Oscar The Grouch

12 03 2010

Some Oscars, yesterday

Around this time of year, casual acquaintances who know that I’m interested in cinema will often try to make small-talk with me about the Oscars. “So, who do you think’s going to win Best Actor?” they’ll ask, or “Will you be staying up for the ceremony?”. After the awards have been handed out, they’ll approach me to discuss the merits of the winning film, perhaps, or the stars and the movies that have missed out.

Now I’m as much a fan of idle speculation as the next man but, despite the topicality of the subject matter and despite my interest in most things film-related, I inevitably find myself struggling to think of anything to say. The fact is, I have to admit, rather sheepishly, the Oscars have never really meant that much to me, and they probably never will.

It seems that I’m far from alone in feeling this way. For most of the past decade, US television audiences for the Academy Awards have been falling year-on-year. In the Eighties and Nineties, the ceremony regularly attracted domestic audiences of more than 45 million. 49 million watched Forrest Gump win Best Picture in 1995, and in 1998 an unprecedented 57 million tuned in to see James Cameron proclaim himself “king of the world” in the wake of his Titanic success. Last year, by contrast, only 37 million watched as Slumdog Millionaire was crowned Best Picture. And even that was an improvement on 2008, when only a paltry 32 million tuned in.

My own scepticism about the Oscars has always had much to do with the kinds of films that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, to give it its full, rather grandiose name, has traditionally favoured. There’s nothing inherently bad about Gandhi or Forrest Gump or Driving Miss Daisy, I suppose, but, on the other hand, none of these films could exactly be considered to have broken much new ground artistically or to have reached any new heights of cinematic expression.

Oscars have, of course, gone to some genuinely great and innovative films in the past. But still, for every Godfather or Lawrence of Arabia there’s a Chicago or a Chariots of Fire that’s been rewarded at the expense of much worthier candidates, simply for sitting in the middle of the road and causing no trouble. 

That the mawkish and the formulaic should do so well at the Oscars is hardly news, of course. Hollywood has always been about business first and art a distant second or third. The Academy itself is, when it comes down to it, rather like Tinseltown’s version of the House of Lords: a place where semi-retired Hollywood insiders are put out to pasture. Its 6 000 voters are lobbied intensely in the run-up to the awards, and have to weigh up decisions that are as much about movie industry politics as they are about the merits of the films under consideration.

'Driving Miss Daisy'

And yet, despite this, in recent years the Academy has been broadening its scope. Chicago may have won Best Picture in 2003, but in 2008 that honour went to the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men. In competition that year were also Juno and There Will Be Blood, both relatively low-budget and independent. This year, the mighty CGI dragon that is Avatar was comprehensively slain by The Hurt Locker, a film made for a fraction of its budget and seen by far fewer cinema-goers.

But if the Academy has belatedly recognised that English-language cinema doesn’t begin and end at the multiplex, then that’s partly through necessity. Since the Lord of the Rings trilogy wound up, there have been very few movies that have managed to attract both big audiences and favourable middlebrow reviews. In fact, the very biggest hits – Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean, and, erm, yes, Avatar – have been so unashamedly dumb that even the studios promoting them would have a hard time convincing themselves that they had ‘Oscar-worthy’ material on their hands. In the recession, a conservative business has become more conservative still, and even less interested in pursuing ‘quality’ when there’s a safe, unimaginative buck to be made. 

And so the field has been left open for smaller films than would usually be considered; for semi-independent films, and for the odd auteur too. What’s good for art is bad for business though. In 2008 and 2009, in the face of a less mainstream selection of nominees than usual, viewing figures plummeted, and with them the vital advertising revenue that the show’s broadcaster, ABC, depends upon. While Slumdog Millionaire was exactly the kind of cross-cultural, crowd-pleasing film that Hollywood would have loved to have made, the fact is that few Americans had actually seen it. Similarly, There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men, while much better than Titanic or Chicago on every artistic level, simply did not have the same name-recognition as other, bigger films that had played in the multiplexes in 2007-8.    

'No Country For Old Men'

This year’s viewing figures were up again, to over 41 million. But this surely had more to do with Avatar and the much-publicised Cameron-Bigelow smackdown than it had to do with support for relatively unknown films like The Hurt Locker or An Education. Whether they’ll be an equivalent populist ‘hook’ at next year’s ceremony is anyone’s guess, but one can only imagine that the Academy’s grandees have their fingers and toes firmly crossed.

And so, for now, the Oscars find themselves caught between two stools. They can either continue to recognise independent and marginal talent, and haemorrhage viewers, or they can look for merit where there is very little – in the big summer blockbusters made by increasingly risk-averse studios. What they really need, of course, is another Million Dollar Baby or Lord of the Rings; a film that performs well both commercially and critically. But, like buses, it’s difficult to predict when one of those might come along, if at all.

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