In that doomy-peppy Talking Heads song “Life During Wartime,” there’s a great line where David Byrne sings: “I’ve changed my hairstyle,/So many times now,/I don’t know what I look like!” That’s how I’m starting to feel about the Academy Awards. As someone who has griped about the expansion of the Best Picture category from five nominees to ten, I should in theory be cheering the news that this coming year, the nominee list is going to shrink down to…well, not quite five, but six. Or seven. Or maybe eight. Or it could be ten again. It all depends on which movies — and exactly how many of them — appear as the first choice on at least five percent of the ballots. (Are you in a deep coma yet?) I don’t think I ever knew as much about Academy voting procedures as I do today, and frankly, I was happier when I knew nothing. This is one example of inside baseball that isn’t fun even for insiders.
But more than that, the new and improved version of what was already supposed to be the new and improved Oscars, with its “excitingly” expanded playing field (hey, why not 12 films? how about 17?), feels not so much like a refinement as it does like a hedge of a hedge. It’s not just that the people in control can’t seem to make up their minds. This coming year, not making up their minds will become an intrinsic part of the system.
After all, it’s not as if the slate of ten nominees, unwieldy as it was, was really so bad. No, the real problem with this constant changing and tweaking and re-thinking, all based on “creative” considerations (how can we honor the prestige popcorn movies that always get left out? The acclaimed animated films? The straggling indie gems?) that are really, deep down, commercial calculations (how can we get more damn people to watch this show? And pull in the younger folks who advertisers love?), is that it’s beginning to nibble away at the Oscar brand by fuzzing out the solid, predictable, slightly square, this-is-how-we-do-it traditionalism that has always been the oak-carved cornerstone of this particular awards show’s identity. I’m not saying that awards shows can’t change. The Grammys got a lot better when, in the early ’80s, they began to award artists that people under 45 actually listened to. And anyone who suffered through the latest edition of the Every Hipster Is For Sale Movie Promo Reel (I mean, The MTV Movie Awards) knows that that faux extravaganza, intentional Cheez Doodle that it is, is in dire need of some new blood.
Yes, the Oscars can, and should, evolve. But right now, when movies, rather than dominating the culture front and center as they once did, look more and more like just one additional entertainment choice amid a brain-frazzlingly eclectic multi-media cosmos, I think it’s a big mistake for the Academy Awards ceremony to be in a perpetual neurotic state of reinventing itself, giving its Best Picture rules a new perm every other year. It looks arbitrary and vacillating, it reduces the Oscars more and more to being just One More Awards Show (rather than the awards show), and besides, it’s sort of like fussing with Christmas. You can’t really make it better; you can just make it less.
After all, who really tunes into the Academy Awards to see something hip, relevant, new-fangled, and responsive to “the kids?” (That’s called The James Franco–Anne Hathaway Beatnik Hour, and it didn’t work.) The real anxiety that the Oscars, with their cool/confusing new spread-the-wealth math games, are trying to stave off — and they’re not about to do it with five nominees, or ten, or seven or eight or nine — is that, with rare exceptions, the disjunction between the movies that people experience as art and the pop blockbusters that people pay to see in droves has rarely been as wide as it is right now. It’s a veritable grand canyon. In theory, it’s certainly honorable (and commercial too) to want to put together an awards show that tips its hat to everything from the most spectacular mass-audience crowd-pleaser to the most celebrated and independent creative vision. But it may be a lot easier said than done. There’s a big difference between changing with the times and changing, over and over again, to try to preserve a center that may not be holding.
So what do you think of the Academy’s new Best Picture guidelines? Is it interesting, or annoying, that the Oscar rules now seem to be in a state of constant flux? And can you think of yet another way to bridge the mass/indie divide that the show’s producers — for all of these changes — have yet to come up with?
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman