Sunday, February 26, 2017

Who Killed the Oscars?

Growing up in the 70's, I don't know why I was so determined to stay up and watch (some wretchedly small part of) the Oscars on a Monday school night:  
I was in 3rd or 4th grade, and had no idea what a Cabaret, Godfather, Towering Inferno or Clockwork Orange was supposed to be, nor would I probably be allowed to see them if I had.  Maybe that was the reason, so that I could watch the few mysterious out-of-context clips of the movies that had been nominated.

Later, in the late 70's, after Star Wars hit, and into the glorious Big 80's, we all became more interested in movies, and we'd be rooting for movies that we'd all actually seen.  (Gandhi, you did NOT deserve to take it from E.T., and you know it!)  It was probably the last decade that spoiled us for good, thrilling, nail-biting competition among Best Picture and Actors that you wanted to see win, because it was just a matter of instinct that they would when you walked out of the movie.
I remember the bragging-rights "in-your-face" thrill in the betting pools of sticking up for "Amadeus" in '85 when every important person was so emotionally moved by "The Killing Fields"...And listening to every pundit and fellow pool-snob in '04 say "The Academy will never give it to 'Return of the King' because they hate fantasy, smart money's on Sean Penn and Mystic River!"  (Oh, friend, you are so going to lose your money to me, and you are going to beg forgiveness on Tuesday morning...)

And then...something happened.  Right after that thrilling "Return of the King" in-your-face win, as a matter of fact.  All of a sudden, the Oscar Best Picture races turned really, really boring, with a lot of movies nobody had really gone out of their way to see, and while you still tuned in if you were a movie fan, it was for more of the "Oh, so that's what that was" experience.
It wasn't just the movies' fault.  (Well, not really.)  The show producers kept going to crazier and crazier hosts trying to find, as Anne Hathaway and James Franco said, "the Young, Hip Oscars!" to figure out why the show's TV ratings and audience interest was going down.  In the old days, there was no such thing as a "too long" show. 
It never occurred to the producers to suspect foul play, and to search for who had cruelly taken away our one uniting reason to be American movie fans every year.

There are three suspects for us to apply, as the Belgian detective said, the little gray cells, in our search for a most cruel and cold-blooded murderer of the little naked gold man:

The Prime Suspect:  Harvey Weinstein  

Some of us remember 1996--The year that consisted of THREE arthouse nominees (with the mainstream "Fargo" and "Jerry Maguire" pushed to the back), and "The English Patient" winning Best Picture for Miramax more or less by default, since it was the one that "looked" the most like an Oscar Best Picture.  (All those deserts and period British army uniforms just sort of reminded us of Lawrence of Arabia.)  
Probably more of us remember tearing up our Oscar-pool bets when Miramax's "Shakespeare in Love" surprise-upset the had-to-win favorite of Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" to take 1998's Picture, even beating out Miramax's own "Life is Beautiful".

By that point, Miramax's ego, like Harvey's legendary own, determined that they had a place in EVERY Oscar ceremony, and turned "Oscar-bait" into the cynical and calculated art-form it now is.
Harvey put the studio's money behind full blitzes of For Your Consideration campaigns from the very beginning of the seasons, and usually for the exact same movie every year:  For most of the 90's, if Miramax let Lasse Hallstrom direct a heartwarming film that year, you knew why.  Kevin Spacey in '01's dreary "The Shipping News" became the symbol of Miramax's attempt to rush the bouncer at the velvet rope every year--If not that "In the Bedroom" had had an actual critical reception behind it after its Sundance showing that year, without the studio's "help".  
It became a little more noticeable when Hugh Jackman, in his '09 hosting gig, got laughs for singing what every other voter said with his screener:  "'The Reader', 'The Reader', I haven't seen 'The Reader'..."

The Academy now had a common enemy and a common goal:  SHUT HARVEY UP.  
A rule change in 2005 shortened the voting period by one month to announce the nominees in January instead of February, and give the awards at the end of February instead of March, and give FYC campaigns one less month to drown voters' desks in paper.  It didn't work.
Overworked movie technicians and actors, who already had little enough time to keep up with their screeners, and focus attention on the buzz-favorites, now had one less month to either pick their screenings carefully, or just guess at the rest.  And who got the most buzz-rumor exposure?
Well, given by the fact that the Weinstein Company's "The King's Speech" still won in 2010, beating out their own competition for "The Fighter", the rule change didn't exactly keep the Weinsteins out the door, even after Miramax and TWC had already gone under as release companies.  You just can't kill a cockroach, because ten more come out of the woodwork.

