28 February 2012

Author Robert Larkin

Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony looked more like the Oscars than any ceremony in recent memory. Academy comfort blanket Billy Crystal was nothing if not Billy Crystal, demonstrating how far the world has came since blackface and race jokes. 'The little movie that could' stole the evening - The Artist picking up four awards riding on light-hearted nostalgia for the magic of old cinema and agreeable charm in lieu of any social issue or bite. Hollywood's most famous institution is still ploughing on despite the ever increasing volume of the accusations that The Oscars are no longer relevant to cinema.

The Academy itself remains a dusty and arcane part of the Hollywood institution. Staffed by a hilariously un-diverse group of former and current filmmakers, many of whom have not worked near a film set for many years. The Academy is not doing itself any favours by entrusting a vibrant, vital and constantly changing art form to stuffy old men with a very particular and reinforced decades old idea of prestige.

Films and studios must compete for the attentions of the 6000 members, as Oscars are not simply given out. Harvey Weinstein has a unique talent for getting the attention of the voters, and this year helped The Artist pick up its swag bag of awards. In the past Miramax is alleged to have spent $16million on its successful campaign to unseat Saving Private Ryan and put Shakespeare in Love in line for a slew of statuettes, meaning an individual spend per voter of $2600. It is reminiscent of beauty pageants where expensive dresses, showiness and artificial appearances will beat out merit any day. The unlevel playing field and almost willful disregard to merit cheapens the award, and many filmmakers ignore or boycott the ceremony entirely.

Dissenters of the film world who don't want to partake are in great company. Ingmar Bergman sent a modestly insulting letter asking that Wild Strawberries be un-nominated as he had not partaken in the publicity and campaigning most films did, but was nominated anyway. Woody Allen's exceptional record of fifteen nominations for Best Original Screenplay is underlined by his steadfast refusal to attend or acknowledge the ceremony, showing his face only in 2002 to deliver a paen for his beloved New York City in the wake of September 11 2001.  He claims to have watched the NBA All Star game, rather than Midnight in Paris being awarded a deserved Best Original Screenplay statuette.

The Academy maintains, at most, a casual relationship with quality. The film that takes home Best Picture is often not the best film released, it is a certain kind of film that we can generally identify in advance. Many derided breakout hit The King's Speech as  'oscar-bait' upon its first release, and were proved right. Generally the films that stand out as Oscar potentials are the films with the least wrong with them, rather than the strongest redeeming qualities or most bold artistic statements. The Tree of Life was magnificent, but too self-indulgent and polarising to pick up an Oscar. Drive is a genre film, to which the Academy is allergic. Moneyball was an inventive and compelling surprise and thoroughly deserved to be rewarded for its screenplay, a brilliant and creative adaptation from a non-fiction book about baseball statistics, rather less straightforward than The DescendantsThe Artist makes no statement and ruffles no feathers, but it takes a great effort not to like.

The Oscars do not really matter much to cinema, if they would be to disappear then a certain type of film would be less popular and a whole load of PR people wouldn't have much to do in December but for the most part everything would be roughly the same. The event itself is, however, extremely relevant to the current culture of celebrity interest and this yearly spectacle ( which this year has reversed a recent lull in viewer figures) keeps the names of actors on the lips of world and maintains a tangential interest in the cinema for a large part of the media. The one thing to claw back from this year's ceremony was A Separation's victory in Best Foreign Language  sparking interest in a great film, and gaining the second ever nomination for a country with thirty years of exciting cinema.