A Bit of Oscars Housekeeping

On December 5, 2011, Ron Santo was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, nearly a year after his death. A Cubs third baseman for most of his career, Santo long went unrecognized for his talents by fans and writers alike.  Then something changed.  Santo, who had first been Hall of Fame eligible in 1980, started garnering more support.  Thanks to the help of advanced baseball statistics and a growing contingent of sabermetricians, Ron Santo has come to be seen as a vastly overlooked player.  But what exactly changed the BWAA’s opinion of his 15 major league seasons?  More importantly, why did it take 31 years of eligibility to figure it out?

Hindsight thinking is a great example of how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences operates. I’m of the opinion that self-congratulatory awards–baseball, film or otherwise–are better off admitting their inherent subjectivity and recognizing themselves more as “glorified museums.”   I guess that would make the Oscars a kind of televised museum, except the exihibits change every year and instead of a History major your tour guide is a singing Hugh Jackman.

The reason for pushing this museum stuff is simple: AMPAS screws up. A lot.  You can find hundreds of articles on Oscar “snubs” where Forrest Gump miraculously beat Shawshank and Pulp Fiction or 2009’s BAND-AID system whereby the ballot could be expanded to ten possible Best Picture nominees.

Also this happened.

These mistakes aren’t just outside personal opinion either. AMPAS has essentially admitted it themselves, indirectly at least:

As if it wasn’t glaringly obvious whom the award was going to (I don’t think Spielberg even read what was on the card), you can play the Which “New Hollywood” Director is Missing From the Dais Game and figure it out.  Scorsese kind of just throws his hands in the air like whoopdie frickin’ doo.  Yes, The Departed is fantastic, but the Academy chooses to honor him now?  Not for Taxi Driver or Raging Bull? Goodfellas?


In Scorsese’s case, AMPAS recognized (albeit through the power of hindsight) that it had more or less messed up in acknowledging one director’s work over that of John G. Avildsen’s.  Fixing past blunders is an inevitability here; somebody’s probably going to get left out with only one Best Picture award.  Scorsese’s Best Director was a product of that.  So was Charlie Chaplin’s Honorary Oscar 40 years ago.If you don’t skip through the first two-and-a-half minutes, you’ll notice the introduction is essentially a primer to Chaplin’s career, and to a certain extent, a brief history lesson in early cinema.  The award is informative as much as it is celebratory.  And that’s essentially how a museum works.  Every so often the sinking of the Titanic is commemorated with a special exhibit, but you can also learn the differences between a diplodocus and a brachiosaurus.  That’s why the Academy ought to do one of two things next year:

A) Punt its rapidly declining respectability and become the “Grammys of film.”  Awards would take a back seat to entertainment, complete with comedy sketches and a James Franco chorus line.

or…

B) Completely overhaul the current awards system.

We’ve seen what happens with the first option.  I find the alternative much more intriguing, so when I say “overhaul” I mean tear the whole thing down and build it back up.  Here are some starting points:

3. Get Rid of the Best Director Award

The following is a list of Best Picture winners for each theatrical year since 1990.  It’s also a list of the Best Director winners:

Dances With Wolves (1990)
The Silence of The Lambs (1991)
Unforgiven (1992)
Schindler’s List (1993)
Forrest Gump (1994)
Braveheart (1995)
The English Patient (1996)
Titanic (1997)
Shakespeare in Love (1998) X
American Beauty (1999)
Gladiator (2000) X
A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Chicago (2002) X
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Crash (2005) X
The Departed (2006)
No Country for Old Men (2007)
Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
The Hurt Locker (2009)
The King’s Speech (2010)

Those red x’s indicate the years in which the Best Picture film was not the same as the Best Director film.  So for the past 21 Oscar ceremonies, only 4 films haven’t won both.

The nominations for Best Director are submitted specifically by the Academy’s directing board, which makes sense. What doesn’t is that voting is expanded and everyone gets their say on the winner.  Specialize the process so the people choosing are the same ones voting.  Unless the rest of the Academy is too stupid to pick nominations for themselves, and this is how directors secretly shepherd Gerard Butler away from choosing Roland Emmerich every year.  Prove that Best Director actually means something.  Or, you know, get rid of it.

