How the Oscars didn’t end up pleasing anyone

Tragedy rarely fits the Oscars. Lavish self-celebration is difficult to achieve in times of war. Faced with the devastation of Ukraine, the 94th Academy Awards is already a difficult prospect. A grimace arises at the thought of the platitudes to come on the red carpet of Hollywood’s Dolby Theater, blue and yellow ribbons pinned at Dior. Would it have been wiser to reduce it? To reduce the risk of misinterpreting the play?

Unfortunately, the Oscars have already tried this – and no one was happy. Last April, in the midst of Covid, the Academy returned to laid-back minimalism. Brad Pitt, Glenn Close and the others were scattered around the Art Deco waiting room at Union Station in Los Angeles. The result looked like preppers in tuxedos sitting in front of a zombie apocalypse. US television ratings were abysmal, the press and social media scathing. Where, people asked, was the fun?

Too fleeing. Not enough escape. Such is the current crisis of the Oscars, an institution once looked upon with fondness that now seems to aggravate audiences no matter what it does. A year later, it is clear that the pandemic has not brought us together. And the Oscars can be two things at once: the perfect reflection of a bitterly divided world and a rare exception to it. In 2022, person can handle the Oscars.

Actor Zendaya backstage at last year’s Oscars, held at Union Station in LA © Richard Harbaugh/eyevine

This unpopularity has been building up for a long time. For much of the past decade, the awards have been mired in anger over diversity. The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, created by activist April Reign in 2015, has rarely felt redundant since. Dismay also surrounded the recognition of women. (Not yet in 2020, the best director shortlist was all-male. “Congratulations to these men,” actress Issa Rae deadpanned as she announced it.) Without doubting the good faith with which the Academy is being remodeled, its frenzied reforms have also been carried out in hopes that each new year of the Oscars will finally cease to be a cataclysmic PR groundhog day.

In this regard, the Academy could consider this year a relative success, if it were to ignore both the focus of minds on Ukraine and a weary general disengagement. It would take the same force of will to affirm that this year’s nominees are proof of realized diversity. Jane Campion is now the favorite to win the best director award for her gothic western The power of the dog; she is also the only woman among five nominees. Likewise, only one of the 10 Best Picture contenders was directed by a black director (Reinaldo Marcus Green’s King Richard, a biopic about Venus and Serena Williams’ father). To date, a black filmmaker has never won Best Director. Academy members would say they can only award films made by the industry. True. The same goes for the fact that they are the film industry.

And yet, it’s hard to discuss it without feeling like you’re being looked up at. Since the Oscars struggle with diversity, moody counter-complaints have come from those on the right who are less troubled by the fact that Hollywood’s high-profile films are largely made by and about white men. For this constituency, the strenuous mea culpas of the Oscars have made it the gold standard of dumb liberalism. Again, the Academy faces spleen from all directions: For people who value diversity, the Oscars problems are unresolved; for those enraged by the very subject, the rewards have become a piñata. Always useful, the Daily Mail summed up the nature of it filmed by both sides with the title: “Woke Oscars so white again.”

King Richard director Reinaldo Marcus Green sits on some steps with young actresses Demi Singleton and Saniyya Sidney.  Next to them is actor Will Smith, wearing shorts, long white socks and sneakers
Director Reinaldo Marcus Green with actors Demi Singleton, Saniyya Sidney and Will Smith on the set of ‘King Richard’ — the only best picture contender from a black director © Alamy

It shouldn’t be surprising that the resentment — caught up in an all-pervading culture war — spilled over to the actual films. The clearest example is The power of the dog. In late February, veteran actor Sam Elliott lamented what he saw as the film’s inauthentic account of the early 20th century West. “Shit,” was his verdict. In response, Campion called him “little bitch”. Shortly after, the director also had to apologize when an ill-advised remark about Venus and Serena Williams seemed to diminish the obstacles they had overcome. The bunfights were shocking. A strict politeness generally reigns in Hollywood with the approach of the Oscars. But the sourness extended beyond the awards. Also among the public The power of the dog is the most hated Oscar favorite in years.

