So much has changed in the 22 years I’ve been writing about the Oscars. I see my own influence on the race, partly good and partly bad. I think making an effort to push for more inclusion was good, but I think making the awards deserving for only that reason was not so good. I think trying to put the focus more on critically acclaimed, artistically daring films was good, but I think where film criticism has arrived in 2022 and how they believe they have ownership of the Oscars themselves is not so good.
Like almost every other area of American culture, the Oscars are at a crossroads. They’ve been here for a while now. The Academy is caught between the old world and the new. They are caught between pleasing a vocal minority online and a larger majority outside of it. There seems to be a perfect storm of forces conspiring to destroy the Oscars, not intentionally but unintentionally. It is a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth. It is a case of tinkering with something that can never attain perfection since the definitions keep changing.
It is a case of a profit margin and bottom line that many complaining about what the Academy has to do to survive do not understand. Why can’t they just be our secret private happy world, they say. Why do the Oscars hate the people who love them most, they write. But the truth is the hive mind on Twitter and people like me have put way too much pressure on the Academy to right the wrongs of our culture and serve a much higher purpose than they were ever meant to serve. The end result is a telecast that is way too tightly wound, way too afraid of everything people might accuse them of.
Their latest plan to fix the Oscars isn’t a good idea and risks alienating the small core of loyal viewers who do still watch the Oscars, but these changes came after their loyal fans forced every host off the air, mocked their attempts to honor “popular” films and pushed them towards honoring more niche films and ignoring crowdpleasers. They have shaped the Oscars to be what they like – basically not that different from the AFI awards or the Spirit Awards. These kinds of films are great – they really are. But there is something about all of it that feels like it is getting smaller and smaller.
In their effort to please everyone they have ended up pleasing almost no one.
When people say there is no problem they are in denial. There is a problem. The ratings are a problem. The fact that young people no longer care about the Oscars because they see them as no longer honoring films that are deserving but rather to serve social justice activism. There is a problem because an elite group that shuts out a larger majority can’t really survive – or thrive. Not for long. Sooner or later they will become like Bates Motel – forgotten off the main interstate and god only knows what’s going on in those rooms.
So first, let’s ask ourselves, what is the purpose of the Oscars? Is it to fix every problem in our culture? Is it to correct and erase our problematic past? Is it to be part of a political movement of social justice? Is it to back up the Democratic Party? Or is it to drive money to the film industry? Is it to entertain the majority of viewers who might tune in on a Sunday night? Is it to celebrate the best the film industry has to offer? Is it about high achievement or is it about high art?
Here is what I think the purpose of the Oscars has always been: to recognize and award high achievements in film. That high achievement could be making a film when the odds are against you making it. A film that makes a lot of money in the middle of a pandemic. A film that is so good it lights a fire in your mind and your heart. A film that greatly moves a lot of people at once.
I have never thought the purpose of the Oscars should be to right the wrongs of society, but that they should exclude people based on their own preconceptions or biases. I think the Oscars used to be an enormous opportunity to be appreciated and open doors for artists and craftspeople. But looking to them to satisfy a need for spirituality or political leadership is misguided at best. Suffocating and ruinous at worst.
Their purpose in American culture and increasingly internationally is to be a communal gathering place to celebrate great stories. The stories, if told well, do not require a person have a specific set of beliefs or belong to a certain tribe. Great stories are timeless and universal. In the past ten years or so there has been an inclination to look at the art, like everything else, from the perspective of marginalized groups – the judge them on what they perpetuate (Native Americans being treated like savages, or maids hovering in the background unseen). Once a judgment is rendered, there is the idea that the work then becomes worthless.
But it isn’t worthless. It just requires a broader understanding of who people were at the time, the tools they had to work with and what their perceptions were. The modern ideology revolves around people or institutions being “good” or “bad.” Somehow this is expected to be displayed on our virtual selves in some fashion. We have Black Lives Matter in our .sig file. We condemn the latest purge of an undesirable. We only support films that send the “right” message and are made by “good” people. When you step back from it you can see how crazy it all sounds. But you also know that this is how we change. Some of that was necessary. But now, we’ve reached the point of over-correction.
Even through the 1970s there were movies like The Godfather that could still be seen as universal because their whole point was to tell good stories not to serve a political agenda. Now, it should go without saying that Hollywood did center around white people. Through the 1970s the percentage of white to black in America was 87% to 11%. By 2020 that percentage was 61% to 11%. Hispanics rose from 4% in 1970 to 18% in 2020. With the white population declining, it makes sense that there would be shifts in perspectives and demographics. But the desire to diminish or suppress the white majority in films or at awards shows is a distortion of who the Academy and the industry are. The Academy membership is still 80% white and 70% male. That they must use people of color to signal their own devotion to diversity, equity and inclusion comes off as performative to almost everyone except those who demand them to follow these requirements.
Now throughout the film and television industry, casting decisions, subject matter and awards shows reflect what the loud minority of social justice advocates on Twitter want or else they will be attacked and boycotted. Social media gives anyone power of voice and the ability to mobilize a movement. That is power to the people never seen in American history. That makes the corporations scared of bad press. When your virtue signaling dominates then it becomes propaganda and is no longer effective as art or entertainment.
Even as I write this, which is nothing new to my readers, I know that there is a pretty good chance someone will flip out by something I’ve written, take a screen shot and send it out for a Twitter beatdown. That kind of fear is everywhere all of the time. It is in every decision the Academy and the industry makes. It is in every green light and every hiring decision. Their answer is simply: no white men ever, not anywhere, ever that can be seen by Twitter. Not as awards hosts, not as awards winners, not as celebrated icons of cinematic achievement. It CANNOT be that way ever.
We already know the Academy has their balls to the wall at the moment. Their ratings were at a catastrophic all time low last year. This, because not only was it a strange event at a strange time in our history but it was essentially a majority of white people hiding behind a group of Black presenters and in the end, Chadwick Boseman did not win Best Actor. It did seem like they were wearing a costume on Oscar night, one that made them look like a group that did not reflect the reality of who they are.
Wanda Sykes is a good start. She is funny. She is subversive and she is daring. Going forward, their objective should be: how to entertain rather than how to instruct or lecture or pander. It is not their job to right the wrongs of society. Representation does matter and they have more than proved their willingness and efforts to diversify. I would also dump the inclusivity mandate they have in place for 2024. That alone makes the general public believe going in that the awards are a foregone conclusion, that the people who win awards only win them to make the voters look good or to avoid the damaging headlines the next day. That isn’t fair to people who win awards.
The Academy should continue to be as big as they once were. Once we move out of the COVID phase we will have the market back. Can we start to move back to the place where movies like Dune, for instance, or The Last Duel (which should have been nominated) can be the norm at the Oscars again – where the “Oscar movie” might mean grand spectacle, sweeping epic, rather than a tiny Sundance movie. I think they can. I believe they can. That, more than anything, will always be their purpose.