Are the Oscars a relic of the past?
We need to talk about Oscar. He’s starting to become a problem. Maybe we looked up to him for too long and inflated his ego? He’s getting pretty old now, and I know he’s trying to change, but he’s always been pretty set in his ways. A stickler for tradition, if you will. His decisions can seem puzzling and sometimes outrageous. He ignores people. He’s probably xenophobic. He’ll do anything to make himself look good. Honestly, he’s probably self-conscious. Afraid he’s falling into irrelevancy. Maybe that’s inevitable. We could let him fade away, but I feel like that would be unfair. He’s been around for so long that he deserves our best advice. So let’s ask ourselves a question: what do we do with Oscar?
Of course, Oscar is not one person, but a group of people. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (we’ll just call them the Academy), is the ruling body behind the famed yearly awards ceremony. Although the list of members is under lock and key, we know they rank over 7,000 strong, and consist of a vast collective of current and former Hollywood moguls, red-carpet stars, and famous directors. One might think with such a huge membership, this institution would be primed to reflect the very best of the contemporary film landscape, in which all cinematic voices are given recognition. Alas, that’s not the case. Academy members, according to The New Yorker, are overwhelmingly white and male. Women account for only 32% of members, while people of color make up a mere 16%.
Naturally, this leads to some pretty questionable nominations. We don’t know much about the mystical congregation who votes on the choices for each category, but a recent Hollywood Reporter article revealed a saddening but unsurprising attitude among the toffs of Mulholland Drive and Sunset Boulevard. A male member of the Academy, granted anonymity, unveiled his “brutally honest” Oscar ballot—he “really hated” Little Women, and called the Best Animated Feature choices “so fucking boring.” A female member, also anonymous, said she wanted “an American director to win” because “the Oscars are an American thing.” Apparently she missed Alfonso Cuarón’s Best Director triumph just last year. Shrouded by the invisibility cloak of an online publication, these showbiz denizens come off as opinionated, arrogant, and, most crucially, shameless.
Little Women is far from the kind of film anyone should “really hate,” and the outrage at Greta Gerwig’s Best Director snub is entirely justified. The film is exquisitely made, with visionary flourishes that prove Gerwig’s confidence in the position of writer/director. With the rest of the field entirely male, it follows that allegations of institutional sexism were levelled at the Academy. The work of female directors last year was brilliant and stunning; Claire Denis’ High Life, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Alma Ha’rel’s Honey Boy, and Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire were all strong and deserving pictures, but none of them were given the slightest amount of recognition. This isn’t to say that the male nominees weren’t deserving of their nominations—even The Hangover helmer Todd Phillips created a remarkable film with Joker—but there’s an undeniable need to expand the field.
The ignorance carries over to other categories, too. Cynthia Erivo was the only person of color nominated in an acting category this year, for her performance in Harriet. This means that not only was Awkwafina not chosen for her moving turn in The Farewell, but also the cast members of Parasite were completely ignored. Similarly sidelined were: Eddie Murphy’s comeback performance in Dolemite Is My Name and the doppelgänger duo of Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke in Us, Jordan Peele’s intense follow-up to his stellar Get Out (which won Best Original Screenplay a few years ago). Clearly there’s a racial bias going on, and it’s sad that the Academy’s attempt to diversify their ranks in recent years hasn’t gone far enough. Out of the nine films nominated for Best Picture, five were white male-oriented, and before Parasite’s surprise win, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood and 1917 were favorites to take the prestigious honor. Does this suggest an Academy nostalgia for an imaginary past filled with male valor?
Other biases include the long-standing grudge against horror and comedy. Us hardly garnered the same level of attention as Get Out despite being on par with Peele’s debut. Additionally, It’s arguable that the amazing Florence Pugh should have been nominated for her gut-wrenching achievement as Dani in Midsommar, and The Lighthouse surely should have picked up several noms for its atmospheric Sound Mixing, Score, and Production Design. Adam Sandler was deemed persona non grata this year in spite of his tour-de-force embodiment of the unstable jeweler Howard Ratner in Uncut Gems; it seems the Academy couldn’t bring themselves to pinch their noses and vote for the actor because of his prior outings in low-brow comedies. Context, to them, often matters more than the work itself.
