When Billy Crystal hosted the Academy Awards throughout the 1990s, his signature bit was a short film that inserted him into cleverly edited scenes from that year’s top movies.
That opening montage was a riot every year, an achievement of wit and technology and a custom-built gag engine for the impish Crystal. But the montages only worked because everyone – in the audience and at home – had actually seen the real movies. They got the jokes, the jibes, the gentle mockery. Without that circuitry, the whole thing would have failed.
Crystal couldn’t pull off those montages now. Films – or more precisely, Oscar-bait films – are no longer a shared experience. Grudgingly, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is facing up to this dilemma, and last week announced a series of changes to jazz up the awards and the TV broadcast, which has seen its audience shrink by nearly 50 per cent since 2000.
The biggest change is the introduction of a “popular” Oscar, aimed at recognising the blockbuster movies that pull in the biggest audiences and often feature the brightest, youngest stars.
The details of the new category are vague, but cineastes, and particularly film critics, have savaged the plan as a trashing of Oscar’s integrity, a grubby stunt pandering to Hollywood’s barbaric impulses. Why mess with this sanctuary of artistic achievement amidst all this commerce? They predict gloom and desolation.
Talk about people who work in the dark.
For decades, achievement and economics walked side-by-side onto Oscar’s stage. In 1939, for example, the nine top box office movies of the year were all nominated for Best Picture. In 1998, the year Titanic crushed at the box office and won Best Picture, the broadcast garnered 55 million US viewers, its biggest ever.
By 2017, however, the two top-grossing Best Picture nominees, Dunkirk and Get Out, were ranked only 14th and 15th at the box office. The Best Picture winner, Shape of Water, came in a damp 46th—and that was the highest-performing Best Picture winner of the past five years.
Hollywood has always struggled to reconcile art and economics. But like the old saying goes, they just don’t make movies like they used to — and that’s a problem. Best Picture winners like Forrest Gump, Braveheart, Platoon, Driving Miss Daisy and Gladiator are no longer made by Hollywood studios.
Once the backbone of the business, these middle-brow, mid-budget, popular and well-crafted films were both artistically worthy and box office winners. They were filled with movie stars delivering memorable performances. The best of them – the reason we love movies – bridged the space between culture and commerce, between “show” and “business.” They were the kind of hugely popular films Crystal could skewer knowing his worldwide audience would get the jokes.
Now, their ilk are made by HBO and Netflix, and we watch them from the couch.
Meanwhile, Hollywood sticks to “franchises”: comic-based superheroes, raunchy comedies and horror movies. Whether frighteningly costly or dirt cheap, these “verticals” make money. Oscar-worthy films are often made outside the studios, beloved by critics and small audiences.
Back in the ‘90s, these sorts of films could also become popular, thanks to the PR acumen of uber-producer Harvey Weinstein, who was known for both his good taste and the ferocity of his Oscar campaigns.
But Harvey’s gone, thank God, and the gap between commerce and art is now a chasm the Oscars have fallen into. Last year’s show was the lowest rated ever.
I don’t watch superhero movies; I find them tiresome. I’m just as discriminating (or think I am) as the critics I edited through my years in newspapers and magazines here in New York. I tend to like what they like.
But the idea that the Oscars are a divine conferral of achievement is laughable. And the idea that inviting in Ant-man and fart jokes will spoil the mood is dangerously elitist.
The Oscars have been gamed forever, whether it was Weinstein or the studios long before him. The shameless campaigning will begin next month at the Toronto Film Festival, the opening day of the Oscar hunt.
Thus will begin months of private screenings, cocktails, press conferences and all manner of spin until award season commences in January.
It’s aggressive, amusing and sometimes fun to watch. It is most assuredly not all about the art.
People tune into the Oscars to see movie stars. They like to see them in gowns or tuxes on the red carpet. They enjoy seeing the actor/character they bonded with in a dark theatre walk onto a stage and show authentic emotion. (That’s why the most memorable moment of Oscar history remains Sally Field’s gasping “You like me!” from 1985).
That doesn’t happen when the Academy Award goes to The Artist or Moonlight. Viewers have no skin in that game. And without that, they have no investment in watching a 3-plus hour show filled with obscure technical awards.
Are the “popular” awards a way to get movies stars to show up? Of course! So what? The idea this will distort the Best Picture award is hysterical dithering (critics said the same thing when talkies arrived).
Hollywood has long needed to wrest back the Oscars from the fringes of popular culture. It can honour cinematic achievement and flash more glamor without tarnishing its prestige.
It needs to defeat this elitism, which has infected so much of American life (see Election 2016) and which has always been the enemy of the movies.
And if it that means making room for Ant-man, scoot over.