How Do You Solve The Problem With The Oscars?

In the wake of this year’s awards, I look back and assess what the Oscars really mean in this day and age, and crucially, how I think they should change. 

Disclaimer: this is not a sweeping and universal statement on what should definitively change about the Oscars, it is merely my view on how they could be improved – nothing here is intended to offend.

So that bastion of grandiosity and ceremony, the Oscars, has come and gone, again. And what have we learned? Well, we know what the Academy likes. Then again, I think we always have done. But what does it matter? And how should it change?

Spoiler alert if you’ve been living on the red planet for the last two weeks – Leonardo DiCaprio finally won Best Actor, for his performance in The Revenant, and Brie Larson won Best Actress for her lead role in Room. Mark Rylance and Alicia Vikander, against the form book, won the Best Supporting Actor and Actress prizes, and whilst Alejandro González Iñárritu may have won Best Director for The Revenant, Best Picture went instead to journalistic drama Spotlight.

But indeed, that is all old news. What is more striking is how the awards strove to be something more than just glitz and glamour this year, and tried to deal with real issues. Having Chris Rock as host in a year plagued by a diversity row only played into that, and having a big Lady Gaga number highlighting the problem of sexual abuse only furthered the main theme of the Best Picture winner. But there were still big problems with this year’s awards – no white acting nominees and the omission of critically-acclaimed drama Carol being two of them.

But aside from this, the big winners (and even the nominees) could have been drawn up ages ago. There were no real surprises, no deviations from the norm, because Oscar convention prevents the possibility of that happening. A couple of biopics or films based on real events (which the Academy has leaned heavily towards, even more so than usual, in the past couple of years) – check. Majority (read: all) white acting nominees – check. A token blockbuster but no more than that – check. So here is my opinion – purely my own – on why and how the awards should change.

If the Oscars truly want to represent the best of film-making and be anything more than an instantly forgettable soundbyte in a digital world, then they need to get over their fixation with the same old tropes and start admitting new things. For one thing, they need to more openly realise that blockbusters and big action films can be well-crafted, well-acted and contain great ideas. Christopher Nolan’s films, Inception aside, which consummately try to marry up big concepts with action-packed stories, have been overlooked. This year the Academy permitted entry to The Martian and Mad Max: Fury Road, and the six technical wins for the latter may represent a step forward, but still, it didn’t win big. You’d have to look back to Lord of the Rings for something of that order.

But, just personally, if you choose to reward (or at least nominate) a film series that has well-mounted set pieces and solid character development, I would have gone for the latest James Bond caper, SPECTRE, over Mad Max. On re-watch it stands up well, as a reworking of the franchise’s past, a reflection on how it has reached this point, and a possible end point for Daniel Craig’s incarnation of the character. And also, it’s fun. Secondly, although I’m aware that Young Adult films never receive the kind of attention they could, to me the final Hunger Games film was a terrifying, timely and moving cinematic experience that was worthy of some recognition.

But the Oscars don’t just get a bee in their bonnet regarding blockbusters – more intellectual pieces also seem to escape their gaze. The Coen brothers’ 2014 masterwork Inside Llewyn Davis was tragically overlooked for a nomination, as was Paul Thomas Anderson’s thought-provoking but ambiguous drama The Master (his film There Will Be Blood, regarded by many as a masterpiece, was nominated but lost out for Best Picture in 2008 – ironically to No Country for Old Men, a Coen brothers film). To the Academy, perhaps a film must be clear-cut and easily comprehensible rather than challenging, as the above films are, and to me that thought process must change. However, it’s not only the films that escape nominations which are problematic, but sometimes the ones that win.

In 2014, the Academy rewarded Alfonso Cuarón with Best Director for Gravity, giving the Best Picture award to 12 Years A Slave. In the same vein this year, Best Director went to a more technical achievement with Iñárritu’s win, but Best Picture went to Spotlight. To my mind, certainly with 12 Years A Slave, the Academy missed an opportunity to honour a film which was obviously crafted and structured with immense care by its director. The Academy should not be afraid of rewarding determination and clarity of thought over technical prowess which often amounts to a case of style over substance.

I also believe that animated films of high quality should be nominated for Best Picture. I acknowledge that the Academy has previously nominated Up and Toy Story 3, but last year’s Inside Out, which was fully deserving of a Best Picture nomination, didn’t get one. The skill and care that goes into animated films (especially stop-motion films like those from Aardman) is equal to, and often outranks, that which goes into live-action films. It’s time that the very best of them got nominations more consistently on a wider platform.

Equally I believe this should be the case with high-quality foreign language films. One only has to look at the popularity of foreign TV dramas like SpiralThe Bridge and Deutschland 83 in recent years (to name but a few), to know that subtitles are no barrier to understanding, enjoyment and appreciation. The 2006 German language film The Lives of Others in particular is one which I feel was robbed of a Best Picture nomination. But the point is, the tics and emotions of the characters are the same regardless of the language they speak – the real language on show is universal.

I’m not saying that the Oscars don’t serve a purpose, far from that – it’s just that they could be more than they are, and could reward more than the same narrow cross-section they do each year. So they can keep on the road they’re on, and keep on with the same ideas, and that will be fine as a reflection of an industry within its own bubble – but it could expand the bubble and be more welcoming to excellence across the board. It’s the Academy’s decision now, and progress on those fronts would personally be positive, but whatever happens, the best films don’t really need an award to determine their quality, they need people watching and praising them, and talking about them. That’s a judgment that lasts at least as long as a golden man.

Alex Nicholson

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