What’s Wrong with the Oscars

My friends and family know I am prone to obsessing over awards season. In the last few years I have made it my mission to see all 9 or 10 films nominated for Best Picture before Oscar day, even when some of them didn’t appeal to me at all. I love that this is a time of year when amazing movies are released, and I like to see deserving films and people get rewarded. That being said, I am well aware of the many things that are wrong with the Oscars which often mean that the truly ‘best’ films or ‘best’ actors or ‘best’ editors (if there is such a thing) do not win. And so, in the interest of fairness I have decided to address these negatives (and no doubt there are others that I haven’t included here) before I start/continue hyperventilating about Oscar.

They can be bought (to some degree)
This one is pretty obvious. Big studios have money. Money for Oscar campaigns. And when the producer is Harvey Weinstein (The Artist, The King’s Speech, Silver Linings Playbook) and he throws his support behind you, you’re in with a damn good shot. This also means that independent films without the same marketing resources suffer.
J-Law Harvey
Actors are put into the wrong category on purpose
As if Jennifer Hudson was a “supporting” actress in Dreamgirls (Bill Condon, 2006). However, it was easy for the studio to get away with this because Beyoncé, despite having less screen time, is the big name of that movie. Hence, they campaigned for J-Hud as supporting so that she wouldn’t be up against Helen Mirren in The Queen (Stephen Frears, 2006) who was a lock to win Best Actress. Then surprise surprise, J-Hud wins her category (which isn’t hard when your role is much juicier than the other ACTUAL supporting actresses).

Only films released in a 3 month window are nominated
While there are some exceptions (mostly for the less flashier categories), almost all nominated films are from the last few months of the year. While you could make the argument that this is because studios choose to release their best films during awards season, there is no denying that some brilliant films miss out due to their release dates. The fact that The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance, 2012) did not receive a single nomination angers me.

The Academy is mostly made up of old, white men
A study conducted by The Los Angeles Times in 2012 found that out of a sample of 88% of Academy members, 94% were Caucasian, 77% were male, and 54% were over the age of 60. I am not aware how Academy members are selected and I assume they are working to rectify this distribution, but that is hella lame. No wonder safe films about the war seem to get nominated a lot.
old white academy votersOscars are sometimes given to those who are ‘due’ rather than for the best work that year
Many people have voiced that surely Leo is going to win this year. He’s been nominated SO many times that surely he deserves one already? Technically, the award for Best Actor should go to the person who gave the best performance that year. Full stop. And maybe that is Leonardo DiCaprio for The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013) this year. But many would say it’s Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2013). So if Leo wins, you have to wonder, what did he win it for exactly? One of the many mysteries of the universe…
Leo oscarAcademy members often haven’t seen all nominated films
There’s supposedly a rule that Academy members should only vote for the Foreign Film, Documentary, and Shorts categories if they have seen all of the nominees. In the past this was regulated by making members attend screenings in person. Now they are sent screeners (DVDs) to watch and it is no longer properly regulated. Even if we do assume that the Academy members are honest people and leave out these categories if they are unable to make an informed vote, there is still a problem with the remaining categories. For example: Best Film. There are nine nominees this year. I’m sure many members of the Academy are very busy people and don’t all have time to see every film (especially when they all come out just a couple of months before they have to vote). This means they put the films they haven’t seen at the bottom of their ballot. This again means that the films with the best marketing campaigns are more likely to win because more members are likely to have seen them.

I've currently seen 7/9
I’ve currently seen 7/9

There is little room for diversity in the current nomination process
Between 1945 and 2009 only five films were nominated in the category of Best Picture, which led to criticism that the selection usually lacked diversity. After the shit hit the fan when The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) was not nominated at the 2009 Oscars, the nominating process changed to allow for ten nominees. This meant that films such as Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010) and the indie Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010) received nominations. This also meant that members had to choose their ten favourite films for the year which led to complaints that this was too many. Further criticism was made about undeserving films making the cut. To counter these complaints, the process was changed again in 2011 so that members only had to choose their five favourite films for the year, and then anywhere between 5 and 9 nominees resulted. The exact number is based on how many films get at least 5% of number 1 votes, and is supposed to prevent lesser quality films getting in at the later spots merely to make up the numbers. Interestingly, nine films have been nominated every year since this rule change. At first glance it may appear that there is very little difference in having 9 nominees under the new rule vs. 10 under the old. It just means that one film misses out, right? Wrong. It can mean a completely different list of contenders. Because when Academy members are only voting for their favourite 5 films of the year during the nomination process, they have to be especially selective, and films such as animated features or independent films aren’t as likely to be included. Whereas when they’re allowed to choose their ten favourite films of the year, they make more interesting choices. Even though the more diverse films are still not likely to win, the nomination alone can be a great boost for awareness of their film (not that the Disney films need it).

Subtle performances are often overlooked in the acting categories
I’m the first to admit that when an actor or actress plays a character who is disabled e.g. Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot (Jim Sheridan, 1989), transgender e.g. Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry (Kimberly Peirce, 1999), or who has a mental health issue e.g. Natalie Portman in Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010), I am all for them to win. And that is based on my belief that it is extremely impressive to play a character who is clearly different to oneself and to embody the mannerisms of such a character so convincingly. However, it is now a running joke that if you want to win an Oscar you need to play one of the three types of characters listed above. Or ugly it up a la Charlize Theron in Monster (Patty Jenkins, 2003). Or be in a Holocaust film as Kate Winslet bluntly explained in Extras. Some would argue, however, that a subtle performance is in fact much harder. But they are less showy so they don’t often get the cred. Case in point: Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass, 2013). Perfection. (But to be honest, I was most impressed with the scene where he breaks down – lots of tears often win too).

A preferential voting system for Best Picture means that the film with the most number 1 votes doesn’t always win
Now this one isn’t necessarily a bad thing – and I’ll attempt to explain why in my next post. But for the sake of addressing any potential negatives, bear with me.

From 1943 to 2009, academy members would just vote for their one favourite film in the best picture category. This has now changed to a preferential ballot, whereby members rank all films from 1 to 9 (or however many films are nominated). What this means is that the film with the most number one votes overall does not necessarily win. It has been theorised that Avatar (James Cameron, 2009) may have received the most number one votes at the 2010 Oscars, however, due to the tendency for people to either love it (and thus rank it 1st) or hate it (i.e. rank it last) it lost out to The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008). This is because many people (who didn’t vote for Avatar 1st) may have ranked The Hurt Locker 2nd, 3rd, or 4th and thus it got extra votes in later rounds when preferences were taken into account. So a greater proportion of people enjoyed The Hurt Locker, but Avatar got the most number one votes. So which one deserves to win? It’s debatable. But the Academy are continuously trying to improve upon the voting process so they should be commended for that. (FYI I thought The Hurt Locker was a deserving winner).
N.B. In all other categories, members only vote for one of the nominees, hence whoever has the most number 1 votes wins.
(For a breakdown of the Oscar voting process for Best Picture check out http://www.goldderby.com/cms/view/209/ )

oscar_ballot_a_lEssentially it is merely a popularity contest (with the exception of Best Picture as explained above)
What is the “best” anyway? It’s pretty subjective.

Despite all its flaws, I still love Oscar. Stay tuned to find out why…

For a comprehensive analysis of the Oscar race all year long check out Sasha Stone’s blog at awardsdaily.com

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