When Did We Forget Awards Are For Rewarding?
As you settle into the warm, fmiliar spot on your couch to watch another iteration of the Academy Awards Arts and Sciences show, a few phrases may cross your mind.
‘Everyone gets a trophy’
‘No child left behind’
These are but two of the ways in which society expresses a one for all and all for one mentality. But we can also resent it. To allow no child to fail, to ensure no person feels left out, we must ignore that some people excel. We must ignore some people stand out.
This will be most evident than during awards season. For years, the debate surrounding who won and who lost was always about the merit. How could Julia Roberts for Erin Brockovich beat Ellen Burstyn in Requiem For A Dream? How could Shakespeare In Love down Saving Private Ryan?
Today, those discussions would be music to thy ears. Instead, someone is messing around with the plugin on your amp. The discussion is why #OscarSoWhite. The discussion is why there aren’t more women on the ballot. The discussion is why La La Land shouldn’t win because it’s about a white jazz musician and not a black jazz musician. The Academy Awards is no longer about merit, but politics.
Don’t get it wrong – certainly those things matter. But they don’t matter that much in the context of awards season. That is to say, why jump ahead and be enraged that more women aren’t nominated for directing awards – we should worry that more women aren’t telling their stories, period.
Take this commentary by Eli Glasner (an excellent writer, no less) who drags Donald Trump onto the red carpet. “While the president can dismiss the comments as the whining of "overrated" actors, the roughly 6,000 voting members of the academy have another way to express themselves: their ballots.” So sorry, didn’t the 6,000 members of the Academy already have that opportunity to express themselves on a ballot? Ya know, in November last year?
Now this isn't about the trendy criticism of the politicization journalists who cover non-political beats. This is generally fair game if done properly. To juxtapose that front against that of awards shows, this current climate is all but begging those in the media to bring the strands of political discourse into their beats - because they exist there. Every time a government creates a tax or restricts the rights of citizens or releases a new budget, those things don’t just affect you and I, they affect industries, the movie industry being one. Should a journalist ignore that every friggin movie and television production seems to be filming in Georgia now because of the incredible tax breaks levied by that state? Uh, no. But guess what? That's politics. If you want escapism in movies, go see a movie.
Politics has no place in picking merit. Politics don’t belong in the discourse of picking best because politics don’t exist there. This year, the Academy votes for Moonlight wins because it will represent the current political climate and justify progressive American’s need to feel they are inclusive and non-discriminatory. On the other hand, the Academy votes for La La Land wins because it’s about the creative process and the value of film and justifies their industry.
Or for more fun, let’s throw Hidden Figures into the mix, a film that had zero buzz until it was released during a fortuitous time in the American discourse (you think 20th Century Fox would have thrown more marketing muscle behind it if the film was such a strong picture, just sayin'). Apparently, we should want Hidden Figures to win because we want to feel good about America’s relationship with its black community. We should want a film to reward a film we have essentially seen before – The Help, The Butler, Dreamgirls, Remember The Titans. Yet we go back barely three years to find 12 Years A Slave, a truly exceptional film which portrayed slavery in a way we had never seen before.
Either way, the Academy is not voting for quality or art but for their politics. It has nothing to do with why we see movies. It has nothing to do with why we value movies. The whole thing makes me want to go back to 2014 when the debate between 12 Years A Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Gravity was a dull one; how the first shot cruelty too beautifully, the second glamourized greed (in actual fact, portrayed accurately), and the third may have stretched the laws of science.
Man, when did awards shows stop being a meritocracy? Oh, right, I remember. The simple answer is: never.
A history lesson: the Oscars were created by Louis B. Mayer as a means to not only promote his stars, but bring them together as a group and thus dissuade them from unionizing. Hand out a few awards, keep people happy, and no on one would feel the need to organize!
So there you go. The Oscars did not begin as a meritocracy. We shouldn’t be surprised it has survived without being one.
So then what’s the point of it all? It feels like the Academy, its members, and their obsession with politicization over merit fits that wise proverb: if a tree falls in the woods with no one around to hear, does it make a sound? Mayer got it half right: Hollywood needs people listening. They’ll do anything to keep it that way.
Rhys Dowbiggin @Rdowb
Rhys has worked six years in the public relations industry rubbing shoulders with movie stars (who ignored him) to athletes (who tolerated him). He likes tiki-taka football, jelly beans, and arguing with Bruce about everything.