The Oscars Are Corrupted and Dirty and Driven by Publicists, But Dammit We Still Need Them

Sunday night, Hollywood's Dolby Theater will see its seats fill with a bevy of A-listers as this year's Oscars ceremony gets underway. Leading the field this year is Steven Spielberg's historical drama, Lincoln, which has 12 nominations. Ang Lee's Life of Pi has just one fewer, while the others all hover around the eight to four range.

But while Lincoln is sitting far ahead of the pack, that doesn't necessarily make it the front-runner. Sasha Stone, founder and editor-in-chief of the popular Oscar blog, Awards Daily, thinks Ben Affleck's Argo , even without a Best Director nomination, already has this one tied up. Argo, she says, is the Movie of the Modern Oscars.

"Argo was 100 percent grown to be an Oscar movie," she says, noting its popularity with critics, its victories at other awards ceremonies, like the Golden Globes and the BAFTAS, plus its recent wins with the Directors Guild of America and the Producers Guild of America. "I don't see how it can lose at this point."

Stone has been covering the awards circuit since 1999, when she started her site. She was among the first to earn her bread and butter from writing almost exclusively about the Oscars. Since then, she has become disappointed with awards process.

"The Oscar race is controlled by publicists," Stone says. "They get paid by how many nominations they get and then they get paid by how many wins they get."

She cites 2006, the year Paul Haggis' Crash won over Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, as an example of a time where the Academy could have sprung for something culturally and artistically significant but didn't.

Does that mean the Oscars are irredeemable or without value, despite how far from noble the process may be?

If nothing else, Stone appreciates that the Academy has continued to honor "below the line categories," like those for live action and animated short film. They show audiences that "there is such a thing as creativity in the arts and that it's not all marketing and hotties."

For Victor Morton, a news editor at The Washington Times and the man behind Rightwing Film Geek, a blog popular with devoted cinephiles and critics, the obscure awards are definitely part of what the Academy is doing right. But it goes beyond that.

"I like the horse-race aspect," he says. "The hype has gotten a bit out-of-hand and soul-grinding in the past 10 years, but that's true of every significant public event."

He points out that, whatever their flaws, the Oscars can draw large audiences to films outside the bounds of what might normally get the most attention. As evidence, he points to last year's winner, The Artist. "It's fine to call Harvey Weinstein a carnival barker, but without his (Oscar-stimulated) marketing and the awards themselves, how many people last year would have ever seen a French silent movie starring two actors barely known in the US?"

Matt Singer of Criticwire made a significant contribution to the Oscar debate yesterday in a piece headlined, "Are the Oscars Making People Hate The Movies They're Supposed to Honor?" In it, he discusses the strange contradiction of well received films like Argo this year and The Artist last year suddenly becoming the targets of scorn as the Oscars approach. He suggests that the long awards season gives audiences time to get burned out on movies they genuinely enjoyed.

I asked Matt what, if anything, he thought the Academy was doing right with the annual ceremony. "I guess the thing the Oscars are doing right is maintaining their status as the gold standard in the world of film," he said. "Your average moviegoer still puts a lot of stock in the Oscars and in what wins Best Picture. Despite the gripes I was writing about in my piece, the Oscars still mean something to people."

My own relationship with the Oscars is best described in Facebook parlance: "It's complicated." Growing up, they were my window into a world that fascinated me, and still does. They also provided me with my introduction to classic Hollywood. I have fond memories of their montages of clips from films past and present, and the moving In Memoriam segments. I would like to think that both educated me and helped broaden my horizons.

Even now, as I've become aware of the backroom politicking that goes on, I still believe the abstract idea of the Oscars being invaluable. As our culture becomes more fragmented it's important that not we not lose the shorthand that comes with the word "Oscar." When you hear someone say it, you know they're talking about some kind of standard, as imperfect as it is. What happens if we lose that? As flawed as the winners may be, the ceremony itself gives us something to unite behind, something to point to as a measure of quality. You hope, too, that for the all the hype and the back-patting, maybe there's genuinely more than that going.

"They are the one night," Morton says, "when considerations other than box office are supposed to matter to Hollywood." Without them, he adds, "you'd just get more films with with both eyes on that prize."

Andrew Welch, a graduate student at UNT, blogs at Adventures in Cinema.

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