Anyone who watched last night's Oscars telecast no doubt came away with one of several conclusions. First, Al Gore, whose environmental documentary An Inconvenient Truth won an Academy Award, is the most popular guy in Hollywood these days. Or maybe that ABC found a new, more boring way than usual to spread out what could be a two-hour ceremony into something almost interminable. But I came away with some newfound respect for Will Ferrell, or the guy who wrote the words to the song he performed with Jack Black. "You're the saddest guy of all," the comedian warbled about big-budget action stars. "Your movies make money but they'll never call your name."
O.K., so The Departed took home the Oscar for the best film of 2006. But was it? Maybe, but that's only because the level of competition was so very low. But, as usual, when the green-eyeshade guys at PricewaterhouseCoopers tabulate the winners, it often has more to do with which film, actor, or director has the backing of those working in the industry. Should we trust a bunch of folks with vested interests, far-too-insider views, and maybe a little too much riding on the results? Can these people really judge which film would be Best Picture for the Folks Who Watch Them?
Of course, that's not what they're asked to pick. And about half of the nearly 6,000 folks who get mailed ballots every year are actors. That means they're more likely to vote for actors who direct, actors who produce, and actors who happen to be popular at that time (see BusinessWeek.com, 2/15/07, "The Academy Should Reward Whitaker"). I mean, why else would anyone have nominated George Clooney as Best Supporting Actor last year for his sloppy, formless turn in 2005's Syriana? And what about the statue Alan Arkin took home this year for his very nice but hardly towering role in Little Miss Sunshine? Did the fact that Arkin is 72 and a previous two-time losing nominee have anything to do with that win?
As for Best Director, of course, Martin Scorsese won. One of the best directors to have ever grabbed a clipboard, Scorsese was working on his seventh nomination and hadn't won yet. Clearly, he was due, especially since he was edged out his last time at bat when his film The Aviator was beaten by the far inferior Million Dollar Baby, which was directed by Clint Eastwood. Eastwood, of course, comes from the acting community that controls most of the Academy's ballot box. (I half-thought that Clintwood would win again this year, for Letters From Iwo Jima, which frankly, I thought was a better film.)
So why does the Academy seem to get it wrong so often? Well, start with the fact that the films being produced these days are really not very good. Maybe it's because so many good directors, writers, and actors are showing up on television these days. Or making computer games.
But does anyone think that the five films up for the big prize this year—Scorsese's The Departed, Babel, Letters From Iwo Jima, The Queen, and Little Miss Sunshine—were the equal of films that grabbed the award even five years back? That was A Beautiful Mind, by the way. Or that it would measure up to such films as 1994's Schindler's List, The Godfather in 1973, or The Bridge Over the River Kwai in 1957? Or how about in 1940, when Gone With the Wind was given the Oscar and the losers from 1939's bumper crop of films included The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Stagecoach?The bottom line is that the Academy Awards have lost their way. Launched in 1929 mostly to provide a little extra publicity for flicks in the winter, today the Oscars are a giant, overwrought extravaganza that seems so taken with itself that the votes are all but protected by armed guards.
This ain't rocket science, Academy voters. The best films are those that appeal to the audiences for which they were intended—those of us who go to the movies. And the best directors are the ones who make those movies. That used to mean the films that bring in the most money at the box office, but we all know that too many films are muscular special-effects-laden spectacles that are less art than circus. X-Men, Spider-Man, and movies of this ilk may produce blockbuster numbers, although few—with the possible exception of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies—qualify as anything approaching art.
Little wonder then that even as ticket prices have escalated, the box-office take for the films that are being nominated has gone down. The 2006 nominees averaged $58 million in box office, according to Box Office Mojo, down from $80 million in 2005 and $132 million in 2004. (Granted, in 2003, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won, which I admit was a pretty darn good film as well as a $377 million box-office monster.)
So what was the best film of 2006? Well, I know which ones shouldn't have been in the running: Little Miss Sunshine, which was a nice little film but hardly a giant achievement, and The Queen (take out Oscar winner Helen Mirren and it was a TV Movie of the Week).
Which ones would I have put in their place, looking for both a well-made film and one that appeals to the masses? How about Dreamgirls for starters? It was a truly wondrous, uplifting night at the flicks. And it grossed $100 million at the box office, while winning the Golden Globe for Best Picture–Musical or Comedy. And maybe The Devil Wears Prada, which was a comedy in the grand tradition of great leading stars, in this case Meryl Streep.
Drumming up Drama
At least with those two in the race, the contest would have been interesting. You knew from the outset that The Queen and Little Miss Sunshine had no chance. Remember last year, when nothing but Crash and Brokeback Mountain had a chance? Go ahead—name at least two of the other three nominees. And even Crash, which won, and Brokeback Mountain, while much better than most of the nominees of the last few years, would never have found their way to the top five a decade ago.
Sorry to say, the spectacle that is the Academy Awards is now a way too long TV show, chockablock with musical numbers and mindless patter. (What WAS the deal with the guy carrying around a tote board of which films had won which awards? Talk about trying to drum up a little drama when there wasn't much.)Please, Hollywood, this year give us films to get excited about—so we can have an Oscars to get excited about.