singular tastes of its pampered, cut off, privileged ruling class. Why does a dog lick his own balls?
Their problem: they are too white, too male and too cut off from the people who consume their products. Their choices represent a sampling of what the studios have pre-selected FOR THEM. They were given films publicists knew they would like and so they did. They were given films the pundits knew they would vote for and so they did. The public is cut off entirely from the process as they spend their hard earned money on movies like Gone Girl, Guardians of the Galaxy and The Lego Movie, the Academy has the option to … let them eat cake while still asking us to care about their dumb TV show. Why should we care? Why should we even watch?
Change is slow and painful. Back in 1992 Kim Basinger took the stage. She was a nervous wreck, sweating, shaking but she shamed the Academy audience for shutting out Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, a film that earned a single acting nomination for Danny Aiello, one of the few white characters. That was a long time ago. Fruitvale Station and The Butler were completely shut out last year. The only film with a black director other than 12 Years to make any dent in the Oscar race was Lee Daniels’ Precious. But Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, shut out. And now, Selma makes Best Picture but doesn’t earn actor or director or writer. Take my word for it, this is a bad thing for Selma. It isn’t a bad thing for Ava DuVernay. It’s a bad thing for the Academy.
By this point it’s almost better NOT to be recognized by them. This whole debate has diminished the films that WERE selected, which isn’t fair. There is a certain sweet justice about their full on shut out of Gone Girl because it revealed two things about them: you pay to play. Gone Girl virtually no advertising. 2) they need bad girls to be punished, something Gillian Flynn made a joke out of in her magnificent script. To not acknowledge that script or that film, which walked away with the zeitgeist in 2014 and will be talked about in ten years as Fincher’s career evolves, really does put them in the mostly irrelevant category. That’s bad for them and their established place in cinema, but especially American cinema, and especially studio fare.
How can they change? Two ways.
1. Shift the voting deadline so we’re not getting the Academy’s “pure” tastes.
These are not uncaring people. These are not racists. These are not sexists or misgoynists. They’re not terrible people they are simply doing what they like to do BECAUSE THEY CAN. They are most white men so they trust mostly white men to tell the kinds of stories they like.The only way to help them out of their self-pleasuring behavior is to socialize them with other dogs — make their nomination ballot come much later so that they can get a read on the public’s choices, the zeitgeist films, the history making movies like Selma that came out so late in the game it was really hard for it to do what American Sniper did – crash the race in the major categories.
The film critics aren’t much help. Their idea of activism is to rally support for Marion Cotillard. That pretty much sums up the film critics’ contribution this year and it worked. Good for them, good for her, good for the Academy. But remember, neither New York nor Los Angeles nor the National Society of Film Critics honored 12 Years a Slave for the Oscar but the Oscar voters HAD to pay attention because the chatter forced them to. Many of them admitted to not even wanting to watch the film. Many admitted they voted for it to do the right thing. However they get there it’s better than the alternative – not getting there.
If they shift their voting deadline to much later, after the DGA, after the Golden Globes, after the Critic Choice they have a chance to redeem themselves by being part of a larger conversation. Even then, we’re mostly in licking their own balls territory because it’s as much an industry wide problem as it is an Oscar problem.
2. Expand their Best Picture slate to ten nomination slots. This is key to helping them adapt to the modern world. If they go back to five, you’re going to get movies about white heroes overcoming obstacles to win the day. But for the Wolf of Wall Street or the Django Unchained. The idea is to break them of that self-inflicted cancer known as the “Oscar movie. You do that by giving them a range of options. Back when they had ten nomination slots they were awarding movies like Winter’s Bone, District 9, Toy Story 3, Inception, and more. The had choices that didn’t have to make them choose between this movie about a hero who wins the day and that movie about an anti-hero.
Why does that matter? Because it’s the only way to stay relevant. They punish success in the Academy and certainly have this year. We know Imitation Game and American Sniper will make money but there is simply no good reason for them not to have honored one of the highest grossing films of the year, especially when the Producers Guild, Editors Guild honored the film. We get it – if a movie like Gone Girl makes men feel like their balls are being squeezed hard mostly male industry voters ain’t going for it. But it’s their loss to reject something everyone was talking about all year, a movie many adults paid money to see. That is what the Oscars used to be about – relevant zeitgeist movies – as opposed to a representation of singular preferences, aka a dog licking his own balls.
With ten you can honor the best of the independent film scene and the best of big box office. That makes your award show relevant, exciting, modern…Where will they be in ten years if they don’t figure out how to honor the way Hollywood is changing? They will be as marginalized as the Tony Awards. They already almost are.
Finally, I hear complaints from readers and people on Twitter from men who tired of this debate. They’re tired of feeling persecuted. Europeans especially don’t understand America’s diversity problem. When Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave won last year it was this awkward conversation about a British black man winning Best Picture for the first time. There’s a huge difference between a British black man and an American black man. They haven’t been subjugated in Britain for nearly the same amount of time.They don’t have a current and ongoing problem with racism like we do here. There is no excuse for the Academy not to have honored Ava DuVernay, nor any excuse for the DGA (although they didn’t get screeners). There is no excuse for the press to play into the hand of dirty Oscar campaigning by helping them kill Selma, giving voters a reason not to watch the screener (you know many of them did not).
What does it matter if Kathryn Bigelow gets in or Ava DuVernay or Gillian Flynn for Gone Girl? It starts to level the playing field. It gives women more power in Hollywood and it helps to diminish the image of sexism in the industry overall. They also deserve it, though we all know from playing this game for years and years – deserves got nothing to do with it.