This Sunday night, the Oscars will be broadcast across America, across the World. The Academy Awards are our cultural State of the Union. The annual pulchritude parade reflects our social and aesthetic coherence—and dissonance—by applauding achievement in that squiggly gap between popular entertainment and high art. Traditionally, our President addresses the nation every winter and pronounces, “the State of our Union is strong,” even when it is not. So too, Oscar proclaims its winners to be the apex of our culture, even when that’s no longer so.
The Academy Awards’ importance has never been as great as Hollywood imagines, but for most of my life, Oscar has held both cache and relevance. I recall the excitement, as a fresh-face ten-year-old, splat on the living room floor in my footed pj’s, watching Bob Hope poke gentle fun at the svelte women and handsome men that pranced across the stage. I got to stay up late because, one: my father loved Bob Hope, and, two: the films honored reinforced our family’s identity: Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins in 1965; The Sound of Music as Best Picture in 1966, or any other year as far as we were concerned.
When the nation teeter-tottered, the Oscars hung on for the ride. Is there any clearer evidence of our late 1960’s national schizophrenia than presenting the Best Picture Award in succession to In the Heat of the Night, Oliver!, Midnight Cowboy, and then Patton?
During those tumultuous teenage years, I watched the Oscars with friends. We all rooted for Midnight Cowboy; even though none of us were allowed see the only X-rated Best Picture ever. Something about its forbidden grit appealed to my small circle, all of whom eventually defined ourselves by a word we didn’t even know at the time: gay.
College, marriage, babies. Through every phase of life I set aside a dark Sunday night to sit through the bloated glam-fest. Usually, I had seen at least some of the movies. When the VCR era emerged, Oscar received more preparation; I made sure to see them all.
Peak Oscar immersion occurred when my children were in middle school. My daughter’s interest in fashion demanded that we watch the red carpet segment. My son’s best friend’s family was Oscar-buffs. We watched all five Best Picture nominees together. We staged elaborate parties, themed to the nominees. After the Walker’s moved, we actually flew to Chicago over Oscar weekend to continue our ritual.
Cold winter day’s well-spent, family bonding in dark theaters, sharing films that reflected the breadth of our culture. We preferred the adventure movies (Master and Commander, Gangs of New York) even though they never won the big prize. But the quieter films offered opportunity for a dad and his teens to discuss challenging topics. After The Hours, over Chinese food, my very hetero-twelve-year-old son conversed about homosexuality and suicide—topics that would have been impossible to excavate from him without that film. Shared viewing also enabled us to express understanding and affection in singular ways. Two minutes into Mystic River, as the boy gets into the priests car and drives off, my son leaned over and whispered, “You’re not going to like this one very much.” How well he knew me, even then.
All golden eras must end. My children graduated to life and the Oscars began their long, messy tumble. When Crash beat out Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture 2006, I wasn’t as appalled as most of my ilk: after all I always liked action films. But the snub signaled the Academy’s hesitancy to engage the issues of our day. When they expanded the Best Picture category in 2009 from five films to as many as ten, I felt manipulated to see even more movies and stopped trying to see them all in advance. I actually wound up seeing fewer nominees before the ceremony. When The Artist won the statue in 2012, a silly trifle of retrograde nostalgia, the Academy Awards had become too inverted, too self-reverential for me to care.
This year’s Academy Awards have been tainted by misstep after misstep, each more disorienting than the last, each wounding every possible constituency. The Academy kicked off awards season by announcing a ‘Best Popular Picture’ category. Was that a snub to popularity or Best Picture or both? They were forced to retract. Then they publicly aired the trouble of finding a host. Kevin Hart went up in flames and the Academy aborted even having one. Now, they plan to distribute some awards during commercial breaks, denying the TV audience even a snippet of award winning cinematography. Yet in their capacity to make every constituent angry, the Academy announced it will live-stream those presentations, a policy sure to enrage the companies paying for those commercials. They pretty much snubbed If Beal Street Could Talk while heaping critical praise on Roma, an escapist slice of memory in an idealized place far removed from our own. Finally, the Academy proclaimed severe measures to keep the broadcast under three hours; a fascist insistence on time and order hardly necessary since I doubt many people will be watching.
This year, for the first time in over fifty years, I’m skipping the Oscar broadcast. I had an invitation to a different, preferred, social event. When an upper middle class, gay white male of a certain age—Oscar’s precise demographic—forgoes the broadcast, you know the Academy Awards are done.
Perhaps the worst thing about this year’s Academy Awards, the truly scary thing, is how, because of all these snafu’s, Oscar remains an accurate reflection of our culture: so fragmented it cannot agree on anything. The Academy expands the nominee pool in a gesture toward inclusion, but actually diffuses our collective interest. They abandon having a host because no single person can corral the entire event. They pretend that culling a four-hour marathon to a three-hour leviathan will pique interest, but our attention spans have already shrunk far below that (average You Tube video is 4 minutes 20 seconds). We are a culture—if that term even applies— defined by our conflict and differences more than our shared commonality. And so, after making all kinds of changes that have insulted pretty much everyone, this year’s Oscars are sure to have the lowest ratings ever.
Thanks to the Academy for ensuring that the Oscars remain a perfect reflection of our times.