Commentary | The self-indulgence of the Oscars

So here we are, another Oscar season has passed, the impressions from Sunday night’s ceremony are slowly giving away, and the passions are wearing off. Now the main focus is on analyzing the awards given and complaining that something didn’t go as expected: the little things that will keep us awake at night. So why did people watch the ceremony this time? What makes the Oscars so much better than other awards ceremonies?
First and foremost, the glamour of the Academy Awards and the infamous red carpet haven’t lost their attraction in the eyes of the average viewer after all these years. The Oscars are also a chance to see Hollywood in its most open and natural way: it’s a microcosm of show business with the movie stars comfortably indulging in long monologues and exchanging innocent jokes with their colleagues. They are there to celebrate their profession, and they do enjoy it.

Whatever the consensus after the show, one thing is almost certain: people will be surprised, shocked, and even angered by the results. I must admit: I have myself at certain times felt that a movie out there just didn’t deserve to win the most prestigious award in the business. But over the years, I’ve learned my lesson and finally grasped the Oscars’ real purpose, and I’m ready to share it with you. The simple idea here is that Hollywood movies have been, and will always be, intended as a pure cinematic entertainment (with popcorn) for the general public. So the more people have seen one movie, the better chance it has to triumph at the Oscars. And this couldn’t have been any truer this year with Avatar surpassing $2 billion in gross revenue around the globe and picking up a handful of Oscar nominations. The movie was the expected win for best picture. Still, it didn’t win, perhaps prompting some to turn their backs on the ceremony, saying they would probably not watch it again. A movie everyone’s seen, they think, should win.

But what had made Avatar such a record breaker and the highest grossing movie in the history of cinema was actually a very skillfully orchestrated promotional campaign. Oscar season, as they call it, basically consists of studios endorsing the films that they think would have the biggest impact at the Academy Awards and openly campaigning for them by distributing “for your consideration” copies and organizing screenings all over the country. It’s a basic marketing campaign, with every little detail skillfully selected, as for example the increased visibility of the nominated actors and actresses on talk shows.

After all, it comes down to the absurd unanimity of most film critics that a certain person deserves an Oscar just because they’re “in the lead,” as determined by media coverage. The Oscars become objective, instead of subjective: almost a science, because people base their preferences on previous winners at other awards ceremonies, rather than their own choices. This forgotten subjectivity is the root of the public’s increased discontent with the awards.

Any deviation from this “objective” formula for figuring out who will win makes Oscars viewers cry foul: they claim the awards are given erroneously or that the voters are biased. But we’ve forgotten that the Awards are supposed to be biased – they represent the opinions of a group of people who happen to be working in cinema and know a thing or two about movies.

Statements like Roger Ebert’s – he said that Sandra Bullock would win the award for best actress because “she also collected a lot of year-end awards” – expose the real problem and make us want to bang our head into the wall. The truth is that there are actresses who can make an average movie almost a masterpiece – they outshine the film itself and create an iconic role for which they will always be remembered. Because of this great skill, they are given the Academy Award for Best Actress, like Marion Cotillard for the average film La Vie en rose. Unfortunately for her, Bullock is not one of those actresses – especially not in The Blind Side. But I suppose we shouldn’t get discouraged and too emotional about her nomination; after all, it’s just marketing. She’s performed her publicity campaign without a flaw, and some would say she deserves to win for that alone.

A last reason people turn the Oscars on every year: the desire to analyze every category to see if the “rules” of the Academy prove true once again, or if there are any surprises in store. By rules, I mean the unwritten quasi-laws that Oscar voters follow (e.g. “no young and/or first nominee for best actress can win the award”; “an actor or actress due for an award must win the Oscar, even if their performance in their category was not their best”). These rules were proven this weekend when Avatar failed to win because a movie with no nomination for best screenplay never wins the award for best picture – with a few exceptions, the last one being James Cameron’s Titanic.

In the end, all is not lost: quality cinema prevailed. Maybe the Academy feared that if they failed to choose a deserving best picture this year, they wouldn’t be taken seriously anymore.

Alexander Kunev is a U3 Mechanical Engineering student. Tell him how YOU feel about the Oscars: