Let’s start with something most of us can agree on: Jimmy Kimmel, who I’m a fan of, is probably not the ideal messenger for how to fix the Oscars, if indeed they need fixing. Kimmel hosted the Academy Awards in 2017, and did a lively enough job of it that he was asked back to host again the following year. His spirit is hooked up to movies; you feel that when a movie star is a guest on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” But when Kimmel blasted the Oscars in his opening monologue on Feb. 8, saying, “‘The Power of the Dog’ got 12 nominations, one for every person who saw it,” he made himself sound like the sort of righteous fanboy who wants to see nothing but Marvel and “Jackass.”
Maybe he is. But if Kimmel were hosting the Oscars this year and, during the show, made that same crack about “The Power of the Dog,” a lot of us would be at home chuckling at what a good line it is. I know, I know: We’re all supposed to bow down before Netflix and the awesomeness of its holy vaunted metrics. “The Power of the Dog” was seen… by a whole lot of eyeballs! “Don’t Look Up” was seen… by a whole lot of eyeballs! (“The Irishman,” according to those same metrics, was also seen by a whole lot of eyeballs, but two years ago, when Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic was Netflix’s big fish, the company hadn’t yet figured out how to sell those metrics by giving them the analog glow of box-office grosses.)
Kimmel, in his “Power of the Dog” line, sounded to people — or, at least, to the people on Film Twitter — like he was dissing the very idea of a movie that strives to be art as mightily as Jane Campion’s film does. Yet I think he was also getting at something about the streaming era: that however many eyeballs saw “The Power of the Dog,” when a film plays in theaters and becomes a hit (would you really say “The Power of the Dog” is a “hit”?), it creates a buzz factor, a presence in the world that movies have always been about, and that an acclaimed film on Netflix — be it “The Power of the Dog,” “The Irishman,” “Mank” or “The Lost Daughter” — can never quite muster.
It’s true that for a week or so, a lot of folks — or, at least, the people on Film Twitter — were buzzing about “Don’t Look Up.” Is Adam’s McKay’s put-on disaster movie a cutting black comedy or a top-heavy didactic satire? Is it an “important” movie because it’s about climate change? Or — this happens to be my view — is it a witty comedy when it skewers our collective media psychosis (i.e., the more we look at our screens, the less we seem to know), but when it bogs down in the climate change metaphor (with a dollop of pandemic thrown in)… well, that’s the most preachy and laborious (though Oscar-friendly!) thing about it. The money shot of Kimmel’s Oscar rant was his dissing of “Don’t Look Up,” linked to his complaint that “Spider-Man: No Way Home” couldn’t snag a best picture nomination. “You’re telling me ‘Don’t Look Up’ was better than ‘Spider-Man?,'” Kimmel groused. “It most certainly was not.” He went on to ask, “Why do best picture nominees have to be serious? When did that become a prerequisite for getting nominated for an Academy Award?”
It’s a good question, and the answer is: Not very long ago. I’ve already legislated the “Spider-Man”-as-potential-best-picture-nominee question (an issue revisited this week by Kevin Smith), and won’t belabor it here, but the thing that Kimmel was getting at is: Why are the Oscars increasingly severed from the populist side of moviegoing? If you scrutinize the 10 nominations for best picture this year, you can’t point to any one of them and say, “That absolutely doesn’t belong there.” For the record, the most cutting-edge-of-art-cinema nomination on the entire roster, “Drive My Car,” was the #4 movie on my 10 Best list, so it’s not like I’m saying, “Lose the art and bring on the blockbusters.”
But how about one blockbuster? Or, as Kimmel suggested, a movie that’s simply fun for its own sake and that has no higher meaning? Every one of the 10 films nominated for best picture this year stakes its own claim on “importance.” “The Power of the Dog” deconstructs the frontier myth of American masculinity (my problem with it is that it’s a better deconstruction than it is a story), “Don’t Look Up” wags its finger about climate change, “Belfast” is rooted in the Troubles, “West Side Story” presents itself as a timely pointed allegory of our racial divisions, “Drive My Car” is a tale of death and rebirth, and “Dune,” the one certified box office hit on the list, may be the most austere sci-fi parable since “Solaris.” The Oscars used to be flashy and bracing in their middle-of-the-road vulgarity. At the Oscars today, austerity is the new vulgarity, and any movie that connects with the popcorn audience, in a popcorn way, now looks a little too declassé.
The media reinforces this logic. If you had just arrived from Mars and were looking to discover the best movies of 2021, the collective wisdom would tell you that “Belfast” is a rich and accomplished memory film, a feel-good reminiscence of growing up in a thicket of political strife, whereas “House of Gucci,” though you might find it entertaining in a camp way, is a flamboyant soap opera that no one sane would take seriously.
But seriously: Which of those two is actually a better film? I talk to all kinds of people about movies and I have yet to meet anyone who loved “Belfast.” Most people feel the same way about it that I do: that it was “fine,” but that it was missing something — a greater grit or authenticity, or just a more vibrant emotional core. So many things about it feel quietly off, from Jamie Dornan’s salon hair to the fact that the brick housing area feels like a set, which it in fact was. (“West Side Story” could have been shot there.)