As hard as it may be to believe, the Golden Globes actually do something right by dividing certain awards between Drama and Comedy/Musical.  The Hollywood Foreign Press Association still hasn’t defined the differences between them, but specialization is a step in the right direction.  What makes a World War II period drama any better than a smartly-directed comedy?  It’s nice that the Academy has a Best PIXAR Animated Feature, but where’s the value in that if Toy Story 3 getting a Best Picture nod is more impressive?

Neither Best Picture nor Best Animated Feature 
matter to John Lasseter and his fleet of chocolate-
covered yachts.

2. Ditch the Secrecy as a Shield For Backwards Thinking

A big part of the problem is the Academy’s conservative thinking.  It’s perfectly reasonable to claim there are certain qualities that make an Oscar-worthy film:

Dramas.  Period pieces.  Genocide is a plus, but don’t forget to pull a love story out of it.  It’s okay to be violent, but ease up on the gore.  You can’t go wrong with a comforting message.  Meryl Streep.

I’m not suggesting the Academy send a couple noms in The Human Centipede’s direction, but in that aforementioned list, how many times did the Academy “mess up?”  There’s a clear critical consensus that AMPAS has been historically behind the curve on this thing.  The Artist is the favorite to win Best All Of The Things this year.  But why?  An award for best of…well, anything ought to stand for some thing.  Personal opinion abounds, but it’s reasonable to think “best” means creative or innovative or thought provoking in some way.  What “best” shouldn’t represent is a rehash of stuff we’ve already seen 80 years ago.  And done much better for that matter.  In this sense, I don’t think 2012 has as much of a clear cut winner as last year’s The Social Network The King’s Speech.  I personally found The Artist quite charming.  It’s a cute story, but does it really say anything important?  In twenty years, will we view it as a historically significant piece of cinema?  A lot of people seem to think so.  Just don’t ask me who they are.

As much as I would love to point the finger over the Internet, AMPAS is worse than the Illuminati with revealing the exact makeup of its 6,000+ members.  Fortunately the Los Angeles Times came out with an interesting breakdown of Oscar voters.  To summarize, 20% of its members are actors, while only 6% are directors.  The median age is also 61, which might have something to do with that safe, bourgeois mindset.  At the same time, there’s also no set list of criteria for joining as far as I can tell.  Dakota Fanning was invited to join when she was only 12.

A friggin tween has a say in this shit.

1. Let’s Start Playing the Blame Game!

A friend of mine has repeatedly suggested that the Heisman Trust release its balloting information after the award is handed out each year.  I love this idea.  I love this idea so much in fact that I think the Academy should use it and go one step further.  Don’t just show us how many votes each film won.  Show us who voted so we can track down all the morons and beat them incessantly with copies of What About Steve.

Apparently Best Foreign Language Film and Best Documentary Feature aren’t even on the official Oscar ballot.  You have to call in, tell the Academy you’ve seen all five films (which is presumably verified through a top secret, air-tight reliability system), and then you receive a special ballot just for that category which only then can you use to vote.  In other words, the people who are voting for Best Foreign Language film are the same people who have a vested interest in the category in the first place.

I see absolutely no way in which that system could be exploited.

It gets way more messed up, though.  Many members admit to not even having seen all of the nominated films.  In all honesty, I can’t blame them.  These Hollywood big shots lead such public lives attending charities, fundraisers, and social events that it’s unrealistic to expect Steve Carell to sit down and stay on top of all the possible Best Picture films.  SO LET’S ADD FIVE MORE TO THE BALLOT.

Yes, it’s probably naive to think the Academy would publicize every ballot the week after awards are given.  But what if we waited a decade or two and then unlocked the vault?  Like what the CIA is going to do with JFK’s assassination papers or whatever.  Tell me you wouldn’t enjoy all the finger-pointing sessions on Access Hollywood.

“You see? It’s her fault Dark Knight got the shaft!
Now tell us why you wrote in Daddy Day Camp, you flaxen-
haired urchin!”
* * *

As with most years, the Oscars of 2012 promise to piss off somebody.  The producers behind Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close apparently made a generous enough “donation.”  There’s also the Academy’s baffling decision to only nominate nine films, omitting Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive in the process.  It might be a strong language thing or too much blood.  Either way it seems unfair to ignore such a well-made homage to retro cinema.

Then again, the Academy clearly has a preference, so should we really be surprised when allusions to an older genre and minimal dialogue don’t make the cut?

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