On Sunday, the eyes of the world will turn to Hollywood, as the great, the good, and the genuinely quite bad at acting gather for the 95th Academy Awards.
Martin McDonagh’s intensely moving Banshees of Inisherin is up for Best Picture, facing off against Everything Everywhere All At Once. In the acting categories, Paul Mescal has been nominated – for his heartstopping performance in Aftersun – but so too has Jamie Lee Curtis, despite her talent apparently evaporating on impact with the multiverse.
But does it actually matter who takes home these awards? When you consider many of the Oscars’ previous winners, you do wonder how exactly that 13-and-a-half-inch gold statuette remains so coveted.
The Academy, after all, awarded Best Actor to Gary Oldman for putting on a fat suit and passably imitating Churchill in the execrable Darkest Hour. It’s the body that mistook 1994, The Year of Pulp Fiction, for The Year of Forrest Gump, and crowned the crowdpleasing but conventional King’s Speech over Debra Granik’s humane and spine-tingling Winter’s Bone, the finest film of the 2010s. It’s the organisation that has, for reasons best-known to itself, given two awards to Renée Zellweger and yet none to Emily Watson.
The reason behind the Academy’s apparently perverse decisions is no mystery. Because the Oscars were never really about the year’s best movies: they were about sending a message.
The Academy of the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was set up in 1927 by MGM’s powerful production chief, Louis B. Mayer, with two principal purposes: to break – or at least circumvent – the industry’s increasingly powerful unions, and to rehabilitate the reputation of Hollywood following a series of ruinous scandals.
The (still unsolved) murder of director William Desmond Taylor, the death by poisoning of leading lady Olive Thomas, and the three manslaughter trials of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, had plastered Hollywood across the news pages, threatening the very thing that the studio executives held most dear: the bottom line.
An influential and censorious lobby group, the Catholic Legion of Decency, threatened a national boycott of the movies if Hollywood didn’t clean house, both off-screen and on. So, between 1922 and 1934, the industry began to self-censor, culminating in the imposition of a strict “production code” that banned swearing, nudity, and to its eternal discredit, the depiction of interracial relationships. In the midst of that maelstrom, in 1929, it instituted the Academy Awards.
It was inevitable, then, that Hollywood would place the accent on films that showed the town at its worthiest, projecting an image of an industry dedicated to the betterment of the movie-going public – or at least doing it no damage. As a result, the Academy displayed a pronounced fondness for sumptuously mounted entertainments (Grand Hotel, The Great Ziegfeld) and bloated historical epics (Cimarron, Mutiny on the Bounty, Gone with the Wind), before a swerve towards toothless yet self-congratulatory message movies. For those wondering whether that set the tone for what followed, Best Picture winners in the 1980s would include Gandhi, Rain Man and Driving Miss Daisy, a veritable DVD starter-pack of patronising liberal cinema.
The most revealing early instance of the Academy’s caution came in its awards ceremony for 1933. As America wrestled with the Great Depression, films like Heroes for Sale, Gold Diggers of 1933, and Wild Boys of the Road had dragged the nation under their searing lens, cataloguing the country’s ills, and finding answers in communality and radicalism. Dealing uncompromisingly with poverty, drug addiction and police brutality, these state-of-the-nation movies still pack a punch 90 years on. The Oscar for Best Picture that year went to Cavalcade, an interminable family saga based on a play by Noël Coward.
That decision by the Academy – to play it appallingly safe; to neglect those short, sharp shocks in favour of a windy proto-Downton – was no accident. It was a feature of the Oscars, not a bug.
This preference for the pompous or prudent continued to afflict the awards after the war. In 1947, Fox’s now-laughable Gentleman’s Agreement dealt with antisemitism by sending a gentile reporter (Gregory Peck) undercover as a Jew. In winning Best Picture, that liberal talkfest saw off competition from Crossfire, a groundbreaking and still gripping movie on the same subject, which used the genre conventions of the thriller – rather than tedious exposition and compromised speeches – to make its point. Four years later, Crossfire’s director, Edward Dmytryk, was jailed as a victim of Congress’s anti-communist crusade, before turning informant. A year after that, the brisk, brave and brilliant High Noon, a Western dealing allegorically with the witchhunt in Hollywood, then at its height, would lose out on Best Picture to a film about a big circus (The Greatest Show on Earth).
