I have a confession to make: I didn’t stay up late to watch The Academy Awards last night.
I wanted to, I really did, and in my defence, I usually manage to watch part of the awards during the early hours. Although the only ceremony I’ve ever watched in full was the 1998 Academy Awards, also known as The Year Titanic Won Everything. It was a Sunday evening, and I was still at school, but I managed to get the TV in my room and watch it with the volume turned almost all the way down, and I got away with it. That is, until this confession.
So, while most of my contemporaries reported live from the ceremony, or watched online while playing some kind of Oscars Drinking Game, I was happily snoozing, and like much of the rest of the world, I woke up and read the results, alongside a plethora of tearful acceptance speeches, Oscar selfies and red carpet interviews.
It might sound like I’m dismissive of the Academy Awards, but I’m not, I think recognising the world’s film industry is a wonderful thing and is something that we need to champion. But over time, the hype surrounding the awards has become less about the films nominated and more about the celebrities in attendance and the outfits they wear for the ceremony.
I used to love watching televised award ceremonies; I loved the glitz and the glamour and seeing talented people be rewarded for all their hard work and dedication. To those in the industry, that little gold statuette is the ultimate stamp of approval, it is acceptance and celebration of their work. To the outsider, the mere mention of an Oscar lends authority to a film, and adding the words ‘Nominated for an Academy Award’ on the DVD cover of a nominated film can make the difference between a quick sale or a long stay in the Bargain Bucket.
After all my years of illicit night-time Oscars viewing, I’ve come to the conclusion that the actual awards ceremony is pretty boring; it follows the same formulaic structure; there’s amusing and usually inoffensive host, (last year there was an offensive host, and he didn’t go down very well) bad jokes, gold envelopes, aggressive clutching and waving of the statuettes, and then a big party afterwards. Preferably the Vanity Fair party, but you know, any party will do. The Oscars are so damn reliable, Hell, even the speeches are predictable nowadays.
The evening isn’t an honest glimpse inside the inner workings of the mysterious Hollywood machine – after all, we know very little about the 6,000 voting members of The Academy for Motion Picture Arts and Science who decide the winners – because the event itself is nothing more than an exercise in PR, fashion and inane interviews. The Oscars has become extremely safe television for an extremely wary industry.
And herein lies the problem; while The Oscars has witnessed various, and very nasty smear campaigns against nominated films and individuals over the years. For example, in the run up to this year’s ceremony, Stephen Frears’ Philomena, which was nominated for the Best Picture Award, was slammed as being “anti-Catholic propaganda”, while historical allegations of child sexual abuse against Woody Allen were brought out into the open once more after his latest film, Blue Jasmine, started winning accolades at the start of the awards season.
And yet, while the standard of the films nominated are always excellent, the awards themselves suffer from what the journalist Boyd Tonkin has called “…the Hollywood pattern of belated bravery”, that is that Hollywood, despite all the razzle dazzle, is at least 20 years behind in representing major scandals and failures of society. For example, Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club chronicles the AIDS epidemic and homophobia of the 80s, which killed thousands of people in America alone, yet the film was only made last year, 20 years after Tom Hanks’ Oscar-winning turn as an AIDS sufferer in Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia, because no one was willing to back the project.
Meanwhile, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, which took home the coveted Best Picture Award and a much-deserved Best Supporting Actress statuette for Lupita Nyong’o, received a markedly different response to Gordon Parks’ 1984 adaptation of Solomon Northup’s journey from free man to slave, which failed miserably, as seemingly, America just wasn’t ready for a real tale of human suffering from the 1850s.
It wasn’t always like this, The Oscars used to be great television; in 1974, a streaker attempted to upstage David Niven, while in 1973, Marlon Brando refused to appear in person to collect his Best Actor Award for his role as Vito Corleone in The Godfather, and chose to send civil rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather in his place to draw attention to the plight of Native Americans across the country who had been let down by the government. Littlefeather used her time on stage to criticise Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans, while in 2003, Michael Moore’s acceptance speech for the Best Documentary Award for his film, Bowling for Columbine was cut off by music and a chorus of boos when he condemned the Bush Administration and the war in Iraq.
If The Oscars is about celebrating every aspect of filmmaking, then it can’t shy away from the more political and less PR-friendly side of the industry. So, if films reflect the world around us, why, in the 21st century, are we still struggling to commit mankind’s more difficult side to celluloid? The Oscars needs to be about passion, truth and freedom of artistic expression, something which The Academy, and the industry at large, must consider for next year.