The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah sent Film Twitter into a rage spiral when he spoke honestly about how he views the “Oscar movies.”
Let’s be honest, some Oscar-nominated films feel like the vegetables of movies pic.twitter.com/OTbyzaBYCQ
— The Daily Show (@TheDailyShow) March 27, 2022
Just to be clear: Trevor Noah did not say the movies are bad. He said he knows they are good. He just doesn’t watch them because to him it is like eating your vegetables.
An honest opinion about anything is a rare commodity in 2022, but it is nonetheless a valuable one. This is, in my opinion, a question that should be listened to, not rejected. Someone told me what he said was “divisive and destructive.” Really? How so? Just because you don’t want something to be true doesn’t mean it isn’t true. It is true. Why not, instead, try to examine why this might be.
I noticed a long while back that people didn’t want to watch the movies up for Best Picture. They already know going in what they are going to be. My daughter used to say, as her generation believed, that they were “Oscar movies,” and they were always the same movie. Those of us who cover the race know that this isn’t true, but it is the perception. It was a joke, by the way. Whenever she has been forced by me to watch them she always likes them. A few movies of late that they devoured were Parasite and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. A lot has changed, though, since 2020. Movies have changed. The Oscars have changed. The Best Picture contenders have changed.
What is it about them that makes people want to avoid them, and is it the same thing that makes people not want to watch the Oscars? Are these things connected?
Throughout most of Oscar history, this wasn’t a problem. Movies were seen by the public before they were “Oscar movies.” They were already popular heading into the ceremony. They already had their feet planted firmly in the American psyche. They were a part of us, and therefore we did not need any films critics or awards voters to talk us into watching them. They had made it through the studio system, hit the free market, made a decent amount of money, and sometimes captured the zeitgeist.
I have been covering the Oscars through this exact moment of change. The first Best Picture winner was Gladiator when I started. How do you get from a big studio movie to a teeny tiny Apple-TV streaming movie out of Sundance? That has been the last 20 years.
When I first started I did not think movies like Gladiator or the other movies released that year, Traffic, Erin Brockovich, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Chocolat (somehow) would be movies that would never be made nor consumed by general audiences. Crouching Tiger was a Best Picture nominee because it ripped through the culture like wildfire. Ditto Erin Brockovich. Traffic was there because Steven Soderbergh had directed it, and critics liked it. The public liked it okay, but it wasn’t the crowdpleasers Gladiator, Crouching Tiger, and Erin Brockovich were. Chocolat was there because it was the early stages of Harvey Weinstein’s eternal grip on the Oscars, starting the trend of bringing films to Oscar voters they would like rather than allowing the organic process to play out:
Studios make movies
People watch movies
Oscar voters vote on the most successful and good movies.
If you look at the box office from the years 2000 and 2001 you will see the array of movies on offer and how much money they made. All of the Best Picture nominees were $100 million dollar babies. Christ, even Chocolat made $70 million. Chocolat!
Obviously, back then, I could not have foreseen how all of it would change and how fast. The industry I helped build became an Oscar factory that hunted down movies Oscar voters would like, ran them through the new community of film criticism – hundreds of critics all over the country gather on Twitter and decide, like a hive mind, what the best and most cool movies are per their specific tastes. It used to be that reviews dropped the Thursday night before the movie opened so moviegoers could read the reviews before hitting the theaters.
The Oscars were exciting because people had seen the movies.
I always thought that my job would be about finding the movies that were actually good, versus the movies the Oscar voters chose because no film snob I knew thought their choices were very good. But that’s because I didn’t realize that, at some point, it would all go away. I didn’t realize that the Oscars would shrink as the awards watching industry ballooned.
Now I know for sure that the Oscars was a thriving industry when I started and now it appears to be either heading for extinction or being put out to pasture. Why can’t they matter like they used to? Why can’t it still be a thriving industry? How can we get back to that?
People don’t watch them because they already know what they’re going to be because they’ve become accustomed to the whole process of naming Academy movies. They’ve come a long way from the zeitgeist or box office or water coolers. They are now like the food they serve at restaurants. All of the sophisticated foodies know about, but no one else does because the second everyone else finds out about them, they aren’t cool anymore.
Already the Oscar machine is whirred up on this site and everywhere else to tell us what the “Oscar movies” will be. These movies are answering the call inside the insular industry of awards watching, film criticism and the showbiz industry. They have to somehow resonate with them to land a spot in the race. But by the time they get there, it could be argued, what have they won exactly? If their success is only measured by this strange game, how is that success at all?
Already the public’s reaction to the movies doesn’t matter. These awards will be decided in a bubble that measures ONLY artistic quality. So why would we expect anyone outside of this bubble to be interested? And if they were interested, the critics would probably be less interested in them. Ideally, the Oscars are both.
Way back in their early days they were about both, from Inside Oscar:
“Coming up with categories for the Awards was tough, especially since Warner Brothers had introduced talking pictures with The Jazz Singer in late 1927. Because the talkie had caused such a sensation, the Awards Committee decided it was unfair to make silent pictures compete with it, and The Jazz Singer was ruled ineligible for either of the two Best Picture awards. The”Best Production” Award would go to “the most outstanding motion picture considering all elements that contribute to a picture’s greatness.” On the other hand, the “Artistic Quality of Production” Award would honor “The Producing Company, or Producer, who produced the most artistic, unique and/or original motion picture without reference to cost or magnitude.”
After that year, they got rid of it and just kept “Best Picture” as a single award that goes to the producer. I think it is a much higher bar to attract the general public than the attention of critics or awards bloggers like me. But that isn’t going to change until our country changes, which it will, dramatically, in the next 20 or 30 years.
Ironically, the Oscars were formed because Louis B. Mayor wanted to have a tighter grip on studio employees to push back against union negotiations. They also thought they could help “clean up” Hollywood movies to be in compliant of the Hays Code. This rigidity in Hollywood films would last all the way until the 1960s when the whole thing would explode into a cultural revolution that changed everything.
If you think about the “Great Awokening” and its impact on everything, from casting to thematic content, to a kind of puritanical grip on storytelling it does recall the beginnings of the Hays Code and how it fundamentally altered storytelling.
One of the reasons the Will Smith/Chris Rock story was so captivating is that it was real. There was no covering up what happened because everyone saw it with their own eyes. Despite the pretense of the Academy and the presentation of who they are, a moment of raw human behavior pierced the veneer.
It is, I think, the lack of this kind of fundamental truth in films, especially Oscar films that has made so many of the “Oscar movies” seem to anyone outside of our well-oiled machine like rigid, boring slogs. It isn’t that people don’t think they will be good movies. They know they will. As to Noah’s point, just as you know, eating a big salad every day or your broccoli is good. But that isn’t necessarily what you want to eat if given a choice. The Oscars are vegetables, as Trevor Noah says. We all have to find a way, collectively, to make them not that.
People already know going in that they will not have moments that feel real or result from daring, brilliant storytelling. The tastemakers would have long since canceled those movies. Like the passengers in Wall-E who are only given a limited slate of things to eat or watch. Likewise, people like me and the Oscar watching community limit what becomes the small stack for Oscar voters to choose from. If we want the Oscars to be better, we have to be better. We have to be more forgiving, more open, and more willing to imagine a different scenario playing out than always second-guessing what Oscar voters will do and then being their personal shoppers when they sit down to vote.