The Three (or More) Faces of Oscar: The meaning of the Academy Awards

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The Three (or More) Faces of Oscar: The meaning of the Academy Awards

What to make of the Oscars? It’s difficult, working in the film business, not to approach cinema’s biggest night without a certain schizophrenia. I have a deep and abiding belief in film, in its ability to beautifully exploit so many different art forms—movies are, after all, the most promiscuous of mediums, sleeping with literature, music, fine art, photography—and I recognize its transcendent power. The great directors interpret the world in inventive, compelling ways and tell us about ourselves. The reverence that the Academy Awards display for its outstanding practitioners feels largely earned. Movies are arguably our most important form of collective expression, and honoring those who contribute significantly is eminently defensible, as a public relations exercise for the industry as well as a fundraiser of sorts for the many worthy programs the Academy undertakes, including film preservation. There is also a cultural logic to a big, annual show celebrating those whose professional lives are dedicated to making shows. As novelist and screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis remarks: “The Oscars are Hollywood’s reflection of itself, what it aspires to be.”

And then there is the problematic side. The show itself is bloated and often dull, the Academy too insular and often seemingly unable to tune in to the cultural frequencies that matter.

“The Oscars are a PR stunt and as such succeed spectacularly,” says screenwriter Josh Pate. “The people involved seem to take it way too seriously. The brutal thing about it is there’s only five or six awards that anyone cares about.” As a result, an almost Catholic patience is required to suffer through the endurance event that it has become—a campaign of self regard and cliquish, intramural congratulation amongst an alarmingly homogeneous group. The Los Angeles Times recently tallied Academy voters as “nearly 94% Caucasian and 77% male,” with Blacks making up about 2% of the Academy and Latinos less than 2%. The median age of Oscar voters? 62. (See story here.)

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And that’s another source of schizophrenia: Liberal Hollywood embraces and publicly espouses values of tolerance and diversity, without being diverse and only questionably tolerant of orthodoxies different than their own. My friend Andrew Klavan, a conservative novelist and screenwriter who operates from the opposite end of the political spectrum from myself, comments perceptively on this phenomenon.

Molly Schiot, a music-video director and artist, sums up the contradiction many viewers feel. “I like the awards because I love a tradition. However, I don’t love the company of old white men on the podium of the Academy Awards. For Schiot, it’s only during the postmortem portion of the show that this contradiction begins to dissolve. “My favorite part is honoring the dead because you see blacks, women, the mishmash of faces.”