Those Incoherent Oscars

January, 2016, Commentary

 Those Inscrutable Oscars

On month from today, on February 28, The Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences will award Oscars for the 88th time. The event will of course be carried live on television and speculation about the possible winners has been unusually high since the nominations were announced. But before you begin placing your bets, it might be worth exploring a bit of Oscar history by seeing if you can accurately answer the two questions below-

(1) In what year did these Oscar nominees for best picture actually win?

Goodbye, Mr. Chips

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington

Of Mice and Men


The Wizard of Oz

Wuthering Heights

Answer : Never. They were all runners-up to Gone With The Wind in 1939, a year of such outstanding Hollywood quality that many experts believe it will never again be equaled.


(2) There were 8 films nominated this year for Best Picture. In the following columns, can you choose the film that won in each of the years displayed? 

1940Rebecca Grapes of Wrath

1942How Green Was My Valley Citizen Kane

1952High Noon Greatest Show on Earth

1967In The Heat of the Night Bonnie & Clyde

1976Taxi Driver Rocky

1980Raging Bull Ordinary People

1989Driving Miss DaisyMy Left Foot

1994Pulp FictionForest Gump


Answer : If you picked the films in the right-hand column, for the years 1940, ’42, ’67 and ’89 and those in the left hand column for the years 1952, ’76, ’80 and ‘94 you were wrong every time.

This year’s nominees include a pair of “independent” films, (Brooklyn, Room) shot on quite limited budgets and featuring performances by newcomers Saoirse Ronan and Brie Larson  who are contending for the “Best Actress in a Leading Role” Oscar. Three big budget Hollywood studio action films, (Mad Max, The Martian, The Revenant) are in the mix, while a pair of densely packed dramas analyzing highly controversial contemporary issues, (The Big Short, Spotlight) will also compete alongside the remaining nominee, a cold-war spy thriller (Bridge of Spies) from prolific director Steven Spielberg.

This is an impressive list from which to choose, so those of us watching 4 weeks hence might be forgiven for wondering just what criteria the members of the academy take into consideration in casting their ballots. For example, does a winning movie tend to also produce winners in the acting, directing, and screenwriting categories? If not, how can you rationalize the inconsistencies?

Well, this is where things get a little sticky; although there are 8 films in the best picture category, academy rules  currently provide only 5 nominations for best director. That’s true in both the leading and supporting  actor/actress categories as well. But there are 10 nominees in screenwriting; 5 each in two separate categories for best original screenplay and best screenplay from an adapted source. The result of these imbalances produces anomalies apparent again this year:

(1) Although Spielberg’s film has been nominated for best picture and original script, he’s not been nominated as best director. Todd Haynes’ Carol was nominated in the leading actress, supporting actress, adapted screenplay and cinematography categories but neither the film nor its director was so honored.

(2) Three of the five nominees in both the leading actor and actress categories didn’t appear in films nominated for best picture. Michael Fassbender, (Steve Jobs) Eddie Redmayne, (The Danish Girl) Bryan Cranston, (Trumbo) Cate Blanchett (Carol) Jennifer Lawrence (Joy) and Charlotte Rampling (45 Years) all starred in films that fared unevenly with both the critics and moviegoers- which may account for their absence from the top movie category.

(3)  Minorities are also absent this year, a fact that’s led some in the industry to threaten a boycott of the awards themselves. No African Americans  were chosen in any of the leading categories save for an original screenwriting nomination given to the three writers of Straight Outta Of Compton, none of whom were African American. That a movie which traces the early roots of hip-hop music can’t boast a black source suggests that the directors of The Academy have some work to do in bringing these awards into line with those who spend hundreds of millions to see these movies and the creative talents behind them.

Movies are inherently the product of creative collaboration; it’s the most expensive of art forms to produce and in the opinion of Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Gary Wills, the only truly American one. Hence it’s always struck me as more than a little ironic that The Academy insists in awarding Oscars on such a fragmented basis. How about creating a new standard of inclusion? An Oscar-contending best film need not be the best in all other categories – but surely it ought to nominated in at least half the other major categories.

In the end, next month’s winners will say a lot more about the cultural appetites of Academy members than they will about the underlying artistic value of the films themselves.

My suggestion? Have plenty of butter and salt ready for the popcorn  - - then compare your choices with those in made Hollywood.



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