Can the Oscars be saved?
The Academy’s president certainly thinks so. After the group infamously nominated its second all-white pool of acting nominees for 2016, celebrities including director Spike Lee and actress Jada Pinkett-Smith threatened to boycott the ceremony. In response to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, president Cheryl Boone Isaacs announced that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would be revising its rules on participation—including revoking voting rights from those who haven’t worked in the past decade. Meanwhile, Boone made an ambitious pledge to double membership among women and people of color by 2020.
In fact, this is merely the latest attempt by the Oscars at righting an increasingly hopeless-seeming ship. Lest we forget, in 2009, Stephen Daldry’s milquetoast Holocaust drama The Reader inspired massive outrage when it was nominated over The Dark Knight—then a beloved smash hit. To fix the perceived bias against popular, acclaimed blockbusters, the Oscars widened the Best Picture pool to 10 nominees the following year, before switching yet again to a bewildering system of 5-10 picks. (This year the Academy landed on eight.) There’s since been talk that—after three straight years where the Best Picture lineup consisted of the usual middlebrow movies—the Oscars might go back to five nominees.
The tiresome quest to save the Oscars from themselves feels more and more hopeless—like putting lipstick on a pig that’s long been cooked and served for dinner. No matter how hard the Academy tries to change, its choices have remained perplexing, insular, and (above all) awful. The problem is that we keep treating the Academy Awards as a fundamentally good and noble institution that has merely lost its way. But we cannot fix the Oscars because they have always been a broken enterprise—a navel-gazing, draconian system that rewards lily-white mediocrity at the expense of valuing true innovation.
This isn’t simply a contemporary problem; it’s an historic one. For an event that’s treated as Hollywood’s ultimate measure of artistic merit, the Oscars have a truly horrible track record of judging quality. Back in 1942, the Academy famously passed over Citizen Kane—considered by many to be the greatest film ever made—in favor of the far less groundbreaking How Green Was My Valley. Nearly four decades later, the Academy decided that the prestige pic Ordinary People was superior to Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. The year the decidedly average Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture, Spike Lee’s stunning Do the Right Thing wasn’t even nominated.
To single out individual cases in which the most deserving film was robbed amounts to splitting hairs. It might be easier to count the times the Oscars have gotten things right. Since the Critics Top 10 website launched in 1999, the Best Picture award has only correlated with popular critical opinion four times—with The Departed (2007), No Country for Old Men (2008), The Hurt Locker (2011), and 12 Years a Slave (2014). In the past 16 years, the average Best Picture ranks as the fifth—or, more accurately, or 4.8th—best film of its respective year. A Beautiful Mind, which came in at 18th on the critics’ best-of lists back in 2001, handily won four Oscars.
The actual best film of the year—at least, according to critics’ year-end lists—often isn’t nominated at all. Spike Jonze’s breathlessly inventive Being John Malkovich walked away with a lone Best Director nod in 1999. Two years later, critics adored Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, which was handed a consolation prize in the Best Adapted Screenplay category. The following year, Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven was snubbed in both the Best Picture and Best Director categories—a travesty the Academy would recently repeat with Haynes’ Carol.
But of course, the awards aren’t voted on by film journalists. They’re selected by “industry professionals” who are 94% white, 76% male, and predominantly over 60 years old. Is it any surprise their choices usually amount to the best movie your grandparents would watch? The Oscars are literally designed to reward safe choices, since the Academy votes based on a preferential ballot that rewards consensus.
In the current system, the films that win Best Picture are usually those liked by the largest number of Academy voters, rather than the films that people were most passionate about loving.
This is why The Social Network—what critics voted, hands down, as the best movie of 2011—lost to The King’s Speech, a movie no one will remember in 20 years. David Fincher’s Facebook film was a singular achievement that inspired passionate reactions, while King’s Speech won because, well, it was made to win Oscars. Like A Beautiful Mind or later nominees The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game, the tale of Prince Albert (Colin Firth) was about an Underdog overcoming Big Obstacles to do Great Things. It’s usually helpful if said protagonist is overcoming a Disability (in this case, a speech impediment) or tackling a Major Social Issue. By my calculations, seven of the past 16 winners adhere to exactly the same formula.
This lack of imagination has created a cottage industry of mediocre Oscar-bait dramas (see failed contenders like Freeheld and Unbroken). They have no other raison d’être than winning as many awards as possible. And so the Academy’s choices continue to punish genre movies, animated features, foreign films, and documentaries. In the history of the Academy, no documentary has ever been nominated for Best Picture, including such zeitgeist-defining films as Fahrenheit 9/11. And just nine, non-English language films have even contended for the Best Picture prize.
Of these, none have won—or even been close. (Editor’s note: The Artist, which won Best Picture in 2012, was made in France but due to its silent nature, was not viewed as “foreign” by the Academy.)
Adding insult to injury is the Best Foreign Language Film category. In the past decade, critically acclaimed foreign hits like Blue Is the Warmest Color, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days have all been snubbed at the Oscars—largely because of the Academy’s controversial eligibility rules. In order to be considered in the Foreign Language race, films have to be widely released in their countries of origin before September, which often means foregoing their own awards shows. For a category that’s intended to celebrate world cinema, such procedural quibbles are shockingly xenophobic.
All of which is to say that the question is no longer is whether the Oscars will be mired in controversy—it’s which controversy will dominate each year. Last year, the Academy deemed Foxcatcher director Bennett Miller one of the Best Directors nominees over Ava DuVernay (Selma)—despite the fact that Foxcatcher wasn’t even nominated in a nine-picture race. Whereas a split between Picture and Director used to be a rarity, it’s become the norm in recent year. Ang Lee (Life of Pi) and Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity) won Best Director in 2013 and 2014, while Argo and 12 Years a Slave nabbed the Best Picture prize. It’s as if Oscars voters have no idea what they’re doing anymore.
This year won’t be better. Putting aside the current #OscarsSoWhite controversy, the 2016 Best Picture race has been a disaster. If the victor is Spotlight (which claimed the top prize at the SAG Awards) or The Big Short (the Producers Guild’s pick), this year’s champ is likely to take home two awards at most. Should the trophy go to The Revenant (the winner at BAFTA and the Golden Globes), it would likely win four. Meanwhile, George Miller’s critical favorite Mad Max: Fury Road is unlikely to win Best Picture. But it is currently favored to take home Best Editing, could win Best Director, and is also expected to dominate the tech awards. That means it may end up with as many as seven awards in total, more than whatever happens to win Best Picture.
You can throw diversity at these issues all you want, but the Oscars’ problems are much bigger than sexism or even racial exclusion. In a defense of expanding its non-white membership, the CEO of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Dawn Hudson, told the Hollywood Reporter in January that the group is bound by its traditions and rules—rather than “political correctness.”
Clearly, the Oscars still don’t get it. The traditions are the problem. Fixing the Oscars isn’t a matter of including a handful of people of color and women on the ballots each year. The fact is that the entire system is fundamentally flawed and disastrous, and it always has been.
Creating an Oscars ceremony that doesn’t routinely exclude queer artists, non-American filmmakers, women’s perspectives, and avant-garde cinema would mean starting over. That would require tearing down every single category and rebuilding it from scratch. It would mean rethinking the mission of the Academy Awards and whether it has ever stood for anything other than its own elitist status quo. It would mean doing more than promising to change every single year and continuing to make the same old mistakes.
At this point, the only way to save the Oscars might be to set them on fire and watch them burn.