Ninety-five percent of the onslaught of commentary and reporting about the Oscars is couched in terms of fair vs. unfair, commerce vs. art, and “My Personal Taste Enshrined in My Mind as Actual Fact” vs. “Academy Members’ Personal Taste Enshrined as Somehow Being Important.” Journalism is almost always about finding the most interesting “narrative”; and horse races are always easier to write about than aesthetics and/or Byzantine film-biz politics.
Yes, the Oscar race — like everything else about Hollywood, including what gets made — is about money. Not in the most simplistic way: In that case, Best Picture would have gone to Avatar instead of The Hurt Locker, Inception instead of The King’s Speech, Gravity instead of 12 Years a Slave.
There are “subtler” ways of putting the bottom line first, like when studios sometimes make a money loser to please stars or directors who are likely to do moneymakers in the future. Warner has long been home to Clint Eastwood, and, if that association requires the occasional Invictus or Hereafter, it continues to be a money-winning strategy in the long run, as the unexpected success of American Sniper demonstrates. After this latest moneymaker, if Eastwood came to them asking for twenty million dollars to make a feature-length version of his 2012 performance at the Republican Convention, all they’d say is, “Who do you want in the role of the chair?”
The Oscars may seem like vain self-glorification — and they are — but they’re also a huge promotion machine for the industry as a whole, generating more inches — or, nowadays, electrons — of free coverage promoting an event with a massive guaranteed audience. Even years of bad ratings for Oscar telecasts represent a huge number of eyeballs being focussed on the preening — this, despite how badly produced the show generally is.
Last year marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of The Worst Oscar Presentation Ever — the year that Allan Carr brought forth such delights as Rob Lowe and Snow White singing “Proud Mary,” while a few hundred million people scratched their heads and went, “Wha?” (Now that should be available on home video.) And yet — like the Eastwood/chair colloquy — it was all anyone talked about at the water cooler for days. If no Oscar presentation since has been as embarrassing, many have been a good deal duller.
Would a victory for any of the Best Picture nominees seem like an upset? After the Golden Globes and the People’s Choice and the Indie Spirits and all the trade and critics groups? Does it make that big a difference to anyone not directly affected? (Office pools excepted.)
Doesn’t the proliferation of awards and of coverage become wearying? Can you remember what last year’s controversies were? Can you name two out the last five Best Picture winners? Is the telecast really just a necessary footnote to all the hubbub that precedes it?