After the ceremony aired, it became clear that many of the nominations were more of an olive branch, a condescending pat-on-the-back rather than a genuine appreciation for craft. This was most obvious in Netflix’s offerings, The Irishman and Marriage Story. The streaming giant garnered ten nominations for the visual effects-heavy Scorsese picture and six for Noah Baumbach’s stirring tale of divorce, but won only two awards in total: Laura Dern justifiably nabbed Best Supporting Actress, and American Factory took Best Feature Documentary. It’s a stark reminder that the Oscars exist to perpetuate an outdated model of studio dominance. They’ll let Netflix get their foot in the door, but won’t invite them inside to join the party. As Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker, the Oscars “represent the American film industry’s idealized image of itself.”
Key to this hubristic survival instinct is the fact that the Academy grants voting privileges to people no longer working in the industry. Membership represents how the industry once was, not how it is today, and the vast majority of the nominees reflect the interests of its members, not its audience. It’s difficult to tell if the public still cares about the Oscars, but metrics tell us that the 2020 viewership sunk to 23.6 million, a full 20% dropoff from last year. In a time when theater going has diminished to its lowest levels ever, these statistics should be seen as a harbinger of certain doom. While not by any means more popular than the Oscars, the Independent Spirit Awards are a far more entertaining and relatable option. As host Aubrey Plaza remarked, “We’re so much cooler than other awards shows: It’s daytime, we’re on the beach, and we recognize female directors.”
There are two ways to interpret the winners of this year’s Oscars. On one hand, it feels cynical to suggest that Parasite won Best Picture as part of an apology for Green Book snatching the idol last year—after all, Bong Joon-ho’s film is far and away the best movie of the year. But he’s been creating ecstatic work for decades, and perhaps should have taken the award way back in 2003 for Memories of Murder. That South Korean cinema is finally being recognized for its rich and absorbing output is something to be applauded, but it’s coming far too late. Park Chan-wook’s dextrous 2016 masterwork The Handmaiden was a perfect Best Picture pick if I’ve ever seen one, and Na Hong-jin and Kim Jee-woon have been erroneously kept out of the global spotlight.
Parasite’s wins must be celebrated loud and clear, as should those of Taika Waititi, who took home Best Adapted Screenplay for the hilarious and touching Jojo Rabbit, Hildur Guðnadóttir, who received Best Original Score for the haunting Joker soundtrack, and Matthew A. Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver for their excellent, Best Animated Short-winning Hair Love.
If the Academy is to learn anything from this year’s Oscars, it’s that filmmaking doesn’t belong to Hollywood anymore, and hasn’t for a very long time. As a collective founded to advance and celebrate the art form, they need to take stock of the fact that incredible work won’t necessarily land at their doorstep—wider eyes and a keen awareness of global talent are skills the predominantly old, white, male Academy members just don’t have enough of.
So, what do we do with Oscar? We talked about him, like we said we would. In all fairness, we should give him another chance. Despite all his flaws, people do look up to him. Maybe if he changes, he’ll regain the popularity he used to have. He should open his doors to more people and listen to what they have to say. We may not like him all the time, but he’s loud enough that we all still pay attention when he’s around. Yes, he could do with thinking less of himself and not wasting so much of our time, but I think we’d miss him if he disappeared. He’s making an effort, and although it’s slow progress, he deserves the benefit of the doubt. We’ll check back next year to see how he’s doing, and whether it’s time to re-examine our friendship with Oscar.
Tom Lawson is a second year Cinema & Photo major who wishes more people would watch the Independent Spirit Awards. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.