Folks, it is that time of the year again. Awards season is upon us and all manner of critic, pundit and prognosticator are out in full force, excitedly engaging and perpetuating the same superficial ballyhoo they can’t stop themselves from being “shocked” and “appalled” by. The Golden Globes and various entertainment guild awards, not to mention a litany of critics association lists and plaudits, are all signifiers of the oncoming storm of cinema criticism Armageddon, the no holds barred, steel cage match of “my favorite movie can beat your favorite movie,” the Academy Awards. Every year, around the fall, although it seems to occur earlier and earlier, media outlets begin to speak of “Oscar buzz,” the intangible it-factor that films are said to possess that earmarks them for future statuette accumulation.
Do you know what gives a film Oscar buzz? Literally nothing. If four people watch a movie (or see its trailer, or read a half paragraph about it on Indiewire) and think it has even the slightest potential to win an Oscar, they’ll say so, and boom, now it’s got Oscar buzz. This cycle is a frightening, self-fulfilling prophecy that plays out every year. First the buzz, then the early, smaller awards, then the end-of-the-year lists, following roughly the same model Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? taught us as children with the loot, the crook and the warrant, only instead of capturing colorful international criminals, the reward is arbitrarily crowning works of art championship material, as if they were the ’72 Dolphins.
Yesterday morning, the Academy Award nominations were finally announced, thus ending the tantric guessing game as to who would make it to the big show. As usual there were surprises and snubs, but largely, a lot of foregone conclusions coming to fruition. What’s considerably more fascinating than Emma Thompson being left out of the Best Actress category, or The Butler being ignored, is people’s reactions to these non-events. The psychological climate surrounding awards season is incredibly beguiling for a number of reasons that I’d like to enumerate with a few questions to the general public, best read in an angry, mid-90s Dennis Leary voice and best visualized alongside a particularly dismissive jerk-off pantomime motion.
WHY DO YOU CARE?
This isn’t me saying “award shows don’t matter” or “we shouldn’t bother engaging in the annual simulcast circle jerk Hollywood throws itself” but more that awards season shouldn’t engender the vitriol it manages to consistently produce.
Oh, there are people who have reason to be so outspoken. Firstly, the talent themselves, be they behind, beside or in front of the camera. In a weird way, the Oscars for film and the Grammys for music are like the Olympics. These people work all year on prestige projects they’re passionate about that, generally, aren’t big money makers, so of course they get jazzed about being invited to gala events with goody bags and complimentary champagne. Winning one of these awards can change your career, and failing to do so can hang over your head like the sword of Damocles. Just ask Leonardo DiCaprio who, like Lebron James before the Miami Heat got their rings, seems perpetually naked without the warm comfort of a golden statue.
To the producers and studios behind the films, they make sense, since they stand to profit from the increased box office revenue generated from being validated by the academy. That’s why they sink money into “For Your Consideration” campaigns for their respective films, sending screeners to MPAA voters and taking out ostentatious ads in trade magazines. I suppose media tastemakers can care, since they’re paid to care, but unless you have money riding on whether or not Philomena can take home the big one, then you’re really being one of those people who needs something to be mad at.
HOW DOES THIS AFFECT YOUR EXPERIENCE CONSUMING ART?
This is an easy one. It doesn’t. I loved Inside Llewyn Davis. I think it’s one of the best films the Coens have made in recent memory and I was blown away by lead actor Oscar Isaac’s performance, but the movie got snubbed pretty spectacularly. I was a little surprised by it, considering that A Serious Man got some nomination love when it was released and was far more divisive, but it doesn’t make me feel any differently about the film. If anything, the political parlor game that ends with Oscars is more likely to ruin your estimation of films that end up winning than ones that are overlooked. I weep for the casual moviegoer who sees the announcement of these nominations and runs to the nearest cinema, only to be brutally underwhelmed by these films. The propulsive momentum gained throughout awards season can make re-entry from the stratosphere of hype into the hearts and minds of audiences turbulent, indeed.
IF YOU DO CARE, WHY ARE YOU BAFFLED BY PEOPLE’S DIVERSITY CONCERNS?
The above video perfectly encapsulates a lot of what is wrong with the academy’s treatment of minority voices in film. Unfortunately, this video is 25 years old, and not a helluva lot has changed. There are people who do fervently care about the Oscars and every other stepping stone on its path during award season, and many of these people were confused during the Golden Globes when there was an uproar over 12 Years A Slave being shut out of every category it was nominated for, with the exception of Best Motion Picture – Drama. Now, it would be hypocritical to go on and on about how the Oscars are essentially one, big insular popularity contest, then criticize a film that won the final prize of the night being “overlooked,” but that’s the problem. An intense, nearly universally lauded film about the plight of slavery is having difficulty connecting with Oscar voters because huge swaths of them just can’t be bothered to watch the damn thing. Their jobs are to sit through a bunch of these movies every year, at zero expense to themselves, and this particular one is just too much.
The continuous trend of minority achievement in film being ignored is so troubling because of the fact that the Oscars are one big popularity contest, and not in spite of it. It speaks to a closed-mindedness that flies in the face of the supposed progressiveness in so many prestige films’ subject matter. Historical dramas and tales of strife, or physical disability, or adversity have long been joked as being prime motivators for award wins, and yet the real life adversity experienced by artists of color continues unabated.
What it boils down to is this: awards season is a fun and fascinating whirlwind pop culture obsessives can’t help themselves but get swept up in, but we cannot forget that these award shows are not the final word. You are. How a piece of art affects you, personally, and the effect it has on your life, that is the end all, be all, not Harvey Weinstein fondling the effigy of a naked, golden man.