Full disclosure: I did not watch the Oscars live on Sunday. In fact, I have not done so for a few years now - family stuff usually gets in the way. If you had told my preteen self that such a thing would happen decades later, he - I? - would probably have had a seizure. For all the dismay the Academy brings to adult cinephiles, the truth is that the event was a formative experience for many critics and film lovers. Star gawking is a less powerful enticement now that we live in the age of social media, but we are suckers at heart. We love to make an emotional investment in any competition, no matter how silly it can be. It is a glitch in human nature, responsible for sport leagues, beauty pageants, and many reality shows.
I still have enough consideration for the value of a surprise that I renounced social media for 24 hours, from the moment the red carpet coverage started, until Monday afternoon when the complete telecast was available for streaming on Hulu. Thumbnails on the landing page spoiled some winners, but I did not mind too much, as they unveiled the most predictable outcomes.
There are many problems with the Oscars, which are, in turn, a reflection of those in the industry. Recent efforts to increase diversity among the ranks have made some dents into the traditional whiteness of the institution. Change comes slowly in any institution with almost a century of existence. Sometimes resistance comes from the least expected sources. Paul Schrader shared his diagnosis of the problem in a trollish social media post.
It is not news that a septuagenarian holds an opinion out of step with the times. I am surprised we get the Hollywood equivalent of Donald Trump’s America First dogma from the man who gave us First Reformed (2017) and The Card Counter (2021). What does he mean by "the international Oscars"? Is he mad because the german movie All Quiet on the Western Front won four Oscars? MaybeThe Banshees of Inisherin is too foreign? It is very Irish, after all. And how do you define a Hollywood picture now? Elvis got made in Australia. Triangle of Sadness is Swedish. Women Talking has Canadian talent in key creative positions, mainly writer-director Sarah Polley.
Do we follow the money? Making movies is such an expensive endeavor that capital comes from many countries, adding another layer of complication to the issue of denomination of origin. Hollywood was born as a combination of immigrants and Americans alike. If it was white and male-dominated from the beginning, it is because it reflected current power structures. The changes the Academy have implemented so far have more to do with catching up to the way the world is than sticking it to the man.
Where is “the scramble to be woke”? Everything Everywhere All At Once might not be my favorite of the nominees for Best Picture - I will die on the hill that The Fabelmans is the best movie of 2022 -, but I recognize it was the sleeper hit of the year, with enough positive critical traction to be in the awards conversation. The seven Oscars it won speak of its popularity among Academy voters. If wokeness - whatever that is - were to define the Academy’s choices, Hollywood royalty Jamie Lee Curtiss would not have taken the Best Supporting Oscar while competing against Angela Bassett and Stephanie Hsu.
Furthermore, the Academy Awards telecast improved its ratings over last year's ceremony. According to Nielsen, 18.8 million viewers saw them live, a 13% improvement. A few years ago, one of the strategies suggested to save the Oscar telecast was to make sure that blockbusters make it into the Best Picture nominees - back then, the gist was to throw a bone at Marvel Studios -. Perhaps they were onto something. Almost half of the 10 Best Picture nominees this year are bona fide box office hits. The first place belongs to Top Gun: Maverick, with 781 million dollars, followed by Avatar: The Way of Water, with 671 million dollars. Elvis comes third, with 151 million. Everything Everywhere… comes in at fourth place, with 73 million. Bear in mind that these are domestic box office numbers. Once we factor in the international box office, Avatar would top the list with 2.68 billion dollars, and EEAAO would push over the 100 million line to 106 worldwide. But hey...let’s turn our backs on the world and keep everything nice and local.
If anything, I think the Oscars are a victim of their own success. Its popularity begat Award season as we know it. Every guild in the industry throws its own event and makes it into a gala. Critics’ associations supply more noise. The Golden Globes seem to be covered with Teflon, unscathed by any scandal. When the Oscars roll around, we are already in a prize-induced coma. Something like a consensus builds over obsessive coverage of these events so that very few surprises remain for Hollywood’s top night. Never mind the quality of the performances, the awards for Michelle Yeoh and Brendan Fraser felt like a foregone conclusion way before they held the Golden man.
Even the Academy tips its hand with its choice of presenter. Halle Berry presented the Best Actress Award with last year's winner Jessica Chastain partly because it made for a good photo opportunity. The first African American woman to win this category, handing out the statue to the first Asian actress to do so. The same goes for Harrison Ford handing out Best Picture just in case EEAAVO won, so we could see him hugging Ke Huy Quan again. In the immortal words of Anne Hathaway, It came true!
If the goal is to make the Oscars a better, more unpredictable spectacle, the Academy must jump to the head of the line. They can move the ceremony to late December or early January and let the others follow. I imagine the industry is too addicted to campaigning and spending massive amounts of money on promotion to make such a drastic change. On top of that, if they were to make such a move, the other institutions would follow suit.
My interest rested on the imperiled categories related to Short Films, which incidentally, have very little previous exposure. After last year's attempt to send them off camera with Lifetime, tech, and honorary awards, they returned to the telecast. Considering the increased ratings, we can safely assume that it was not their fault the Oscars were tanking. It is good to have them around, even if they kill any credibility I might have as a prognosticator. I did a rundown of the nominees for Best Live Action Short, Best Documentary Short, and Best Animated Short, and reader, my record is off target. My least favorite prevailed in every category, but I stand by my choices: Les Pupille, Haulot, and My Year of Dicks are amazing. You should see them as soon as possible. All three of them are currently streaming.
I am shocked, shocked that Argentina, 1985 lost the Best International Film Oscar to the inert All Quiet on the Western Front. The artisanship might have been on point, but the soul was missing. Perhaps you had to see it on the big screen to really feel it. Netflix really dropped the ball by not doing a proper theatrical run. The Fabelmans and Tár going empty-handed is a travesty. It is hard to be too surprised with the outcome. I saw which way the wind was blowing and called a win for The Daniels. I still need to catch up with some of the winners, like The Whale, Women Talking, and RRR, which skyrocketed to the top of my watchlist thanks to the Naatu Naatu musical number. Compared to the other four nominees, all interchangeable among them - Hey, Diane Warren! - it was a blast of energy compelling you to watch the damned movie.
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