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16th February 2023

Why Oscars matter: A mixed bag for the little gold men

Are the Oscars still relevant in a post-Covid world or do they symbolise an outdated illusion of meritocracy in Hollywood?
Photo: Sarajlijo @ Wikimedia Commons

Words by Will Steele

The Academy Awards have been a Hollywood institution and cultural mainstay for almost 100 years. The little gold men they dispense – affectionately dubbed Oscars – have been awarded to those the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has deemed the best of the best.

Oscar has become a byword for talent, prestige, and honour: an Oscar is seen by many to be the ultimate achievement in their given field within the entertainment industry. Showbiz seems obsessed with the Oscars, whether it be those nominated, awarded, or snubbed for prizes; the fashion and glamour of the ceremony, the traditions, and the scandals they facilitate, or even the way in which film culture at large is reflected through the glossy golden mirror the Academy holds up to to the industry and audiences in Tinseltown and beyond. 

Yet the mirror is cracked and thus the reflection is distorted. The Oscars may mean honour to many but a growing audience recognise the institutional and characteristic shortcomings of this awards body. Some would say it is a fool’s errand to even deign any work of art ‘the best’, as film is inherently subjective and thus entirely interpretive. The prescriptive nature of ‘the best film can seem pointless, or rather, besides the point.

Art for art’s sake, as enshrined by an old Hollywood studio motto, has been lost in a haze of self-congratulatory gatekeeping through an Academy which serves to award and perpetuate its favoured brand of art, not for the sake of it, but for the sake of self-preservation. Such criticisms are not just valid, but touch on the harmful side of the Oscars.

The impact of Hollywood gatekeeping has implications far deeper and more concerning than misguided industry practice. As many have noticed, the Academy has a conspicuous and questionable tendency to award the same types of films and the same types of people over and over again. In short, the Oscars have an inherent and persistent bias in championing Western-centric, heteronormative, white male artists and art with minimal recognition for the achievements of diverse artists and narratives.

It almost seems futile to belabour the point that the Oscars have shown a persistent and frustrating aversion to embracing diversity. Such critical flaws have been percolating since its inception and came to an eruptive head with the #OscarsSoWhite viral campaign which called attention to the whiter-than-white acting line-ups in 2015 and 2016.

An expansion of Academy membership and a conscious aim to celebrate diverse stories came to fruition the following year, with a record number of BAME acting nominees culminating in the monumental Best Picture win of Moonlight over La La Land. Ever since we have seen the Academy’s rhetorical aim for inclusivity actualise, with Parasite being the first non-English language film to win Best Picture, and recent acting winners such as Youn Yuh-Jung for Minari and Troy Kotsur for CODA winning for non-English language performances in Korean and American Sign Language respectively.

But all this begs the question: is the Academy’s rhetorical commitment toward inclusion going far enough?

Social media has clearly made an indelible impact on shaping the way the Academy conducts itself. It is evident from the proposal and subsequent backlash for a Best Popular Film Oscar and the recent media frenzy surrounding the grassroots social media campaign for unexpected Best Actress nominee Andrea Riseborough. The Academy moving towards a more inclusive membership and diverse slate of nominees may be because they cannot afford to relegate non-English language films to the side-lines, nor ignore the immense talent of BAME, queer, and disabled artists, if they want to survive in the modern day.

Moonlight and Parasite’s Best Picture victories stand as an antidote to the recent out-of-touch decisions the Academy makes evident from their love for Green Book, a propensity to heap praise on violent war and gangsters films, and a tendency to award their top acting prizes to uninspired and often musical biopics (Bohemian Rhapsody, I’m looking at you).

What we must remember above all is that the Academy is not an immovable, unfeeling object bound to repeat itself through an unwillingness or inability to change. The Academy is a collection of over 10,000 artists, of which over 9,000 vote on their awards.

Since systemic issues with diversity were raised in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, the Academy has met its target to double the size of its BAME and female membership. A broadened and more diverse academy has made their voices heard and you needn’t look further than the nominees of this year’s 95th Academy Awards to see a fresher and more inclusive roster of talent than ever before.

Nomination leader and Best Picture frontrunner Everything Everywhere All at Once foregrounds queer and Asian-American characters; The Fabelmans does not minimise or alter its depiction of Judaism; Tár showcases an unabashedly queer lead, while Causeway and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever give themselves over to platform Brian Tyree Henry and Angela Bassett, respectively, in powerhouse performances.

Sure, you have your Avatars and Top Guns, but then you have an earnest embrace for productions far flung from Hollywood with All Quiet on the Western Front and Triangle of Sadness.

An Oscar line-up will never be perfect, but then nor will BAFTA, SAG, or any other awards body. It is clearly impossible to please everyone, all of the time, but the Oscars are certainly moving in the right direction. Again, maybe the Oscars or any other awards body are merely a fool’s errand trying to define the undefinable.

But ultimately we cannot ignore the fascination the Oscars hold and that they draw us in whether we love or hate them. At the end of the day, the Oscars will continue to matter so long as we keep watching movies because we will always be drawn to the search for what might be the best, even if it is a gold-plated delusion. 

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