Those dipping a first toe into film history will sometimes use the Best Pictures as a crash course: after all, these are the best pictures. But the nature of those winners has provided a seriously skewed idea of Hollywood history. These movies are integral to understanding how Tinseltown saw itself, and how it wanted to be seen. But how it wanted to be seen, through both insecurity and a fear of censure, was serious-minded, moral and profound – hardly the ingredients for a top night in. From the first, the voters’ slant was towards “prestige pictures”: a portentous strain of cinema that has aged like milk. Incidentally, if you decide to check out all the Best Actor winners, you will literally get to see how milk ages, in The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936).
Of course there have been worthy winners across the Oscars’ 94 years: films as transcendent as Casablanca, All About Eve and Unforgiven; actors as gifted as Janet Gaynor, Marlon Brando and Viola Davis. But the awards have never quite shrugged off their sanctimonious founding mission, and every time you think they might, they snap back to type.
Increasingly, stars and producers have gamed the system through the phenomenon of “Oscar bait”: pictures or performances precision-tooled to seduce the Academy. The acting categories have shown clear predilections. An early preference for characters displaying a reassuring moral authority was replaced by one for actors depicting disability, but a bias towards biography was there from the start, and has only grown. James Cagney, Jason Robards and Cate Blanchett are among those whose electrifying work was overlooked until they depicted real-life figures. However, given that the first winner of the Best Actor award, Emil Jannings, went on to run the Nazi film industry, we can probably see anything after that as an improvement.
Some of the Academy’s sins are of omission. There are countless artists who never won a competitive Oscar, despite being instrumental in shaping Hollywood. There’s Barbara Stanwyck, the greatest actor of the 1930s and 1940s; song-and-dance behemoth Judy Garland; John Garfield – who brought The Method to the screen – and Montgomery Clift, who refined it. The fathers of the suspense film (Alfred Hitchcock) and the rom-com (Ernst Lubitsch) were overlooked, along with revolutionary stars Cary Grant, Robert Mitchum and Dorothy Dandridge.
Of the contemporary contingent, unique performers like Michelle Williams and Samantha Morton remain unrecognised.
And then there are the screen legends who finally got their gong by playing by the Academy’s rules, and slightly embarrassing themselves in the process: Bogart as a stubbled steamboat captain in The African Queen, Pacino blindly “hoo-ah”-ing in Scent of a Woman, and John Wayne pretending to only have one eye in True Grit.
In a sense, this argument is unhelpful, as it plays into the idea that the Oscars are generally authoritative, aside from the odd curious oversight. Debates about which great films, moviemakers or actors have been neglected by the voters are daft, since the answer is “most of them”. When you consider the origins of the Oscars, the very concept of awards for art, or simply the fact that they once gave Best Picture to Oliver!, the disproportionate weight afforded the awards in artist obituaries, film journalism and even general conversation feels bizarre. They tell you almost nothing about the movies, or the deeply personal relationship that we have with them.
That’s also true of the ceremony itself, a night that shows the industry at its most irritating. There remains a disconcerting disconnect between the deep and resonant beauty of a winner like, say, Moonlight, and the vapid, self-important and incongruously opulent event staged to celebrate it. Since its inception, cinema has always been partly about glamour – screenwriter Frances Marion wrote in 1937 that in escapist movies “the poor [in the audience] temporarily enjoy the luxuries of the rich” – but it is about a whole lot else besides. Films deal in immersion and emotion, and the latter only works when it is specific and sincere. We feel an intense connection with characters; the Oscars drowns that in a sea of saccharine and glitz.
More recently, the Academy has tried to deviate from its formula of fawning by showcasing a more pointed vein of comedy. This resulted in Will Smith hitting the host in the face, so perhaps some sort of middle-ground could be attempted.
Despite the media furore over The Slap, it is meaningless compared with the serious issues that have dogged the Oscars in recent years. The late 1990s were dominated by Harvey Weinstein, whose company landed the Best Picture with both The English Patient and Shakespeare in Love, prior to his unmasking as a rapist. In 2003, the Academy gave its Best Director award to another sex criminal, Roman Polanski, who had previously pled guilty to the rape of a 13-year-old girl, fleeing the country before sentencing.
There was also controversy in 1999, when the Lifetime Achievement went to director Elia Kazan, a remarkable talent who had nevertheless saved his own skin in 1952 by ratting out his old friends to the witchhunters. And in 2015, the industry’s risible record on diversity finally came home to roost with the #OscarsSoWhite campaign. Since then, marginal progress has been made: Best Picture winners have included Moonlight – Barry Jenkins’s exquisite Black LGBTQ+ drama – and the first foreign-language recipient of the award, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite.
This weekend, as at the very first ceremony, Hollywood will once again use its flagship event to try to rehabilitate itself in the eyes of the world – just in a different way.