The annual Academy Awards were held last Sunday, and it was clearly a very different Oscars ceremony than usual, due to the pandemic. It took place in April, much later than usual, while honoring movies that had been released as late as February. It was held not in a large theater but in a train station, with much fewer people in attendance than usual. And most of the movies honored with major awards were seen by audiences on streaming services, including Best Picture winner Nomadland.
This has led to the latest in what’s become an annual ritual of handwringing and soul-searching about the Oscars, their place in the cultural firmament, and what it means for the future of the movies themselves.
Since then, some of the conventional wisdom about what that means is more right than some other parts of it. Going one by one:
What is Broken: The Old Awards Show Model
There are getting to be many reasons to think that the Oscars are a concept from another era that doesn’t translate so well to the popular culture of today. There’s not much of a monoculture anymore, and the days of a single movie coming out that everyone goes to see and loves may be a thing of the past.
Awards show ratings have been down across the board, due to factors that include the awards not taking place at their normal time of year, and nontraditional broadcasts, and the general trend of audience fragmentation. It might be time to admit that the Oscars are something that skews older, and might be better skewed to an audience of movie buffs, rather than to the general public.
What isn’t Broken: “Wokeness”
The Oscar ratings drop led to a lot of chortling from the usual corners, in the “you go woke, you go broke” crowd. For these people, everything single thing that takes place, from the overnight ratings for an awards show to Nike’s stock going down for one day, is proof of their overarching thesis that everybody hates wokeness, and anyone who embraces it is doomed to failure.
This analysis, needless to say, is a bit of an oversimplification. Mostly because, the Oscars were woke last year, and the year before, and the year before that. There have been complaints from the right about the Oscars being too liberal, or PC, or “woke” pretty much as long as I’ve been alive; it’s only the verbiage that changes. And political grandstanding at the Oscars is a tradition nearly as old as the Oscars themselves.
This year, there was probably less overt liberal political speechifying than there was the last few years. But it’s not like that matters, because to the anti-woke contingent, everything must always be more woke, and worse, than ever before, at all times. Because if, say, it’s woke for Chloe Zhao to win the Best Director as an Asian woman, and being woke is bad… what is it that you’re implying, exactly?
It’s often been suggested the Oscars should ditch the politics. But would the anti-woke contingent be happy about that? Of course not. The Oscars shouldn’t be expected to change what they do at the behest of people who hate them.
What is Broken: The Year 2020
In 2020, very few movies got traditional theatrical releases, and multiple beloved movie theaters went out of business. Many of the films that were expected to be big box office hits or compete for awards had their releases pushed back to 2021 or shunted to streaming services. There was a global pandemic, and most of us stayed at home miserable for the better part of a year.
Luckily, though, we’re moving out of it, and whatever next year’s Oscar ceremony looks like, it won’t be nearly like this.
What isn’t Broken: The Movies Themselves
A lot of people analyzing the Oscars kind of take it for granted that the movies that were nominated and won weren’t any good. But this year, they actually were.
Nomadland, the Best Picture winner, was very much worthy. Some outstanding movies, like Judas and the Black Messiah, Promising Young Woman, The Father, and Sound of Metal, competed for the top awards, and won them. I’m no Mank fan, but there wasn’t a Green Book or Bohemian Rhapsody in the bunch.
A bit of a critique emerged in the weeks before the Oscars, mostly from people like New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd and HBO host Bill Maher, who are exceptionally stupid about popular culture. The argument was that the movies should be happy, and positive, and an escape.
Yes, they can be. But movies needing to be happy or positive have never been part of the criteria for the Oscars, nor should they be. I happen to think that forced positivity, especially in news coverage, is one of the worst things about the pandemic era. Making every movie happy, and giving them awards, is the exact lesson Hollywood shouldn’t take from this era.
What isn’t Broken: Some of the Oscars Ideas
Steven Soderbergh produced the Oscars this year, and he actually brought some interesting ideas to the table. The entrance with Regina King was super-cool. It didn’t look anything like any other Oscars show, and the intimacy of the broadcast had its moments. And I sort of liked that the speeches didn’t all get cut off, and that the song nominees were moved to the pre-show.
Overall, the Oscars were much better-done than the Zoom-call-laden Golden Globes.
What is Broken: Some of Those Other Oscars Ideas
That said… some of the other choices were much less defensible. If you want people to see movies they didn’t see, maybe show them some clips? Jumping through the death montage at breakneck speed was horrible, as was the inexplicable decision to present the acting awards last, after Best Picture. This stuff left a really bad taste in everyone’s mouth, especially when Anthony Hopkins won Best Actor even though he was asleep at home in Wales at the time.
Can the Oscars be fixed? Who knows, but we do know someone will try next year, and since it won’t be a pandemic, they’ll likely be holding a better hand than Soderbergh was this year.