Nominees for the 93rd Academy Awards are a reminder that Oscar is like a Rorschach test: It means different things to different people. And in the 21st century, there is a growing gap between awards and the public.
For decades, Oscar’s best picture winner was often the year’s top box office hit, including “Gone With the Wind,” “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “The Greatest Show on Earth,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Ben-Hur,” “West Side Story,” “The Sound of Music,” “The Godfather,” “Rain Man,” “Forrest Gump” and “Titanic.” Aside from being impressive moviemaking, they were populist fare.
This trend climaxed with the 11 Oscar wins for “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (2003), which earned $1.1 billion at the box office.
Since then, not a single best pic winner has managed to crack the B.O. top 10. In fact, in the 16 years following “LOTR,” the best picture winner has averaged being in the No. 47 slot for global box office.
Peter Jackson and his Weta Digital artists created breakthrough digital effects, which Hollywood embraced too eagerly; unlike Jackson, studio people often made CGI the top priority, ahead of storytelling.
And with so many entertainment options, moviegoers wanted something “safe” for their money. So Hollywood served up a flood of familiarity. In 2019 (the most recent “normal” B.O. year), every movie in the top 10 was a sequel (e.g., “Avengers: Endgame”) or remake (“The Lion King”) or spinoff from an established movie universe (“Captain Marvel”).
AMPAS voters have actively resisted these trends, generally opting for small and personal films, including this year’s nominees. Voters have occasionally nominated blockbusters for best picture, such as “Avatar” and “Black Panther,” but in general, they have omitted those films from the all-important race. That’s understandable, because many CGI spectacles have been eye-popping but mindless.
However, by ignoring anything that hints of CGI showcases, voters have missed out on some gems in the best picture race, such as “The Dark Knight,” “Logan,” “Mission: Impossible — Fallout,” “Rogue One,” “Skyfall,” “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” and “War for the Planet of the Apes,” to name a few.
The public/industry divide also shows up in the perception of the awards. To millions of people around the world, modern Oscars are what they’ve always been: A chance to see movie stars all dressed up, with some emotional moments. (Will Brad Pitt finally win? What will Lady Gaga wear?)
But to 21st century film people, Oscar has become a measuring stick: “How does this reflect our industry?” and, more recently, “Are we woke enough?” The industry is goaded by the mainstream media, in which every nominee is analyzed for socio-economic symbolism.
This is both good and bad. On the plus side, it’s a constant reminder to Hollywood execs that inclusion matters. A lot. That’s an important truth that needs to be frequently stressed.
The downside is that without seeing voting tallies, an analyst is forced to jump to a lot of conclusions, which may not be right. When Greta Gerwig didn’t get a director nomination for “Little Women,” the conclusion was clear: She probably got zero votes and women were shut out AGAIN. Each new Oscar slate is put in the context of 100 years of exclusion.
The other downside is that nominees are being held responsible for Hollywood’s failings, even though people in charge of hiring are the real culprits. So we get moments such as presenter Natalie Portman at an awards show last year sneering at the “all-male” director lineup, as if those five nominees were personally responsible for all the years of thwarted women directors.
Hollywood once churned out crowd-pleasers that were also Oscar bait. If studios want to recapture that, they could stop thinking of awards fodder and hit movies as separate classifications. And maybe the ceremony could find a way to acknowledge movie fans’ favorites (and no, not via a Most Popular Oscar).
But maybe everyone is OK with the status quo. The collateral damage includes the Oscar ratings, which are important because ABC’s license fees help support so many worthwhile AMPAS efforts like the library, scholarships, mentorship programs, grants, etc.
Until then, we’ll continue to live with the Great Divide.