Take a minute, if you will, to imagine this year’s Academy Awards ceremony as it might unfold in a parallel universe. On this alternate-dimension Oscar night, there are five Best Picture nominees: The Artist, Bridesmaids, The Descendants, The Help, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. In a vividly suspenseful contest that even the sharpest Oscar prognosticators all agreed was too close to call, the big award ends up going to a movie that received lavish critical praise, that entertained huge audiences in a splendid fashion, and that singlehandedly redefined the landscape for women in Hollywood. When the award is announced, it’s greeted by war whoops of joy — and also by laughter, tears, and a great many dropped jaws. I’m speaking, of course, of Bridesmaids.
You think I’m joking! Well, members of the Academy, the joke’s on anyone who thinks that the scenario I just described would somehow make you look bad. But now let’s talk about how this year’s Oscar night probably will unfold. (I’m writing this on the eve of the telecast.) Holding an envelope of predictions up to my forehead, à la Johnny Carson’s Carnac, I see…an award going to The Artist. (It’s Best Cinematography!) Then another award going to The Artist. (It’s Best Director!) Then, at long last, the Best Picture award, which goes to The Artist and surprises absolutely no one, since this entire contest seems to have been decided by some Hollywood star chamber about five months ago. Meanwhile, The Artist has been seen by about as many viewers, total, as saw The Vow…on its second weekend of release.
Each year the Oscars undergo a major revamp (new host! new number of nominees! new bells and whistles!), all in an attempt to pander — I mean, appeal — to the mainstream moviegoers who are now tuning in to the telecast with less and less loyalty. What’s at stake is TV ad dollars, but also something much grander: the status and identity of the Academy Awards. Are they still the ultimate entertainment event? Or in a Hollywood that’s now marked by the grubby arduousness of Oscar campaigning and by the slow, steady drip of all those other movie awards shows, have they begun to lose their magic mojo?
Back in the ’70s, when I began watching the Oscars, the winners could be populist to a fault. (Looking at 1977, it’s amazing to think not that Rocky won but that it won over All the President’s Men, Taxi Driver, and Network.) Yet in a funny way, the crowd-pleasing priorities of the Oscars were part of their irresistible essence. No one pretended they were about good taste. Recently, though, you Academy members have grown classier in your voting. With the award now going to films like The Hurt Locker and (in all likelihood) The Artist, no one can say you’re pandering. If anything, the Oscars have evolved into a boutique event.
You might guess that a critic like me would celebrate the elevation of a film like The Artist by you, the Academy. To my mind, however, there’s something a little la-di-da about an Oscar night that fetishizes ”prestige” even as it mostly sidelines films — like Bridesmaids, or The Dark Knight three years ago — that are marked by the vulgarity of giant box office returns. The argument that the Oscars should include more popcorn movies has been made many times. Yes, they should, but I’m talking about a deeper issue, one that’s now eating away at the cultural primacy of the Academy Awards: Hollywood’s insistence, all year long, that ”fun” and ”quality” exist on separate islands.
What the Oscars I grew up with symbolized was those two things coming together. (Just think of such great and popular Best Picture winners as The French Connection, Annie Hall, Rain Man, and Gladiator.) Yet perhaps the only way that the Oscars can continue to represent that ideal is if you, the members of the Academy (who, after all, don’t just vote on these films — a lot of you make them, too), begin to build a bridge between the two islands. That is, if you go back to creating movies that are popular in spirit but that play to our hearts and minds as well as our eyeballs. And if you do it on a regular basis, not just three or four times a year. I have little doubt that the parallel-universe Oscar night that I described above — the one where Bridesmaids wins — would get better ratings than the Oscar night that we’re about to see. But you should all ask yourselves: Might it not also be a cooler, more surprising — and more honest — show?