By Ross Anderson
The Oscars are upon us once again, which means it’s time to talk about just how much the Oscars don’t matter. Shouting into the void is always a good stress reliever. Having said that, it is slightly difficult to write about the folly of the Oscars when the frontrunners this year are all so outstanding. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood and Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (my money’s on Boyhood) are the three leading contenders. These films are all bold, striking and hugely original. This is, however, something of an anomaly in Oscars history; taking a quick glance back at the Academy’s time-tapestry reveals a wealth of mistakes and cop-outs so large it dwarfs the Academy’s actual wealth.
That’s not to say that this year is controversy-free, of course. Of the twenty available acting nominations, all twenty are filled by white actors. You could say the caste was limited – if you were a monster. I’m not saying that every major film needs a hugely diverse cast -my own favourite pick for worthiest film of last year was Spike Jonze’s Her, a film with a small but unfortunately pale complexion, beaten out by 12 Years a Slave– but it is still a problem. This year, the Academy failed to nominate Selma in any major categories despite it receiving excellent reviews, being a historical biopic of an important figure (which the Academy usually loves) and predominantly populated by black actors (or blactors, as the Academy calls them. Probably).
The academy is very ‘into’ films that deal with the big political issues, so long as those issues are separated from them by at least fifty years. It is possible that with all the race-related troubles in America right now, the Academy, in a move that could only be described as ass-backwards, decided not to associate themselves with Selma, a film about America’s Civil Rights movement. God forbid they actually confront the audience with reality. They also love a good movie about anti-Semitism, so long as it’s Holocaust-era anti-Semitism. (Schindler’s List, The Pianist, Life is Beautiful). Movies that deal with race in particular have difficulties at the Oscars, unless they’re set so long ago it seems like a foreign country (à la 12 Years a Slave.) It’s one of the reasons Spike Lee has always been so unsuccessful at the Oscars, yet consistently effective in challenging and engaging the viewing public. Driving Miss Daisy, Best Picture winner 1989, was a gentile movie about a kindly black servant, and was thus far more palatable than that year’s Do the Right Thing, Lee’s incisive look into current day race relations (well, current day 1989) which despite great acclaim, failed to be nominated.
But the history of the Oscars is full of such incidents. Whoopi Goldberg should have won the Oscar for Spielberg’s The Colour Purple. And the Academy themselves actually seemed to agree, awarding her an apologetic statue for Best Supporting Actress the next year, for the insubstantial Ghost. Had Goldberg won her rightful award, she would have been the first black woman to do so. Instead the world would have to wait another eighteen years until Halle Berry reigned supreme for Monster’s Ball.
This brings us rather neatly onto another key point: the Oscars are not a meritocratic system in which talent and hard work is rewarded so much as it is a congratulatory back-slapping festival, in which the most important motivator for an award is paying dues. Denzel Washington was inarguably robbed of the 1993 Best Actor award for his role in another Spike Lee joint, Malcolm X, in favour of the two hour long drunken Yosemite Sam impression that was Scent of a Woman, ruining Al Pacino forever in the process by leading him to believe that his optimal, award-worthy acting style is ‘Jim Carrey with haemorrhoids’. Fittingly, the real reason the academy saw fit to give Pacino his award is because he himself was snubbed in 1975 for his seminal performance in The Godfather: Part II; instead the statue went to Art Carney in a movie about a road trip with a cat.
And the pattern continues.
One of this year’s big nominees, Richard Linklater, has been eternally snubbed by the Academy, with five nominations and no wins, despite making great movies since the early nineties and arguably pulling off the even greater feat of making Ethan Hawke look like a professional actor. Hence my money is on Boyhood: it’s his time.
Citizen Kane, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Pulp Fiction, Star Wars, Goodfellas: these are the game changers of cinema, the films that have been etched onto the public consciousness, and not one of them was deemed Best Picture. Two of them weren’t even nominated, and Goodfellas lost to Dances with Wolves, in which Kevin Costner directs Kevin Costner as Frontier Jesus in possibly the worst film I’ve ever seen. But, ultimately, the real reason the Oscars don’t matter is because they’re nothing more than a reflection of the industry itself: favouritism, sexism, racism, money and a continued desire to put Kevin Costner in movies are how it operates. And it doesn’t look set to change anytime soon. Still, in spite of this classic movies continue to be made, without the Academy’s recognition. Pass the popcorn.