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Commentaries

The 2012 Academy Awards

Aired on February 26, 2012 (Episode 377)

The 84th Annual Academy Awards ceremony will air on television tonight. If you listen to any of the mainstream media coverage of the Oscars, the awards show is often referred to with phrases like “Hollywood’s biggest night” and the Academy refers to itself as "the world's preeminent movie-related organization" of "the most accomplished men and women working in cinema." Most major media outlets speak of the Academy Awards with a level of respect, with insinuations that the Oscars represent the final word on cinematic excellence.

Regular listeners to this show are probably aware that I no longer toe that line. In the past I’ve discussed the growing irrelevance of the ceremony although it is also important to note that without the Hollywood awards circuit, a lot of major studios might not be interested in prestige films at all because they do not make the kind of money expected by those who run the major motion picture companies. Universal Studios head Ron Mayer has proclaimed, “It's great to win awards and make films that you're proud of and make money, but your first obligation is to make money and then worry about being proud of what you do." It is known that winning awards gives pictures a financial boost, and so the various award ceremonies do have some value by creating an incentive for studios to make or distribute them.

Of course, when money gets involved it has a corrupting effect. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which hosts the annual Golden Globe ceremonies, has been plagued by charges of bribery, with former publicist Michael Russell quitting his job just days before the 2011 ceremony and filing a lawsuit against the organization, accusing its members of payola and other ethical breaches. (It’s important to note that the lawsuit has not yet been resolved.)  It is also known that the culture around the Academy Awards is based on campaigning for votes, not unlike a campaign for public office, and studios spend millions of dollars in their efforts to woo the Oscar voters. The exact extent to which the money impacts actual Oscar voting is hard to say but its pervasiveness is enough to impugn the integrity of the Hollywood awards establishment.

Recently, a new aspersion has been cast on the Academy Awards. In an article in the Los Angeles Times, writers John Horn, Nicole Sperling and Doug Smith attempt to profile just who the Oscar voters are, since the Academy’s membership list is kept secret. The article found that Oscar voters are about ninety-four percent white, seventy-seven percent male, and have a median age of sixty-two years old, with voters younger than fifty years old making up just fourteen percent of the membership.

The fact that the Oscars are decided by old white men is not exactly a surprise and the lack of diversity has been a longstanding issue for the Academy. As the article details, very few actors of color have been nominated or even brought on stage to present awards. Whether the Academy should more accurately represent the racial and gender constitution of the American population or if it should represent those working as professional filmmakers regardless of their identity is something that I’ll leave to be debated among people who specialize in ethnography and gender studies, at least for now. 

However, the nugget from the Times article that is really most damning about the Academy has little to do with the race, gender, or age. Within the piece, the writers observe that hundreds of academy voters haven't worked on a movie in decades and some are people who have left the movie business entirely but continue to vote on the Oscars. What this means is that the institution that calls itself “the world's preeminent movie-related organization” of "the most accomplished men and women working in cinema" and that the mainstream press treats like the definitive judgement on motion pictures does not make its annual award decisions based upon the opinions of people who are currently working in the business.

This flies in the face of the whole image of the Academy Awards. The assumption made by the tens of millions of Oscar television viewers, or at least those who think about these things, is that the people who get on stage were voted there by the people sitting in the audience. And while that is true to an extent, it is clear that votes are also being made by people who have no immediate attachment to the industry and perhaps no interest in film.

And that is far more damaging to the integrity of the Academy Award than the influence of money or the passé nature of the televised ceremony. An award only means something if the people bestowing it are qualified to be doing so. If the Academy Awards is really just a group of old men, a portion of whom haven’t even worked in the business in years, deciding who gets a career defining golden idol and who doesn’t, then these awards really don’t mean anything more than the yearly picks of a random blogger, and they probably mean less than the picks of professional critics or a film’s score at rottentomatoes.com.  

When actor George C. Scott was nominated and subsequently won an Oscar in 1971 for his role in Patton, Scott refused to show at the ceremony, saying "the ceremonies are a two-hour meat parade, a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons." When the hoopla of the ceremony is set against the Academy's blatant lack of integrity and their awards' bareness of meaning, it reminds us of just how right Scott was and his words ring even truer today.

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