Friday, February 22, 2019

the biggest company picnic ever

The Oscarcast - if you've kept up with the overheated media response to the recent changes to make the show less insufferable, less elephantine and something close to remotely watchable - is in big, big trouble.

It seems that no one could stand the show's vulgar bloat which grew bigger year after year after year - and yet no one approves of any attempts to remove the unsightly girth either. In fact, one self-appointed "Oscar analyst" (a breed of nobodies who are multiplying faster than rodents) has categorically declared that "the Oscars cannot be fixed."

The people who run The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (essentially the stage mother behind the Oscarcast) made a smart movie when they eliminated the gratuitous, Vegas-style "Hurray for Hollywood" production numbers. And despite an embarrassing plea from a staff writer for The Los Angeles Times, I like the idea of going host-less this year.

Do we really need one of ABC's late-night hosts or some stand-up comic wasting precious time with pathetic jokes at the expense of all the attention addicts in the audience? For years, the Golden Globes got along just fine without a host, only an unseen announcer introducing each pair of presenters. But then, The Hollywood Foreign felt the need to bring on Ricky Gervais to host (memorably), followed by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler (also excellent) and suddenly, it was in the host-hunting mode, too.

An awards show should exist for only one reason - to dole out awards. All that's needed are for fabulous movie stars to come on stage to announce the winners who, in turn, are given ample (read: reasonable) time to thank people who have no real connection to their achievement (wives, mothers, kids, analysts, managers, press agents and workout gurus).

No frills. If done correctly, the ordeal could be done in two hours, tops.

But forget about the highs and lows of the show. What none of the show-biz pundits bother to examine is the relevance of these awards in general, particularly the Oscars (formerly known as the Academy Awards).

OK, someone has to say it: They're ultimately meaningless, all of them - and, surprisingly, most of all the Oscar. Quick! Who and what won the top Oscars last year? Boing! Time's up! I've a hunch that you couldn't answer that question without doing a hasty Google search. The winners always fade from memory - and much more quickly than they did in the past.

These days, the Oscars (both the nominations and the ultimate winners) mean only one thing to the studios: $$$$$$$$$$ - increased revenues for the type of movies that they make grudgingly, only because they win awards. And awards = money. As for the actors who win, for a few years after, they get Big Deals to star in Big Movies (the kind that don't win awards). Case in point: Brie Larson. And another: Eddie Redmayne.

I like Brie Larson but it's difficult to remember that she has an Oscar.

Glenn Close is a safe bet to win the Best Actress award Sunday night (for "The Wife") but, at age 71, it's doubtful if she'll suddenly be in demand as much as Larson and Redmayne were after their wins. Close, a seven-time loser, will win but, a few months from now, will anyone remember?

That's the way it with the Oscar these days. The sense of achievement is fleeting. It goes away. And it's good to remember that, even in its earliest incarnation, dating back to 1928, the Oscar was not about achievement.

Far from it. In fact, there are two reasons why Hollywood invented the Oscar - and neither was about art or real achievement.

One was all about, for lack of a better word, "appearances" - the desperate need to appear respectable. And the second reason involved the one element that has always driven the movie industry - power.

The industry had a rather sullied reputation back in the 1920s, seemingly promoting sex and violence and threatening to corrupt children and destroy the family unit and, by extension, the country.  There was a serious threat of government censorship that could stymie the industry.

So what better damage control than to champion all the wonderful, uplifting and artistic accomplishments of movies? By giving awards to itself, the industry somehow would acquire "class."  True, that doesn't make any sense at all but, if you think about it, the ploy worked.

The second, more pressing reason for the creation of the Oscars had to do with union-busting, which had become difficult on a studio-by-studio basis.  But, as the saying goes, United We Stand.  By banding together as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the studios became one powerful monolithic structure and the awards themselves personified this.

The Oscar became a symbol.  And the less-than-subtle implication was that, if someone was a member of a union, that person would be ineligible to vie for an award. The Academy originally consisted almost solely of studio executives who selected the nominees and winners, rewarding those who played along. It was not uncommon for the wives, mistresses and girlfriends of the executives to win the top acting awards. 

One of the unexpected bonuses of all this was increased box office - money again. Big Money. An Oscar-winning film or performance proved Hollywood had "class" and, in turn, impressed the paying public.  All of this has contributed to the movie industry's preening, overbearing self-regard.

