The Industry History Behind the Academy Awards

If my post yesterday seemed a little jaded, check out “The House that Mr.Mayer Built,” a quick read from David Thompson at Vanity Fair on the economic and industrial situation at the time of the first Academy Awards.


My Paradoxical Relationship with the Academy Awards


For fifteen years I watched the Oscars. Despite being only seven-years-old and the tradition of a Sunday (read: school night, for those of us on the East Coast) ceremony, my reverence of the grandiosity and pomp surrounding American cinemas biggest night knew no bounds. It seemed I couldn’t have picked a better inaugural ceremony than that held on March 28, 1998: the Year of Titanic. My excitement was particularly buoyed by the fact that my Toronto-based family happened to be in Los Angeles on that particular day, as we enjoyed the final moments of a family vacation. My parents, unsusceptible to my determined, and (retrospectively) unreasonable pleas to take me to mob the Shrine Auditorium on the way to the airport repeatedly attempted to placate me with the fact that, upon returning home, I would be able to watch the Oscars on television. My life-long poor sleeping habits notwithstanding, this was nonetheless a gross violation of my bedtime, and eventually I was satisfied with the compromise.

My Oscar tradition both begins, and ends with Billy Crystal. That night, I was transfixed by all the Academy had to offer. I realistically remember little more than the general look of the gaudy set pieces, and realistically recognised no one. But I was hooked. And so I continued for the next 13 ceremonies, some years more out of tradition than interest. Until, Billy Crystal’s return to hosting in the midst of the controversy surrounding Brett Ratner’s ouster.

The stakes had never seemed lower. After the previous year’s combination of predictability and mediocrity, and still smarting from what I felt were the great injustices paid to the many films I had deeply enjoyed, which received no acknowledgement from the Academy, I came to one conclusion: I didn’t care. And for the first time, I didn’t have a place to watch the Oscars. An admittedly overly melodramatic statement, but a true one nonetheless. I was living in an apartment, and being the good Gen Y-er I am, a television cable subscription was not something I particularly cared about or needed. While I certainly could have turned to a friend, or relative, or to one of the many places screening the Oscars in Downtown Toronto, I honestly couldn’t be bothered. And I haven’t since.

That being said, I probably follow the Academy Awards – and the award shows leading up to them – more closely than ever. This finally brings me to my point: the Academy Awards both do, and don’t matter.

While I have been able to separate myself, and my personal annual favourites from the monotony of the frequently (though, certainly not always) bland cinematic offerings lauded every year – mostly, if I’m being completely honest it still stings – the mechanics of the award show are more visible to me than ever, and so are the financial consequences for the winners and nominees.

I once heard that to get nominated for an Oscar is an accomplishment, to win is luck. While admittedly this statement does not reflect the myriad of ways the Academy ignores quality films, I would also like to amend this slightly by adding “and marketing” to the end. This year’s nominees were amended last month, when Bruce Broughton was disqualified for emailing Academy members reminding them of his submission for the Best Original Song nominee “Alone Yet not Alone.” What is so striking about this disqualification, is not the apparent abuse of power, but that the rules of Oscar campaigning had actually drawn a line at all. More than one statue has been given out to the best marketing campaign. The moral of this story ultimately is: when in doubt, call Harvey.

So, where does that leave us? To watch, or not to watch. While I can’t dictate, or really even point to one strategy over another, I do have a few recommendations:

1. Do not get upset when your favourite film doesn’t win. This one can be hard as many of us have very emotional attachments to the films we love. But that affection is in no way reduced by the lack of a statue. You already liked the film when it had nothing, realistically nothing has changed.

2. Do no get upset when your favourite film doesn’t get nominated. See above.

3. Do find some way to enjoy yourself, if you do decide to watch the ceremony. Whether you come for the fashion, to see Jack Nicholson sit front row in sunglasses (though unfortunately not as much recently, come back Jack!), or if you have a top notch bitchy drinking game to play with your friends, if you’re going to commit three-plus hours of your life to something, you might as well have a good time. 

4. Do question the categories. How would our understanding of film change if we had only a “best performance” category, instead of the somewhat arbitrary gender split? Can we do better than best “foreign language film”? And,

5. Don’t look to the Oscars to dictate your film watching. In any given year countless films (sometimes the best ones) come out that will receive absolutely no attention from the Academy. If you’re primarily interested in the struggles of solitary, English-speaking men against society/nature/themselves/etc., then the Oscars is probably your best bet. But you’re going to miss out on a lot.  

Or don’t do any of these things. I’ll be too busy not watching the ceremony, and obsessively refreshing the list of winners.