Sunday, 17th February 2019

The Golden Little Man

Posted on 19. Nov, 2011 by in Festivals

The Golden Little Man

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was founded in 1927, and its goal was to “establish the industry in the public mind as a respectable, legitimate institution , and its people as reputable individuals.” In this regard, the formation of the Academy was a response to the film industry’s ever present fear of reformers and censorship campaigners, who viewed the visceral thrills of the movies as corrupting and potentially dangerous for young people and other decent, honest Americans. These fears would result in the creation of the Hays censorship code in the early 1930s, while the Academy was mainly concerned with settling union disputes and providing positive PR about the movies and the movie business. The Academy Awards were something of an afterthought – one of many initiatives designed to stress the quality and prestige of Hollywood movies, and therefore reassure filmgoers that movies must be a valid artform.

 

As a result, the Oscars started small. The first ceremony took the form of a informal dinner hosted by the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel, where nominees and 270 assembled industry personnel dined on lobster Eugenie and fruit salad. The ceremony only became a public event in 1931, when a small excerpt was broadcast live on radio. The entire show was first broadcast on TV in 1952 and from this point onwards, the ceremony was slowly transformed from a relatively private, industry centred affair, to a national and then international promotional phenomenon. Ad space during the Oscars now commands a premium close to, but not quite, at the level of the Superbowl, and in terms of viewing figures, the ceremony is a highlight of ABC’s winter schedule. For many in the US at least, the Oscars is as much a lavish TV experience as it is a chance  to reflect on the year’s best movies. Much like Eurovision over here, the costumes, gossip and outlandish speeches are almost more important that the actual content.  Nevertheless, the goals first outlined by the Academy in 1927 remain in place.
It should be pretty obvious to any outside observer that the Oscars tend to favour a certain type of respectable, middlebrow movie over and above massive commercial blockbusters, or truly experimental art films. This year, the most nominated films are The King’s SpeechTrue GritThe Social NetworkInceptionThe Fighter and Black Swan. I’ve never been particularly good at picking winners, although the smart money is probably on The Social Network and The King’s Speech, both of which have been steadily building momentum at other, lesser awards ceremonies (which sadly now includes the recently rescheduled BAFTAs) . Both are brilliant, but they are also respectable, serious and uncontroversial films, which have done solid business at the box office, and generated considerable critical buzz without appealing to truly massive audiences. Instead they are the sort of films that appeal most obviously to relatively cultured middle class viewers, to respectable people, cultured people. Despite excellent reviews, Inception is the least likely to win any major awards because it doesn’t necessarily conform to a middlebrow template – it is a sci-fi thriller, it generated massive revenues, and its clever in a mathematical, geeky way, rather than being artistic rich in ways we might conventionally understand. Blockbusters like this occasionally win, but they are the underdogs at the Oscars.
The Academy is also particularly keen to reward films based on real events – because these seem to exhibit some level of cultural ‘relevance’ which suggests that American film can still be meaningful form of cultural expression. Last year’s big winner, The Hurt Locker, is a good example. Nominally, its an Iraq war film, which shows Hollywood to be commenting responsibly on important social issues, even if the film doesn’t have a particularly radical or even coherent take on the war. Instead it focuses on the experiences of men at war in such a way as to avoid addressing the legitimacy of the war itself. (By contrast, Green Zone, a full-on action movie that directly presents the war as illegal, would never be considered.)
Oscar winning movies also tend to focus on method acting performances, where actors play real people, rather than things like spectacle, because acting, with its links to the theatre, is considered serious and culturally valuable, while explosions, stunts and CGI are generally considered more frivolous. In similar fashion, comic performances or action roles rarely receive Best Actor/Actress nominations, despite the incredible hard work required to pull off a good physical performance. Only understated acting that looks a little like stage acting is considered. So, Jeff Bridges would never win an Oscar for playing The Big Lebowski, despite the remarkable and iconic nature of the role, but he could win for playing an alcoholic country singer in last year’s fine, but little seen, Crazy Horse. Colin Firth has never been a demonstrative actor, but he was nominated last year for the most restrained role of his career, and his much vaunted performance in The King’s Speech ticks almost all of the academy boxes.
Restraint, significance, realism, seriousness. These are the qualities most rewarded by the Academy Awards, because these are filmic qualities that most clearly fit the mandate established right back in the 1920s. They show cinema to be a respectable art form. They show Hollywood to be a culturally valuable and responsible industry. It is true that the Academy Awards are a form of promotion, but they only promote individual movies in a fairly limited way. Instead they promote Hollywood, and Hollywood is the only guaranteed winner.

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