Recently the Academy has decided to increase the number of nominees in the best film category from 5 to 10, something they haven’t done since the early 1940s. This is part of a set of moves to increase the audience of the Oscar telecast, along with reforms on the Best Song category and the honorary awards, with the latter no longer part of the main telecast. A friend asked me for my reaction – which is, I couldn’t care less. This wasn’t as a pointless question as it sounds – I am a bit of an Oscar buff, and from 1991 till about five years ago I was quite keen on the Oscars (some people are still surprised at my growing indifference). Something has changed recently – I am finding the films chosen too predictable, too dull, too much Oscar-by-numbers. I think the first time I fully felt this was after watching “Mystic River” and thinking Tim Robbins would get an Oscar for a part that wasn’t necessarily his best but because he played a “challenging” part, four months before the fact. It was a predictable, “tick the boxes and get an award” affair that has only got worst.
Over the last few years, few interesting things were nominated at all, but even the potential nominees list wasn't that much better. Ratatouille and Marion Cotillard were exceptions, Ben Affleck's directorial debut “Gone Baby, Gone” was another – despite only getting a single nomination. The first third of Wall-E was one of the most beautiful films I've seen (but I wouldn't give it an award, because the rest is way too silly). I still haven't seen “Slumdog Millionaire”, but I have my doubts that it will be my choice of best film of the year. And then there are films like “Doubt”, “Frost/Nixon” and the likes, who have the pretence of a pedigree and are just DULL. “Doubt” irritated me because an actress got a nomination because she read her lines – her performance is indifferent, brief, but her speech is amazing (*) – and very much reveals the theatrical origins of the play. “Frost/Nixon” was even worst – there is no point to the film, no tension, nothing. Everyone knows how it’ll end. Surely people should be aware of that tension is an essential part of engaging an audience. Others are just overrated and no one will watch them in 15 years, despite the fact they aren't half bad, just not as good as the press made them (“Juno” comes to mind). It’s what I call the “Dances with Wolves” syndrome.
My problem, I think, is that I have seen too many films, which make me incredibly critical of sub par stuff. Last week I went to see “Last Chance Harvey”, and suddenly I realised that (for a few scenes only, to be fair) I was watching a third rate version of "An Affair to Remember" (itself a remake). Only Somerset House ain't the Empire State Building. Last night, while watching De Palma’s “The Black Dahlia”, I encountered quite obvious references to “Double Indemnity”, “Body Heat” and the 1970s version of “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (which I never even saw) – and I am not even a film noir connoisseur.
The problem is that the Oscars no longer make sense in today's movie industry. They were created at a time where a handful of studios produced the vast majority of American films, and the goal was to reward that same industry. This means that most voters would watch most films or be aware of them. A look back at the nominations between 1927 and say 1960 will reveal most of relevant A-productions of American films of the period in there, even if didn’t win, even if they only have a single nomination for sound or best assistant director or whatever. (Please note I am not discussing winners, and looking at the list of films nominated, regardless of how many nominations they got). There are of course, exceptions. Hardly any B-stuff, which means that except for A-titles like Double Indemnity or The Maltese Falcon, film noir is absent. The same goes for gangster films or westerns (except those by Mr Ford) although comedies were deemed good enough to get nominations in the 1930s and 1940s. This insularity is why very few non-American films were rewarded in the first years – a notable exception is Charles Laughton’s performance in “The Private Life of Henry VIII”.
Nowadays the Academy wants the Oscar to be an international award, to reflect a global market, yet only a handful of films not in English language are distributed in LA (the necessary criterion to be eligible). Moreover, even those need a marketing powerhouse behind them, like Miramax was in the 1990s, otherwise they won't go anywhere. But here lies the problem: as you expand your pool of films and attempt to become universal, it must become painfully obvious the impossibility of the task and you are forced to recognise you can’t be exhaustive. On the other hand, the criteria for a foreign language film, the category created to recognise that there are other markets out there, are archaic, complicated and extremely political, as each country submits a single film for the category.
And there's all the fuss in 2008 because none of the actors who won is American (despite the fact that Tilda Swanson and Daniel Day-Lewis are English speaking performers in American films, and Javier Barden was acting in English in an American movie). If an Oscar nomination is any measurement of quality, there are only a handful of non-English speaking actors who were good enough to be nominated. Must be that acting is really bad outside the English speaking world. For instance, Carmen Maura which is an actress that I like very much is not "good enough". (She's was Penelope Cruz' mother in Volver). If you compare two films, whatever their origin or language, the criteria should be the same. In a sense, Cannes, Venice or Berlin are fairer competitions - you're either in the short list or not, but at least they don't claim to cover the world.
The core problem is this: the Oscars are now plainly about the money (although there’s still the pretence of quality). The money at the box-office, the home video sales and the revenue from the telecast. The Academy also wants to get audiences inside the US and outside the US, and the more they want both, in the end they'll end with neither. The films they're rewarding now are pale imitations of the films they should have recognised about 5, 10, 15 years ago. It's Sundance as a brand.
Ultimately, what they expect is that if the next “Ratatouille” or the next “The Dark Knight” gets nominated it will boost audiences. It won’t for two reasons. First because everyone knows they won’t win – a “serious” film will. Second, what everyone forgets is that “The Dark Knight”, good as it was, was mostly hyped because a fantastic and disturbing performance by an excellent actor who had recently died. Take that out, and it will deflate.
(*) – A brief performance is not necessarily unworthy of an Oscar. Judi Dench steals “Shakespeare in Love” with 8 minutes of screen time, and Anthony Hopkins only appears for about half an hour in “The Silence of the Lambs”.