And The Oscar Goes To...
By Tom Nussbaum
The point of the Academy Awards is recognizing excellence in film. Not popularity. Not ticket sales. Not buzz. Other awards, like the Peoples’ Choice Awards, do that. As a result, the films with the most Oscar nominations or wins may be critically acclaimed, but are not well-known to the general public. That is because the masses go to the theater for escapism, not excellence. They go to see blockbusters, special effects bonanzas. They go to see action, adventure, violence, and asinine, unrealistic stories.
But when Oscar nominations are announced, they feel left out. Their favorite films, their idea of excellence, are relegated to technical categories like sound or film editing. “Dammit,” they scream, “The Fast and The Furious XXXXVII” is the best movie EVER! It should have been nominated for Best Picture.”
Oh, the poor fragile blockbuster films’ fans’ feelings have been hurt. They feel ignored and disrespected by the Association of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.
Pity. It isn’t enough that movie franchises like Iron Man, Avengers, and Mission Impossible are wildly popular, make enormous profits for their studios, or turn humdrum actors into superstars. Their fans want them to be considered—no, included—among the nominees for Best Picture even though they are not, for the most part, worthy of that title.
So, AMPAS is considering how and when to create a new Oscar category, Most Popular Film. This, however, isn’t the first time in recent years the Academy has attempted to appease this bloc of movie-goers by including more popular, action-packed and/or science fiction blockbusters in the Best Picture category. In 2009, the number of films in that category was raised from five to ten although it was not required to name ten every year. This was done, I suspect, with hopes that a popular blockbuster would fill one of the added slots. These actions were, in my opinion, unnecessary, because worthy action films like Star Wars, the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Raiders of the Lost Ark have been included in the top category.
Were these attempts to broaden the range of Best Film nominees beyond the usual art-house fare and critical favorites purely based on a sudden appreciation for the crowd pleasers? I don’t think so. The bottom line was, I’m afraid, the bottom line. In other words, it was driven by profit, business, and the buck. When Oscar nominations are dominated by films most Americans have not seen, let alone heard of, a small TV audience is likely on Oscar night. This impacts advertising revenue. ABC does not air the Oscars as a public service; they do so because the lengthy program should be well-viewed and a cash cow for the network.
Adding categories is not a bad idea when it is warranted. The Academy has added many categories since the first ceremony in 1929, like supporting performances, musical score, even costumes. They all impact the overall quality of a film. However, honoring popularity or box-office success does not. I think creating an Oscar category for Most Popular Film merely cheapens the other awards.
Among past yearly box-office champs are Spider Man, Spider Man 3, Top Gun, and the controversial and violent Billy Jack. As films, are they on the same level of cinematic achievement as On the Waterfront, All About Eve, Gone With the Wind, Schindler’s List, and 12 Years a Slave. Popular fair like Home Alone and 3 Man and a Baby were the number one films of their release years. But were they great movies or merely entertaining fluff. Cotton candy is great State Fair food, but is it gourmet dining?
Am I being elitist, a cine-snob? Probably. Admittedly, I am not a fair or qualified assessor of blockbuster action films or movies that rely on special effects for their appeal. The last one I saw in a theater was 2008’s The Dark Knight and I went solely to witness Heath Ledger’s highly-acclaimed performance as “The Joker.” I hated everything else about the film.
I don’t go to movies for the special effects or never-ending vehicle chases. I don’t go to watch cryptically symbolic tales of good versus evil, because I’ve seen them, read them, even lived them my entire life. I don’t go to have my senses simultaneously stimulated and numbed by a barrage of explosive noises and rapid-fire flashes and camera-cuts.
I go to hear compelling dialogue. I go to see complex characters brought to life by gifted actors. I go to be awed by stunning, appropriate cinematography. I go to be taken somewhere I have never been before. I go to experience original stories that examine the human condition and challenge my brain and tug at my heart. That’s what, in my opinion, makes a film worthy of Oscar nominations. That’s what, I think, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences looks for in its Best Picture nominations.