The 92nd Oscars took place a little less than a year ago, on Feb. 9, 2020, making them one of the last normal public events of the past year. A whole lot of people thronged — maskless! — into an indoor space, sang songs and made speeches, spraying aerosols every which way, and then piled into limousines and headed to unsocially distanced parties. Can you imagine? Many of the rest of us gathered at parties of our own, having seen at least a few of the nominated films in actual movie theaters.
Whatever happens at the Dolby Theater on April 25, it won’t be anything like that. Even if the most optimistic pandemic projections come to pass, the road to this year’s Academy Awards is all but unrecognizable. The Cannes Film Festival, where last year’s best-picture winner (Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite,” in case you forgot) made its debut, didn’t quite happen in 2020. Neither did Telluride, one of the autumnal springboards for Oscar contenders. The other major fall festivals, Venice and Toronto, were shadows of their usual bustling selves.
The kinds of movies that traditionally contend for awards — mid-budget dramas with recognizable stars and respectable historical subjects or social themes — were thin on the ground throughout the year, though a handful did show up on Netflix. The audience and the industry floated in a strange pandemic limbo. There were a lot of movies to see, on streaming platforms or video on demand and even, for intrepid or irresponsible cinephiles, in cinemas. But the usual cycles of buzz and backlash, the word of mouth and blaring hype that have defined awards season for better and for worse over the years, didn’t materialize. As a result, nobody knows quite what to expect, and even the most brazen professional prognosticators are holding their tongues.
Of course, it’s possible that the producers of the broadcast and the voting members of the academy will cobble together some version of show business as usual, on the theory that it’s what the people want. They are professional peddlers of make-believe, after all, and an understandable response to the current situation would be to try to make us all believe, once again, in the old-time religion — in the glamour of stars, in the power of Hollywood, in the magic of movies.
I hope not. It would be a shame if the academy let this crisis go to waste. As in so many other areas of contemporary life, the desire for a return to normalcy can be a mechanism for nostalgia and outright denial, an excuse for papering over what was wrong with the old normal in the first place. And let’s face it: before the coronavirus turned everything upside down, the Oscars were a mess.
Yes, I know. There were moments of real delight — the “Parasite” victories, the “Moonlight” win in 2017, the serial triumphs of the Three Amigos — but they always arrived on a tide of expected disappointment. For at least a decade, the awards have struggled to fulfill an array of increasingly incompatible imperatives.
The broadcast itself is supposed to appeal to a global audience, to stand as one of the last and proudest real-time, mass-viewing events in an increasingly fragmented and asynchronous universe of cultural consumption. At the same time, it is supposed to glorify a specifically American ideal of cultural production — popular and commercial but also high-quality and high-minded, not narrowly nationalistic but welcoming. The academy upholds a friendly, inclusive imperialism, built on a cheerful consensus.
Recently, cracks in surface and the foundation of the edifice became more and more apparent. Viewership has crept steadily downward, and various fixes have been tried. Old hosts, new hosts, no hosts, two hosts. (Though not in that order.) Acceptance speeches got shorter, though somehow the show never did. The M.C. gig became a brier patch for celebrities rather than a feather in their caps. They were either too provocative or too tame, too weird or too bland, too political or not political enough.
But it wasn’t just the long spectacle — an increasingly awkward throwback to a form of entertainment nobody really remembered or ever much liked in the first place — that had trouble finding a groove. The awards themselves have been whipsawed by competing demands. As the industry has invested more and more of its talent and capital in franchises, its prestige products have gotten more specialized. The budgets and box-office revenues of Oscar-worthy movies have shrunk, a fact that is often blamed for the telecast’s decline in ratings and the perceived loss of relevance.
A few years ago the academy tried to address this problem by floating a new best-popular-film category. That was quickly abandoned, amid widespread ridicule. But the actual best-picture winners have been a mixed bag. The category has provided a few bright spots and breakthroughs (“Moonlight” and “Parasite”) as well as occasions for puzzlement and exasperation. The chaotic denouement of the 2017 show — it’s “La La Land”! No, wait, it’s “Moonlight”! — can be taken as a metaphor. A clueless old guard, a bungled bureaucratic procedure, a moment of unclarity charged with half-acknowledged racial and generational politics: everything the Oscars kept getting wrong and trying to make right.
The new was struggling to be born, but the old wasn’t ready to go away. The academy’s effort to make its membership more youthful and more diverse seemed to be vindicated by the “Moonlight” victory, but two years later the triumph of “Green Book” felt like regression, if not outright backlash. In between, “The Shape of Water” felt like a strange compromise — I liked that movie, but I’m still not quite sure what it was. And then “Parasite” swung the pendulum in a radically new direction, without necessarily fixing the underlying structural problems.
