Over a decade ago, when I began to visit the city of Cinema with more ambition, I sought to broaden my horizons and familiarize myself with what are considered “good movies”. As a novice, it made sense to start with the Academy Awards, as they are the highest achievements for those in the entertainment industry.
Being educated in a Catholic school, I had just finished a course that introduced my classmates and me to Catholic philosophy, and to learn to look at things in a critical and objective manner. One of the lessons I vividly remember was the understanding of the word “best”, and how, as an idea, it is not something to toss around freely like a football. If we are to refer to something as “the best”, it must be singular and superior to all others, (while we can have multiple bests in certain circumstances, for the awards it is a singular scenario). And being briefed on Church history, I learned about when the Church would speak “ex cathedra” (definitively) and infallibly, from councils to matters of faith and morals such as the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception and her bodily Assumption (these are the only two times papal infallibility has been invoked). I assumed that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences approached the awards the same way the Church did when regarding certain subjects: with a consensus among their members after debating the subjects. This was the way the American Film Institute created their lists of the greatest films, their heroes and villains, and musical scores.
So maybe there was a reason for declaring A Beautiful Mind and Chicago superior to the first two installments of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and then reward the Best Picture Oscar to its final piece The Return of the King? Maybe there was a reason Dances with Wolves beat GoodFellas? I was aware that Citizen Kane, arguably the greatest film ever made, lost out on the Oscars as a result of the influence of media tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who, upon discovering that he served as the inspiration for the character Charles Foster Kane, demanded his critics vilify the movie upon its release, and that it was rediscovered as a classic in the post-World War II era. But for everything else, there had to be a reason, right? The members must have assembled to debate the merits of each movie and determined that, while GoodFellas was more enjoyable than Dances with Wolves, the latter had more artistic merits.
I was not aware that the decisions came down to sending out ballots to their members (who were granted admission after making a few memorable movies) who would then submit their ballots via mail, which would be counted, and then presented at the show.
So I began to familiarize myself with the world of cinema, and eventually I learned about the artistic genius of Stanley Kubrick, who placed so many intricate details into his films visually and audibly that would reinforce the story he was telling. His greatest achievement, 2001: A Space Odyssey, was not just a science fiction flick: it was an intellectual look about man’s journey through all of life, ranging from the day he learned the basics of technology to voyaging through what appears to be an eternal cosmos. It poses a question: just as man evolved to our current physical and intellectual capacity, where will we go from here on out, if evolution and life are continuing to this day? Are we alone in this universe? Where do we stand in relation to technology and artificial intelligence?
This movie was not even nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. It did win Kubrick an award for Best Visual Effects. It did not garner any other awards.
Which movie did it ultimately lose to? Which movie did the Academy pick as the “best” for the year 1968?
Oliver! A musical adaptation of Oliver Twist. Enjoyable, perhaps, but superior to 2001? (if there were a sentence that could perfectly express a dumbfounded look on one’s face, I would type it up as I do not think the world would look to kindly on putting an emoji in an essay).
I am not taking a snarky position that enjoyable mainstream entertainment is inferior art. Disney would not be the empire that it is today (not giving corporate Disney a card blanche for the unethical practices through business or grooming young entertainers) if it originally did not possess quality, and continue to produce quality. 2001 takes a great investment of attention to get through, but when you later recall everything you saw, there is no other description of feeling but humbled.
When I began to watch all these movies for myself and further immerse myself in cinema as an art, I came to understand that the Academy was far different than my Church. Not just in the sense that its members were contrarians with the Catholic positions on sexuality (tell me which other industry would have quarrels like this?), but the Academy did not approach their subjects with the intellectual rigor that produced geniuses such as Augustine of Hippo or Thomas Aquinas.
After many years of immersing myself in iconic movies ranging from Disney to the Criterion Collection, and watching the Academy Awards on an annual basis, I came to a conclusion: the Academy Awards are not celebrating the best movies of each year, they are just a party for A-list entertainers.
This might be a bit of a blow to younger me, who sought to win an Academy Award one day, but it is the truth. While many films are rightly honored over the years (The Godfather: Part I & II, Casablanca, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Schindler’s List, to name a few) there are plenty of other films that do not get the honor they deserve mainly due to politics. One of the greatest examples was awarding Crash the top prize over Brokeback Mountain, controversial in its time as it dealt with a gay relationship with two cowboys.
But as my life has progressed, I have seen the emergence of many stars, and wondered what it would be like when I could look them up on IMDb and see “Nominated for/Won Oscar” on their profile, and if that gave them the status of respectable actor. When I have watched them win in real time, I look back and wonder if this has changed anything? Are they even more worthy of respect now?
And then it comes down to the fact that Oscars are a show. Take for example when the award for anything beyond performance, directing, music, or overall movie, itself, is presented. An A-list entertainer comes forward and reads an introduction to the category of the award they are presenting (such as cinematography or art direction), and the writing sounds contrary to their own artistic trade marks (if this star has any), and the winner comes forward and gives his or her speech, then departs. But this winner never returns to the awards again as a presenter.
The best way I can describe the Oscars are that they are parties for A-list entertainers. The next day we recall the show and gush over what each star is wearing, who appears to be the most glamorous, who are their guests, who made the most memorable speech (good or bad). These are all the things we discuss when the subject is a party, and unfortunately this is a party that a majority of us will never be invited to. I am not bringing in a “working class hero” mentality, but it is part of a conversation we need to have when discussing which movie is the best or has the best quality, and whether or not these awards that are heralded as the ultimate achievement are truly relevant in the debate?
I, unfortunately, have to conclude that: No, they are not worthy of being included in these debates. It is just a sign that you have made it into a community of iconic people and have achieved general mainstream success. The awards can bring these movies into our own debates.
This the difference between art and sports. I am not arguing that art is strictly subjective and nobody is ever right, as I view that to be a cop-out to avoid necessary and honest discussions, but it is easier to be objective in sports, as we deal with numbers. Even in the quest to reign as champion, each team needs to go through a rigorous playoff bracket, which is a fight for survival, and adding another story to the sport. It is easier to present awards based on merit there, but even then we occasionally run into biases.
If we truly want to declare which flick is the best, or which artist achieved the greatest honor, we need to do away with the Oscars and award shows as we know it and come up with a new setup. And above all: we need to make it appealing to the masses. We need to plead our case! I do not have the solution at the moment, but let us begin to brainstorm on how to do away with a system best represented by a statuette that resembles an expensive sex toy.
But who knows? Perhaps I will win an Oscar someday, and reference this blog post and stick my middle finger up to it in the height of emotion as I am embraced by a beautiful actress and applauded by artists that I am admired over the years? Until then, I must stick with this position.