Every Oscar season has its rituals: the red carpets, the speeches, and the annual complaint that an elitist Academy has lost touch with the movies “real Americans” watch. This year, it comes from the New York Times’ Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes, who say that the Oscars “have nearly broken their connection with the movies that many millions of people buy tickets to watch.”
As I pointed out yesterday, “Birdman” is the second-lowest-grossing Best Picture winner in at least four decades, and even the technical categories which usually serve as the Academy’s token handouts to blockbusters were invaded by “Whiplash.” But it doesn’t follow, at least without an argument that Cieply and Barnes don’t bother to make, that that Academy’s taste has shifted, or that this supposed shift means the Oscars are in imminent danger of losing their cultural standing.
If you review the roster of Best Picture winners without glancing at box office, they seem remarkably consistent: modestly self-congratulatory issue movies like “In the Heat of the Night” (1967); movie-star entertainments like “The Sting” (1973); glossy period pieces like “Chariots of Fire” (1983); spectacles like “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956). Substitute “Crash,” “Argo,” “The King’s Speech” and “Chicago” and it doesn’t seem like much has changed.
What has changed is what movies audiences are going to see in theaters — the only metric Cieply and Barnes cite, despite its increasingly limited relevance. “Ordinary People,” the 1980 Best Picture winner, had none of the characteristics of a modern box-office hit. It’s essentially a drama about people talking in rooms, but its domestic gross was more than $54 million. That’s $155 million in 2014 dollars, which would have landed it in the year’s top 20, right between “Gone Girl” and “Divergent.” (It actually finished 11th, just outside of a top 10 that included “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Smokey and the Bandit II.”) The Oscars haven’t abandoned movies with mass-audience appeal. It’s theatrical audiences who, with rare exceptions, who have abandoned anything but big-budget spectacle.
Like many reporters who cover the movie industry, Cieply and Barnes seem to have internalized its values, Stockholm Syndrome-style. (As I was writing this, James L. Brooks, who won several Oscars for “Terms of Endearment,” lit into the article in a series of tweets that called it, among other things, “virulent anti-art.”) What’s good is what makes the most money, and the Oscars had better get with the program or risk being put out to pasture. Never mind that, as they pointed out in 2013, revenues for the Oscar telecast have continued to rise even as its ratings have fallen off, or indeed, that any awards show faces an uphill battle in a post-monoculture world where crowning a singular work the best in its domain has increasingly less value. The Grammys, which Cieply and Barnes use as a perennial club to beat the Academy Awards, has responded to the fracturing of culture by giving out more than 80 awards, then exiling those awards to unaired ceremonies while it devotes the vast bulk of its TV broadcast to musical performances. That not a route it would be either sensible or desirable for the Academy Awards to follow — not to mention that if one of your criticisms of the Oscars is that, to cite Cieply and Barnes’ sole quoted source, a film studies librarian from the University of Michigan, “No one really believes anymore that the films they chose are the ones that are going to last over time,” the Grammys’ absurdly hidebound, historically risible choices don’t represent much of an improvement. (In 1977, the year the Academy’s Best Picture was “Annie Hall,” the Grammys’ best new artist was the Starland Vocal Band.)
It’s true that, to an extent, the Oscars’ ratings rise and fall with the popularity of the nominated movies. But it hardly follows that a Best Picture slate including, say “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1” and “Transformers: Age of Extinction” would bring viewers running. It’s doubtful that, say, “Hunger Games” fans much care about the Academy’s validation, and the implication that awards shows should replicate box-office results amounts to a kind of hegemonic bullying. The Oscars should not reward movies for being hits any more than critics should penalize them for it. As James Rocchi put it, “There’s already an award for the Oscar nominee seen by the biggest audience. It’s called ‘Money.'”
I’d love to see the Academy demonstrate more catholic taste: Imagine a Best Picture field in which “Guardians of the Galaxy” competes against “Under the Skin.” But for critics of the Academy’s supposed “elitism” — a laughable claim given the body’s implacably middlebrow taste — there’s nowhere to look but up the box-office ladder. The unvarying charge repeats itself year after year, no matter the contradictions involves: This year, Cieply and Barnes complained about a “confusing tangle of awards that went in many different directions”; in 2013, they smiled approvingly on voters’ Golden Globes-like generosity in “[h]onoring a wide variety of pictures.” In 2012, “Hollywood’s awards machinery” was “broken”; this year, it was an unstoppable juggernaut.
But then, this debate isn’t really about the Oscars. It’s about the collective shame of an industry that’s built a business model on pandering to teenage boys and sets aside one evening a year to pretend it’s about anything else — or, in the case of “Birdman,” a movie that dramatizes that very struggle. How convenient it would be to kill that last shred of conscience; to happily embrace the profit motive and set all else aside; to treat art as a welcome but inessential side effect of commerce. It would certainly make reporting on the movie industry easier. Every last one of the Academy’s eight Best Picture nominees has earned back its budget several times over, but there’s no room for such piddling successes in the global game. It’s winner-take-all, everything else be damned.