So now what? The prestige and authority of the Academy Awards have always rested on two fundamental assumptions: that film is the flagship of the popular arts, and that the eternal capital of the cinema is Hollywood. Maybe these axioms were always arguable, but in 2021 they are self-evidently untrue.
I don’t mean to revisit stale arguments about the aesthetic merits of television, to pine for the lost pleasures of moviegoing, or to lament lost golden ages, but simply to state the facts. Feature films, now and henceforth, compete for attention with myriad other forms of visual narrative, many of them delivered via the same devices — and by the same corporations — that bring us the movies. But those corporate entities aren’t what they used to be. Some of the old studio nameplates that still exist (Disney, Warner Bros.) have been folded into multiplatform agglomerations (Disney+, HBO Max) that treat movies as one type of content among many.
These outfits and the other surviving studios must compete with — and according to rules largely created by — companies like Netflix, Amazon and Apple, all of which bring the monopolistic DNA of the tech world into the old-school oligopoly of Hollywood. And Hollywood is rapidly losing its geographical and imaginative pride of place as the global center of cultural gravity splits and shifts. Whatever the art of cinema may be, it and its audience are radically decentralized. Movie love may be stronger and more widespread than ever, but it can’t be captured in a night spent swooning over a handful of films and a roomful of stars.
Why pretend otherwise? Why act as if the center could somehow hold, as if the right mix of same-old and not-quite-new faces and stories could do justice to a protean art form and a disunited public? It’s time to tear up the blueprints and start again.
What does that mean, in practice? For one thing, it means continuing to expand academy membership in the interests of geographical, generational and cultural diversity. The more voters, the better. For another, I think it means treating the “Parasite” victory not as an outlier but as a harbinger. That movie, a twisty, impeccably directed, brilliantly acted thriller laced with stinging, humanistic social criticism, fulfilled the Oscar ideal better than any mainstream Hollywood production since, I don’t know, “Silence of the Lambs”? “The Apartment”? “Casablanca”? And there are more where it came from, by which I don’t just mean South Korea or Bong’s dazzling imagination. The academy should abolish the best international feature ghetto, with its arcane rules of entry and its dubious reliance on the tastes of government functionaries, and make best picture an explicitly international category.
Or else — and in addition — find new ways of designating excellence. Get smaller and bigger at the same time, by giving space and attention to the odd, the experimental and the handmade as well as the gaudy and the grand. Undo the stultifying hierarchy of genres that routinely excludes comedy, horror, action and art. This could involve a simple change in attitude or taste, but it might require a formal change of rules. What if there were genre- or budget-level categories (best comic-book film; best million-dollar movie), and those films were also eligible for best picture? What if the Oscars took inspiration from bracketology and list-obsessed media to open up voters’ thinking? Millions of movie fans cast fake ballots every year. What if there were a way to make those ballots real?
I don’t know if any of those ideas would work, or if they’re good ideas. The point, in any case, is to stop holding movies up to a vague, sentimental standard of what they once were and try to understand them as they actually are. The Oscars take themselves too seriously, and as a result they don’t take movies seriously enough, don’t fully acknowledge their power, variety and capacity for change. We should worry less about continuity and tradition, about preserving old folkways and narrow canons, and more about illuminating and exploring a history that is still unfamiliar to many movie lovers, and still very much up for grabs even as it is part of a widely shared inheritance.
The academy started out as something like a small-town trade association, and an embrace of its pragmatic, parochial origins doesn’t contradict a wider, more cosmopolitan scope. On the contrary. Hollywood in its early years, including in the first decade of the Oscars, was less the capital of a global empire than a crossroads and a refuge, a place where talent from elsewhere — from Middle America and Central Europe, especially — could find a place to flower. Los Angeles isn’t the only city where this happens, and its local creative economy thrives on the strength of its connection to other such places.
The Dolby Theater isn’t a temple. It’s a bazaar. And the answer to the Oscars’ decade-long malaise may be more emphasis on commerce, rather than less, if we understand commerce to mean not the passive consumption of dead commodities but the lively exchange of ideas and information. When I said the Oscars are a mess, I guess what I meant is that they aren’t messy enough, that they have projected a bland, consensus image of cinema that is increasingly at odds with the anarchy that is cinema’s only hope for survival. We’ve had the fairy tale. We need the train wreck.
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