Again, the Academy might consider this good news. Another common problem about the modern Oscars is that the main contenders are now little seen. This is not the case with the Netflix version of The power of the dog. (A powerful performer for society, it was briefly the most-watched film on the entire platform.) Still, mainstream audiences proved a mixed blessing for a film with an artful tone and deliberate pace. Exposed to a larger crowd than it usually attracts, it left much of the public cold, indifferent to Campion’s polished craft.

We also live in a time when taste can be politically charged. While many skeptics may have simply been annoyed by the film, it would be naïve not to see some of the ill will as being tied to the culture war. In sulphurous Montana rancher Phil Burbank, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, the film presents a voodoo doll of what has come to be called toxic masculinity. A fan of conservative media personality Jordan Peterson, for example, might find it hard not to take things personally. (Note that the portrayal of gay characters has also been accused of homophobia; the film does have a knack for alienating a crowd.)

Actor Benedict Cumberbatch sits in a chair outside and watches a monitor.  Jane Campion stands next to him, also staring at the screen
Jane Campion, seen here with ‘The Power of the Dog’ star Benedict Cumberbatch, is the favorite to win the Best Director award © Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

But for the Oscar-watcher looking for an antidote to liberalism, an alternative is there to put down roots. Right behind Campion’s film in the nominations is another landscape take on a teenager’s rite of passage: Dunes. Modern discord is never far away. The politics of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi saga were debated long before director Denis Villeneuve reached the planet Arrakis. But a constant fuel for Herbert’s work was his libertarianism, a hatred of government that would fit perfectly with our current hostilities. Loyal followers may sense an agenda in the film’s relegation to the mere favorite for technical categories. While Dunes is, of course, widely popular as pure epic storytelling, in a culture war it’s still far from neutral territory.

And then there is Don’t look up. A potato hotter than even The power of the dog and another Best Picture nominee, director Adam McKay’s star-studded, desperate farce wreaked havoc early on. The loudest row came between critics (sniffy) and Netflix audiences (huge, enthusiastic). It brilliantly evoked the chaotic din that McKay was satirizing before anyone even got into politics. In fact, people couldn’t even agree on what politics were, with many viewers refusing to accept that the doomsday comet at the heart of the story was intended as a metaphor for climate change. (McKay later clarified that it was.)

But beyond this year’s slapstick, there may be a deeper history of the Oscars with long-lasting consequences. Nostalgia is tricky when an institution is accused of excluding so many for so long. But the very passion of a movement such as #OscarsSoWhite shows just how much the awards have meant. For nearly a century, they have been a beloved frozen cherry set on a culturally dominant double act: cinema and feature film.

The exterior of the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles, where preparations are underway for the Oscars
Preparations for this Sunday’s award ceremony at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles © AaronP/Getty

Today, even these superpowers are weakened in a divided world. With a sufficient budget, it is possible to mimic the physical cinema at home. Money and technology allow the cinephile to get out of the commons. Individualism rules. The collective space of cinema is still losing numbers.

And yet, watching movies now means choosing a side. In the politically inflamed and increasingly popular arena of online gaming, right-wing trolls see movies as tainted with liberal values. More corrosive to the future of cinema, however, is the game’s libertarian appeal: you’re in control. Movies can only seem passive by comparison, with every detail mediated by a director. In 2022, Phil Burbank would have a home cinema. Frank Herbert would play.

Yet for the Oscars, the real comet to come may not be politics but irrelevance, not anger but bewilderment. While the culture wars may seem to split us into two vast tribes, real culture has become a digital melee of countless content creators, micro-niche markets and disrupted hierarchies. (Much has been written about how music on TikTok makes viral hits of obscure non-hits.) Movies and even cinema will survive. What seems timeless is the ceremonial ranking of creative work, judged annually by anonymous custodians. Anyone learning about the Oscars for the first time this year might squint in confusion. WHO are these people? And why do they continue to offer themselves statuettes?

The last Oscars are not here yet. We remain in the first phase of gradually-then-suddenly. But the world in which events inside the Dolby Theater mean much beyond is likely on borrowed time. And on the outside, as always when the bombs drop, the red carpets might go wrong.

The Oscars are on Sunday, oscars.org

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