The Accused Suspect:  Batman, aka the Dark Knight  

If there was one movie that quickly became "Not Our Best Picture!" for a lack of wide public enthusiasm in 2008, it was "Slumdog Millionaire".  The feel-good attempt at do-it-yourself Bollywood had its supporters among the early voting, but seeing Pixar take Best Animated Feature for four of the last seven years running began to feel not so much unfair to the other Best Animated nominees as unfair to Pixar--Specifically, many viewers felt that Pixar's "Wall-E" could have beaten the pants off the dancing Indian game-show contestant in a fair bare-knuckles Best Picture fight.
And then there was the other faction objecting to it:  The DC Comics fans, still in love with Christopher Nolan's "deconstruction" of superhero movies in '08's "The Dark Knight", angrily wondered why it hadn't been given every award in existence, and a wreath of unspoiled laurels anointed on Heath Ledger's posthumous head.  (Well, at least they got that one.)  
More to the point in either case, it started bringing up the question among audiences, why were the "real" mainstream studio films starting to disappear from the Best Picture nominations?  Where was the fun of betting on Amadeus, Chicago or Return of the King, when we were more obsessed with making sure "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" didn't win?

The Academy started to notice, as well.  In 2008, they revised the rules in the hopes of giving voters more "freedom" in making more personal selections--
The Best Picture nominations were now expanded to eight to ten nominees (hoping to capture some of the more diverse Hollywood populism of the Golden Globes having five Best Dramas and five Best Comedy/Musicals), and voting was now assembled on a "points" basis of multiple-ranked movie selections--As Oscar-watcher site Vox explains in detail:

This did have one benefit:  The new voting made deliberate allowances for voters to sponsor one vote for an animated Best Picture nominee, and the Pixar supporters immediately made for lost time making sure that '09's "Up" and '10's "Toy Story 3" made the lists over the next two years.
But what happened was the reverse:  Voters now had one less month to choose twice as many selections.  The selection started becoming a bit less selective, and more guessing on reputation to fill out the lists.  If rumor said that "District 9 has a social theme!" or "Tarantino is back with Inglorious Basterds", hey, might as well, got a few spaces left.
The nominations soon became reflecting desperation and rumor rather than achievement, and well...WE civilians were already handling the desperate rumor-guessing, thank you, we didn't need the professionals to do it for us, too.

The Accidental Suspect:  The Hollywood Foreign Press Association  

Y'know, I can remember not so long ago--let's say twenty to twenty-five years ago, back in the mid-90's--when the very words "the Golden Globes" would make people snigger their milk in sudden laughingstock giggles.  The awards were NOT taken very seriously.
One major reason was that audiences in the 80's and 90's didn't much see the point of them and networks were starting to move away from extraneous awards shows.  Ted Turner at Superstation TBS was famous in the 80's for wanting to show everything on his network, and never getting it.  When Cap'n Ted couldn't get the Olympics for his channel's very own, and had to air Russia's cheap face-saving 80's imitation-Olympics instead, it became a national punchline among frustrated cable fans of Turner's sad delusional hubris--And when he tried to get the Oscars and ended up with airing the "pointless" but well-sorta-Oscar-like Golden Globes instead, we felt the poetic justice was off the charts and the two deserved each other:  "The Goodwill Games of Movie Awards".
It even became a humorous frustration to ask:  WHO IS the HFPA?  Have they ever been seen in public?  The Globes had been around since the 30's, when studios hired their own publicists and worked with the press, and the Foreign Press returned their sycophantic love accordingly.  Nowadays, without the studio system, it's hard to say where these shadowy people are, but members have been sighted on various press-interview junkets.  And yes, according to some critics, they're still crawling kissups.

Strange part is, nowadays, we take them SERIOUSLY.  We used to spend November predicting the Oscars, now we're wrapped up in the fierce competition to predict the Globes, in the hopes that they will tell us who to predict for the Oscars.   And why?  Because they're first, that's why.  We wouldn't know, without them.  
Usually by the end of November, the National Board of Review and regional Critic's Circle awards also surface, naming most of the critically received arthouse and independent films (a tradition that dates back to when critics feared that only Hollywood movies would win the Oscars, and wanted to thumb their snooty noses at them), and we clueless folk have two sources to guess from:
We choose our nominee guesses from A) sycophantic studio kissups who believe every buzz rumor that studio publicists tell them, and B) critics who want to nominate everything but mainstream studio movies.  

The Globes and NBOR poisoned the Oscars by poisoning US:  We no longer know how to choose nominees on our own (there's usually not as much to choose from as there was in the 70's and 80's).  We no longer root for movies because they moved us, because only a very secondhand few of us ever saw them, or they haven't even opened yet.
Oscar prediction has now become a game of Fantasy Baseball, where the Globes are Draft Day, and we spend three months assembling statistics from the SAG Awards, Screenwriter Guild Awards, Director Guild Awards, etc., and see whose pick had the best "season".

And so we gather the suspects in the drawing room, we must assemble the evidence, but what we do not as yet have is a solution.
The detective says, the horrible and most tragic murder of the Oscars is a most puzzling problem.  Each one of them could have done it.  
And very possibly, like Poirot's most famous case, all of them DID.