Sunday night was the Oscar broadcast, and my family and I all watched it together. And enjoyed ourselves. I had seen 6 of the 8 films up for Best Picture, and several of the other nominated films, and so had a rooting interest. This happens to have been an outstanding year for movies, and really, any of the 8 Best Picture nominees would have been a defendable choice. But I loved Spotlight, and was thrilled when it won.
This year was a bit controversial, of course, primarily because all the acting award nominees were, uh, a trifle single-hued. Which is why Chris Rock began the broadcast with a smart, funny monologue that managed to be both commentary and sermon on the always difficult subject of race. One of my FB friends said that Rock’s monologue made him uncomfortable, and that he was glad that it did. It made him face up to his own complacency and complicity in our culture’s on-going struggles with racial discrimination. That was pretty much my response too. Well done, Chris Rock.
And so, of course, post-broadcast commentary initially focused on Rock, and his comments, and did he go too far or not far enough. And, of course, our responses are all subjective, depending on our own pre-existing predilections. But then, after that particular pile of dust had settled, came another long-standing tradition; critics ripping apart the Oscar broadcast itself. This article, from The Daily Beast, with the title “How to fix the terrible broken Oscars” is typical of the genre. The Oscars, we’re told, are much too long. They spend too much time on minor (and uninteresting) awards. They’re too self-congratulatory, an industry pretending it’s an art form, an empty exercise in solipsistic narcissism. Beautiful people, beautifully dressed, handing gold statues to each other.
Well, I don’t care, and I don’t agree. I like the Oscars. I like the long speeches by winners of the various technical awards. I like the profusion of accents and looks. I like the melt-downs, and the special musical numbers. (In fact, since five songs were nominated for Best Song, we should have seen performances of all five). I don’t care that it’s long. I look forward to Oscar night every year.
A few observations:
Chris Rock did an interview by a movie theater in Compton, which made the valuable point that the films people actually go to see are not the films that are nominated for awards. That’s absolutely true. I talked to my parents a few days before Oscar night, and they hadn’t seen most of the pictures nominated. This year, in fact, was much better in that regard than most years: The Martian and Mad Max: Fury Road were both popular films, financially successful hits. So the Oscars tend to go to films that most audiences haven’t seen. But this isn’t because they’re weird, boring art films that general audiences wouldn’t enjoy. Spotlight, the Best Picture winner is a perfectly accessible and interesting film. If it had received half the marketing oomph that, say, Gods of Egypt or Zoolander 2 got, there’s no reason to think people wouldn’t have gone to see it. This was true of all the Best Picture nominees this year. Room was one of the most emotionally powerful films I have ever seen. Brooklyn was lovely. The Oscars are a way to market really good films that haven’t been sold very aggressively. I wish Hollywood’s marketing was a little more courageous. But people will now see Spotlight that wouldn’t have seen it otherwise. That’s not nothing.
And I genuinely think the Oscar broadcast serves a valuable educational function. All those ‘minor technical awards’ are given to insanely talented people working in incredibly important disciplines. When we see a movie, it’s easy to take for granted the images that appear on-screen. But that exciting action sequence you enjoyed involved a collaboration between a production design team and a sound editing crew and cinematographers and fifty other people. The Oscars give us at least some sense of the complexity of the filmmaking process. That’s valuable, I think.
And don’t even think about making their acceptance speeches even shorter. This is the career highlight for a whole bunch of your fellow human beings on this planet, people who have spent their lives learning an incredibly difficult profession, and rising to the top of that profession. Let them have their moment in the sun.
I mean, writing and directing and producing an Oscar broadcast is immensely difficult. Somehow, you have to make a three-hour-plus awards show, in which movies audiences don’t know are honored, and you have to make it entertaining. That’s not easy. Sometimes, the performers whiff. For example, I thought Sacha Baron Cohen’s introduction of Room was tacky, unfunny, and inappropriate. It’s a beautiful film, and he made fun of it; not cool.
But mostly, I enjoyed the whole night. Okay, it’s excessive and long and not always riveting television. It doesn’t matter. If you love film (and I do), why not celebrate film-making and film-makers? Of course, ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Of course there’s a lot of ego involved. It’s still one of my favorite nights of the year.