“House of Gucci,” by contrast, is a movie some roll their eyes at but some (like me) love, and it’s the rare performance-driven awards-season film that actually became popular. “Belfast” came charging out of the Telluride gate in September, won the audience award at Toronto a week or so later and has been on a downhill slide ever since — it’s made a total of $7.6 million. Whereas “House of Gucci” had a moment in the culture. Talk about buzz! Lady Gaga, snubbed for best actress, was the only contender, apart from Kristen Stewart, who people talk about like a true movie star. So why is “Belfast” still being talked about as one of the two likely best picture winners (along with “The Power of the Dog”), while “House of Gucci,” a rare pandemic hit for adults, couldn’t even get arrested at the Oscars? A lot of people — or, at least, the people on Film Twitter — would say: Because, dude, “House of Gucci” is a bad movie! I would say it’s because that spicy pinch of vulgarity in “House of Gucci” now renders it Oscar non grata.
To gain a little perspective, I went back and looked up some of the movies, starting in 1970, that were once nominated for best picture, or that even won, and I was surprised to be reminded at times of what a low-to-middlebrow affair it used to be. Here are a few of those titles:
“Airport” (1970). Yes, the original disaster movie was nominated for best picture. Today that would be like nominating “Godzilla vs. Kong.”
“Love Story” (1970). The four-hankie weeper that was like a Hallmark card crossed with a cremation urn.
“The Sting” (1973). You must remember this! In spirit, it’s the sequel to “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” re-teaming Paul Newman and Robert Redford for a clockwork caper movie, and it actually won best picture. Today, that would be like giving the grand prize to “Ocean’s Eleven.”
“The Towering Inferno” (1974). Makes “Airport” look like “Citizen Kane.”
“Jaws” (1975). Sure, we all know it’s a timeless work of cinema now. At the time, Steven Spielberg’s classic was the quintessential summer movie.
“Rocky” (1976) A retro piece of Capra-corn that won best picture over “Taxi Driver,” “All the President’s Men,” and “Network.”
“The Goodbye Girl” (1977). A corny boisterous Neil Simon comedy that filled the romantic-comedy void before the rom-com revolution.
“Star Wars” (1977). A long time ago, a movie like this was a shoo-in. Needless to say, it totally deserved to be there.
“The Turning Point” (1977). It totally didn’t, but what a testament to how lowbrow the Oscars could go.
“Heaven Can Wait” (1978). A popular comedy — but really, it’s just a fluffy afterlife fantasy with Warren Beatty at his most meticulously abashed.
“Breaking Away” (1979). Bike races, youth romance, and a breezy sense of its own whimsicality.
“Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981). The essence of escapism.
“Terms of Endearment” (1983). The essence of soap-opera sitcom comfort food, and of course it won.
“Fatal Attraction” (1987). It captured a moment when women were saying, “We’re not going to take this anymore.” But would a thriller this luridly sensational be nominated today?
“Moonstruck” (1987). It’s awfully good, in a flip and absurdist romantic way (and check out Cher’s spicy-meatball accent).
“Working Girl” (1988). A zeitgeisty corporate comedy: not bad, but probably best remembered for its Carly Simon theme song.
“Ghost” (1990). The last pre-ironic romantic movie? “GoodFellas” should have won that year, but I still would have favored this winning over “Dances with Wolves.”
“The Fugitive” (1993). Incredibly well done… but really, just an elevated chase thriller.
“Four Weddings and a Funeral” (1994). The sweet spot of the rom-com ’90s.
“Titanic” (1997). I think it’s one of the greatest films ever made — but the fact that people always qualify their love for it, placing themselves above it (“The script sucked!”), or that it now has more haters than ever, is an indication that it wouldn’t have been honored in the same way today.
“The Full Monty” (1997). Yes. This was nominated. Today that would be considered nakedly embarrassing.
“The Sixth Sense” (1999). A good twist, a good movie. But not so good.
“Gladiator” (2000). Sublime old-fashioned excitement. But would it win today?
The “Lord of the Rings” Trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003). All three were nominated; the last one won. Would a franchise juggernaut win today?
“Little Miss Sunshine” (2006). This sitcom-pretending-to-be-real became an indie smash. It’s the definition of a crowd-pleaser that reveals why the crowd isn’t always right.
You really do have to wonder: How many of those films would be nominated now? There are those who would say, “Not many, and that’s a good thing.” Yet the Academy Awards, even as they seem to be discovering a new kind of “integrity,” could end up withering on the cross of that integrity. Today, the Oscars reflect an increasingly dichotomized thinking: small movies (good) vs. popular movies (not so good), movies that wear their art on their sleeve (good) vs. movies that just want to have fun (not so good). That thinking is there on the part of both the media and the Academy voters. Even “King Richard,” one of the 10 best picture nominees (and one that’s likely to bring Will Smith his first Oscar for best actor), may, at this point, be too conventional and wholehearted for the Academy. I was happy to see it nominated (I think, after “Drive My Car,” that it’s the best film on the slate), but a decade ago I believe it would have won. Why isn’t it being talked about as a contender?
It’s hard to generalize about the Oscars — whenever you point to a trend, there’s probably some example from the past that can be used to contradict it. But what my gut says, along with Jimmy Kimmel’s, is that what most of the world thinks of as the quintessence of entertainment is starting to be something the Academy no longer trusts. If so, that’s a serious problem. As a night of showbiz, the Oscars should be a lot of things: traditional and audacious, intimate and spectacular, frivolous and sincere. The one thing they shouldn’t be is alienating.