Do the Oscars still really matter?
It’s James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ v Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘The Hurt Locker’ at the Academy Awards on Sunday night. But interest in the jamboree is waning and many think that this year’s nominees lack lustre. Time Out invited two experts to answer the burning question: do the Oscars still matter?
'Yes', says Charles Gant, Film editor of Heat magazine and box-office analyst for The GuardianIt’s one giant advert for Hollywood. It makes errors of taste enshrined for posterity. It’s swamped by fashion and frivolity. It’s a slave to the market or it rewards obscure films the public doesn’t care about. Maybe so. But I can’t help feeling it’s elitist to complain about a process that brings movies of quality to the attention of a wider public.One of the best movies of the ’90s: ‘The Thin Red Line’ (seven nominations, zero wins). One of the best movies of the noughties: ‘There Will Be Blood’ (eight nominations, two wins). Anticipated awards attention was encoded in the distribution strategy for those films and gave comfort to studios committing large sums to their budgets. You think movies are bad already? Without the Oscars, they’d be much worse. Does anyone imagine Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘The Hurt Locker’ (UK box office: £1.2m) would be at the top of the DVD charts now without the awards fever raging around it? Those who win awards voted by the public always say these prizes are especially dear to them, but the truth is they have plenty of ways to measure popularity already. The support of film critics may or may not be valued, but the respect of peers is what they covet most of all. And why shouldn’t we too, once a year, wish to know what’s winning the esteem of filmmakers?Really, whatever wins people’s engagement is fine by me, whether it was the pink Ralph Lauren gown Gwyneth Paltrow wore when she won her 'Best Actress' gong for ‘Shakespeare in Love’, or the fresh-faced hyperventilating 'Best Original Screenplay' winners Matt Damon and Ben Affleck for ‘Good Will Hunting’. My most treasured Oscars moment came nine years ago, when Steven Soderbergh won for directing ‘Traffic’. Ditching the usual long list of thank-yous, he simply dedicated his Oscar to anyone who spent part of their day creating, be it a book, film, painting, dance, theatre or music. He had that one chance to say this to a TV audience of many millions, and he grabbed it. I’m not ashamed to say that I shed a tear.
'No', says Geoff Andrew, head of film programme at BFI Southbank and Time Out contributing editorIt’s not only because this is a bad year for American movies that the Oscars seem… well, so unconcerned with real excellence. The awards ceremony’s obsession with glitzy success has been a given for decades. But the self-congratulatory, self-serving aspects of the whole thing are more conspicuous this year, when many of the contenders are just so-so (face it: ‘The Hurt Locker’ is fine, but not much more), others overblown (think JC and QT), and the Brit contestant (‘An Education’) is a minor effort riding high on a strong performance. Yes, ‘A Serious Man’ is audacious, and ‘Up’ has its virtues, but is that all there is?The problem, as with the Baftas, is that the Oscars remain so narrow in their Anglophone scope. To designate the winners ‘Best Film’ and ‘Best Director’ while all but ignoring (or ghettoising in one category) anything made in a country where English is not the first language is not merely an act of arrogance; more damagingly, it misrepresents what cinema is about. Fine if the Academy admitted that its only real interest was in American cinema and its Anglophone imitators – but never fessing up relegates to a token sideshow films like ‘A Prophet’, ‘The White Ribbon’ and three more titles kindly allowed to be shortlisted from the entire planet. So the argument that the Oscars is somehow good for cinema rings hollow: what they are ‘good for’ are the box-office takings of a handful of winners and the profile of the Academy. The rest of a year’s films benefit not a jot; they may even suffer, given the Academy’s fascination with mainstream Anglophone success, glamour, celebrity and all that guff.There’s nothing wrong with making or enjoying escapist entertainment; but let’s not confuse that with celebrating artistic achievement – especially when you recall how much the awards are influenced by costly lobbying. Indeed, given the imaginative bankruptcy of Hollywood, I’m usually surprised if a great film wins a major Oscar. I’m happy, of course, but it’s just an accident; for a more accurate reflection of what’s exciting, I look elsewhere.
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