Oscars 2019: Academy Awards can't claim to be prestigious or global if its preoccupation is American relevance

Devang Pathak

Feb 19, 2019 14:47:33 IST

The most insightful critique of cinema’s award season came from an unlikely source. British-Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. was the subject of last year’s highly acclaimed documentary Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. When a fan suggested that the documentary should have been nominated for the Academy Awards, a common complaint sent to several film-makers in the week of the nominations, the rapper had an unusual response.

Asia, with 62% of the world’s population and home to India and China (the world’s top film markets with a combined sale of almost 3.6 billion tickets in 2017), rarely finds proportionate representation on a global stage. The nominees for this year’s Academy Awards carry forward the same trend while offering some surprises even within Western films. Snubs and unexpected inclusions are a common fare but some of the least appealing films of the year have been included in the mix.

Oscars 2019: Academy Awards cant claim to be prestigious or global if its preoccupation is American relevance

Oscar statuettes appear backstage at the Oscars in Los Angeles. (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP, File)

The polarising reactions to this year’s nominees might be a good distraction for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the body which organises the Oscars. A series of scandals have plagued the organisation since last year’s iteration drew the lowest US viewership in award history, and a leaked resignation letter only worsened the crisis.

Bill Mechanic, an Oscar-nominated producer, resigned from the Governor’s board alleging that the members had failed the organisation. He enumerated a series of problems, ranging from issues within the Academy to its over-zealousness on things not under its ‘purview’ such as sexual harassment and discrimination in the industry. He alleged that the organisation had settled for numeric answers to the problems of inclusion, ‘barely recognising that this is the Industry's problem far, far more than it is the Academy's’. He bemoaned the fact that the past decade had seen so many smaller independent films being nominated, that the awards should be ‘handed out in a tent’; an implied derision of the Independent Spirit awards, which are given a day before the Oscars at a beach in Santa Monica. The letter is alarming in how it highlights the differences between board members of the most famous awards show in the world, at a time when the Academy is increasing the diversity of its members globally.

Nevertheless, Mechanic’s conservative stand against playing moral police and shutting out popular films seems to have had the desired effect in the case of Bohemian Rhapsody. A film whose own stories of scandal and problems could rival that of the ceremony has been nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture, despite the fact that its director faces several allegations of sexual misconduct. The film’s unfavourable reviews and scathing criticism seems to have mattered little in front of its $800 million plus box office collection.

The most damning sign of the Oscar’s identity turmoil came a few months later when it made major announcements. The ceremony planned to add a new award for ‘Popular Film’ and wanted to limit the telecast to three hours by presenting six to eight categories live at the venue during commercial breaks. The winning moments would be edited and televised later into the broadcast with the selected categories being rotated each year. The focus on economy meant that wide speculations were cast. Variety reported in January that only two of the five best song nominees would be performing at the ceremony.

While a recent report clarifies that all the nominees would be participating, the focus has largely been on the controversial (and now withdrawn) decision to give out the Editing and Cinematography awards during the commercial breaks and showing their edited clips later during the ceremony.

Earlier, the new award category was withdrawn from this year’s ceremony after another backlash, although the message was clear — it’s time for the Oscars to be American again. John Bailey, the president of the AMPAS, admitted in November that the idea for the new category came out of a need to boost the falling ratings. A member of the board of governors cited the fact that since smaller, artistic films like Moonlight and The Shape Of Water aren’t widely distributed, TV audiences haven’t seen many of the nominated films. Bailey strangely told Variety that he was keen on boosting the Academy’s international profile. “One of the things I am most committed to is expanding awareness and visibility for the foreign language award. To me that award is every bit as important as the best picture award – it’s the best picture award for the rest of the world.” 

A decade after Slumdog Millionaire, a British film with an all-Indian cast, won the Best Picture award at the Oscars, the Academy sought to now tell the filmmakers of the world that their place resided in only one category. The dissonance at the heart of this organisation is made further clear by the fact that the black and white Spanish and Mixtec language Roma, along with The Favourite, has scored the most nominations this year.

The controversy which lead to Kevin Hart’s departure as this year’s host shed further light on the awkward relationship the event has with comedians. Condescensions, flat jokes, and overbearing musical numbers by funny but cinematically ignorant hosts have tested the viewer’s patience far more than lesser known categories which illustrate the breadth of the artform. Two-time host Jimmy Kimmel, for instance, regularly reminded audiences about the films Americans hadn’t seen and their low box-office receipts. In 2017, he told nominee Isabelle Huppert that no one in Hollywood had watched Elle and felt obligated to point out that of the nine 2018 nominees, only two films had made more than a $100 million. Kimmel’s attempted humour may have inadvertently help normalise the point of view Mechanic seriously underscored a month later.

Profound questions remain for the Academy. What role does it play in 2019 when riskier cinematic ventures are moving online while only homogenous superhero and action films dominate the box office? How prestigious and global can it claim to be if its preoccupation is American relevance?

At the same time, cinephiles and cineastes must ask questions of their own. No film remains well-made or good by the time the Oscar ceremony ends; as last year’s winner The Shape Of Water, cast aside by contrarians as ‘that fish-sex film’, can attest. How can one claim to love films while engaging in a process which seeks to make complex, collaborative pieces of art into vacuous props of cultural fights? How relevant can award shows and ‘contender’ films be in an era of film festivals, where the boundaries of the artform are being constantly pushed in a hospitable way?

The clueless Academy Awards will seek to sweep these existential inquiries under the rug, hoping that a majority of the Americans who do tune in on 24 February like the winners while global audiences should just be grateful for the digital livestream and the fact that ‘their category’ will not be given away during a commercial break. Atleast for now.

Devang Pathak is a freelance writer, journalist and the founder, and editor of Was That Funny?, a digital publication that talks about Indian stand-up comedy

Updated Date: Feb 19, 2019 14:47:33 IST