Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

07 March 2013

Why I Still Care about the Oscars

This was the most exciting Oscar year in recent memory. So many of us had no idea who was going to win what, and as it turned out there was even a tie. I was all about it. My friends and I drank heavily, ate brownies and cheesecake, and spent a lot of time criticizing Anne Hathaway's dress (which, in case you hadn't noticed got worse as the night went on because of all of the creasing that fabric did around her midriff.) When I woke up after the Oscar ceremony on February 25th, however, everyone was trashing the Oscars.

  • Andy Griffith wasn't in the "In Memoriam" tribute (with all of the people who passed away last year).
  • Lupe Ontiveros wasn't in the "In Memoriam" tribute.
  • Michelle Obama shouldn't have handed out Best Picture.
  • Ang Lee shouldn't have won for Best Director while places that do visual effects go bankrupt.
  • Seth MacFarlane was racist and sexist and not very funny.
So much griping! It almost ruined the good time I had while watching the Oscars. I don't want to say too much about all of this, but what I find most irritating about all of the criticisms of the Oscars is that people are mad that the Academy of Motion Pictures didn't do what they wanted the Academy to do. I love Lupe Ontiveros and I love Andy Griffith (I watched Matlock every day for five years, actually), but who cares if they are included in the Academy's tribute to the recently deceased? As Howard Beal says in Network, what's that got to do with the price of rice? There are more interesting things to complain about if you're gonna complain about the Academy than that Whitney Houston (she was left off last year) or Lupe Ontiveros or Farrah Fawcett (she was left off in 2010) didn't make the In Memoriam slideshow.

People are also complaining about Seth MacFarlane. He was racist and sexist and irritating. Um... I know these people saw Ted because it got an Oscar nomination, so I also know that they expected MacFarlane to be all of those things. I find him annoying at all times, but I was there for the awards and the stars, not Mr. MacFarlane. (The truth is, everyone trashes the Oscar host. Every single year. And so there was no way MacFarlane could win with this one. Though I prefer my entertainment to be less racist and sexist as a rule.)

Charlize is pissed!
As for the awards, I am always hearing, well so-and-so should have won that award. We want our favorites to do well. Understandably. Imagine, though, that there are 10 of us together in a room and we all attempt, together, to come up with the best movie of the year. It's true, perhaps, that Argo would not be at the top of our lists – maybe a few of us. But, then, our choices would probably be really contentious. My favorite movie of the year was Beasts of the Southern Wild. My friend Matthew's was Compliance. Julie's was Zero Dark Thirty. Michael's was The Master. Now, I pretty much hated Compliance, though I really liked the other two. But my friends are equally negative about my favorites and each other's favorites. Of course they are.

Turns out, people don't all like the same things.

So, Best Picture is always going to be a film that people can agree on. A likeable, fairly good film, that a majority of people can get behind. Your typical winner is The King's Speech or Chicago or Slumdog Millionaire or Braveheart. None of these films is particularly brilliant. None is particularly heinous. My point is that The Hurt Locker and No Country for Old Men and Silence of the Lambs are outliers. They are the exception not the rule. The rule is Titanic and Forrest Gump and Gladiator.

But I love the Academy Awards. I love them because they make a list of some of the important films that captured the popular year in film. I love them even more because they work like a kind of baseline against which to make our own lists. They draw attention to specific aspects of film. During the Oscars, some friends and I were griping about the film scores that we were nominated. Dayne didn't like any of them except Dario Marianelli's Anna Karenina score, a score I thought was sort of boring. My response was: The best scores of the year are The Master, Skyfall, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Lincoln, and Cloud Atlas. These are facts.

I think my point is that what the Oscars do is give us a frame for choosing our own favorites – for sharing these favorites with each other (sometimes heatedly, I will admit), and more importantly, for seeing other movies.

But I don't care if my favorites win the Oscar or not. I am happy when they do, of course; it means all sorts of pay raises and awareness, etc. But a good film is still a good film.

The bad part about this year's Oscars was that there weren't as many films in total nominated as usual. More films and more actors need more attention, and the Academy focuses that attention every year, so they need to spread that love around!

A little perspective. I live in a small city in New Hampshire at the moment, so I don't have much access to films as they come out. I'm catching up on 2012 right now: last night I saw Ann Hui's quiet, beautiful film A Simple Life and a day or two ago I saw a cute Flemish romantic film with two teenage boys called North Sea, Texas and last week I finally got to see Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's The Kid with a Bike. These films are all pretty excellent, and all got great reviews, but they're not in our multiplexes (they don't come to Hanover NH) and so fewer people see them than see the big bad behemoths like Les Misérables. If we want to talk about the Academy ignoring films or actors or directors, we ought to start with the excellent cinema coming from places around the world that are not the United States. There are some awesome films out there that aren't even on the Academy's radar.

I've started to ramble, but what I want to make sure I say is that the Academy is going to get it wrong. Of course six thousand odd people aren't all going to agree with you. This is a surprise?

I try not to spend time hoping they'll agree with me. I prefer to compare my own tastes to the Academy's. Like I would with any old friend.