E: Ah, Oscar Monday. Time for rehashing and recriminations, best and worst dressed lists, and general Monday morning quarterbacking. Mostly, I found 2019 Oscar telecast either as expected or cooler than expected, though there’s a lot to talk about in this very weird, unstable Oscar year. I went four for six in the main categories, neither great nor terrible. Some of my favorite wins were technical, and most of my favorite speeches came from people who’re not famous. I am forced to acknowledge that I’m not fashion-forward enough to appreciate Gemma Chan’s dress and I don’t even know what to make of Sarah Paulson’s hideous bubble two-piece making best dressed lists. And we’ve all discovered that the show’s more than fine without a host – not to mention 40-60 minutes shorter than usual.
E: Quick history lesson. The Oscars were conceived, some 90 years ago, as a way to boost movie sales. It’s that plain and simple; studio heads wanted a gimmick to draw even more of the public into theaters, and so the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was born, conceived in greed and birthed by cash in 1929. In 1930, the awards were broadcast for the first time. From radio to television, the spectacle has always had one purpose and I, like so many others, follow its call. I see the movies. I play the game. You probably do, too.
And I like to play the game. I like supporting excellent art; I even like that following the Oscars forces me to see movies I might otherwise avoid. Sure, sometimes I hate them like I’m expecting to, but sometimes they’re so revelatory, and shine such a window on human experience. Movies can make the lives of other people real to us. Knowledge, wisdom, empathy, intellectual rigor, excitement, and pure whimsy and joy – the cinema can bring us all these things.
Since the 1990s, AMPAS has shifted its attention away from studio fare and onto indie films. At the time, I lauded this turn as a focus on much better and deeper films. Today, however, I look at the slate of Best Picture nominees, and I think about the favorites, and I wonder just what that turn of events has wrought. Whose Best Picture is this? These days most Oscar nominees don’t play at the multiplex down the street, especially if you happen to live somewhere other than coasts. This year, in fact, the likely winner isn’t playing in theaters at all – it’s playing on a streaming service – and it’s hard to know if anyone is watching it there.
This is all to say that it’s good to think about what makes a movie popular or beloved, and correspondingly, what makes an award show watchable. It’s not a coincidence that in the last 25 plus years of more obscure films taking over the Oscars, the show’s ratings have dipped as much as 30% a year. And as a foreign film no one has seen is poised to make history by winning Best Picture for the first time, it seems reasonable to ask; what’s the point of the Oscars, and why should we care? Who are the Oscars for? Surely it’s foolishness to declare a best film at all; art is subjective. Taste is subjective. The film that possesses the imagination of Hollywood voters in any given year is rarely the movie audiences prefer, or even critics. So as we talk about what will win – and as always there are solid favorites in each category – it’s worth thinking about what each win means, and for whom. Look at the many ways Oscar goes global and stays local at the same time! As always, we’ll dive deep into the top 6 categories, with brief looks at some of the others.