The Oscar - a shrewd idea that's been a win-win situation for the movie industry for 90 years now, making the award bigger with each decade, but as we've learned, not necessarily better. Its history has been conveniently eradicated by Hollywood and kept from those fans still in the  thrall of it.

But the thrill is gone.

Note in Passing:  Curiously, the various movie unions never went away - and actors, long under the thumbs of the studios, eventually unionized themselves, forming The Screen Actors Guild (SAG). Which now gives out its own awards!  More is not enough in Hollywood. Anyway, the studios may have lost their union-busting fight but they won the respectability - and the respect - that they so desperately coveted, thanks to the Oscars.

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~A winner seemingly pleasuring his Oscar


Beth said...

You have done an incredible job detailing the Oscars' history.Brief and to the point. I'll certainly
dig it.

Alex said...

Good column, Joe. As Martin Scorsese once said, "You don't make pictures for Oscars."

Sheila said...

About the only thing that the Oscars are good for these days is to see how the show encourages important people make fools of themselves, both the presenters and the winners

Brian Lucas said...

I still find it odd that anyone genuinely serious about film would even care about the Oscars, let alone debate over them.

Sean Garrick said...

And, of course, to continue the sham started by the Oscars, a lot of other "awards" subsequently came along to further pump up Hollywood and its endless quest for esteem.

Glenn said...

Juicy stuff to savor!

Kiki said...

This is terrific, Joe. Something I -- and lots of other people, obviously -- never considered. I just always thought the Oscars were a big "pat on the back" from the hacks in the movie industry and never gave a thought to union issues, etc.
I don't watch the Oscars because -- well, I hate that red carpet stuff, haven't seen most of the movies and when some of them DO win (like Shakespeare in Love), it's just too grim to bear.

Daryl said...

So the Oscars were invented eons ago for a way of looking good. Seems like nothing has changed.

Gerry said...

Thoroughly enjoyed this. But I must admit that I'm one of those folks who has always enjoyed the heck out of watching them, since I was a kid, and I plan to be there, pre-bathroomed and ready so I don't miss a thing. I’ve long known I was being bamboozled, but I readily submit.

Billy from Philly said...

To Kiki: The red carpet is all that counts now. The Oscar show itself is like an appendage to the red carpet!

mike schlesinger said...

The real problem these days is the plethora of awards handed out not just by the HFPA but all the guilds and approximately 40,000 critics' groups. By the time poor Oscar rolls around, most of the winners are a foregone conclusion and thus there's no suspense. Look at this year: Of the eight major categories, are any of them still in the air? Malek, Close, Ali, King, Cuaron and for screenplays, BLACKKKLANSMAN and FAVOURITE, all seem pretty close to locks. Were it not for preferential balloting, ROMA would be a sure thing for BP as well, but the anti-Netflix crowd putting it at #8 on their ballots could allow GREEN BOOK to sneak through. Believe me, I'd love to see some surprises tomorrow, but I'm just not feeling it.

joe baltake said...

Mike- I long ago came to the conclusion that surprises among the Oscars is a thing of the distance past, and for the very reason you mention - the overload of movie awards shows, which have effectively diluted the importance of the Oscar. As for critics' groups, does anyone still care about those? The National Society of Film Critics doesn't even have a ceremony anymore; the group simply announces its winners. I'm not looking forward to tomorrow night, largely because of Close. I suppose she is a technically fine actress, but I've developed a severe aversion to her to the point that I even don't like watching her. As for "Green Book," it's a well-made mediocre movie and no more. But that's me. I am hoping for Spike Lee to triumph, however. His anticipated win is the only reason I’m curious about the show this year. -J

mike schlesinger said...

Oh, I agree that the public doesn't care about critics' awards, but the Academy voters do. When people and films appear out of nowhere and suddenly start winning a ton of trophies from all those groups, Academy members take notice and then those people become front runners and even win. I mean, would tiny films like MOONLIGHT and LADY BIRD have gotten even a single nomination if the critics hadn't creamed their pants over them? (And all that huzzahing over the latter because it was made by a woman should have gone to the infinitely better THEIR FINEST, which had not just a woman director but a mostly female crew as well.)