Sunday, 7 March 2010

Why the Oscars are worthless

"And the award for the most stultifying, simplistic, unchallenging guff of the year goes to..."

What have Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Mitchum, Cary Grant and Judy Garland got in common? Here's another clue: it's the same thing that unites The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Double Indemnity, It's a Wonderful Life, The Searchers and Hoop Dreams. They've all played a crucial role in the evolution of movie-making. They've all brought joy and heartache to countless millions. And not one of them has grabbed a single competitive Oscar.

The Academy Awards is the annual ode to gaudity and mediocrity that chose Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction, that decided Marty was a more important film than Rebel Without a Cause, that gave Bogart his Oscar for The African Queen and Scorsese a gong for The Departed.

As the gold dust settles on this year's ceremony, the results are being met with the usual cries of surprise and dismay. Why? The Oscars has been getting it so completely wrong since its inception, the only mystifying thing is that anyone takes it seriously at all.

But even aside from the subjective argument that the Oscars consistently fails to reward "great movies", their more troubling flaw is a refusal to recognise important, era-defining ones - an issue that goes to the very heart of its purpose. Its continual embracing of the bland is not by coincidence, it's by design.

Set up in 1928 with the express purpose of mollifying censors and right-wing critics who saw Hollywood as debauched and amoral, the Oscars has always returned to that offensively unchallenging remit. The Academy had been established the previous year by MGM head Louis B Mayer as an anti-union move. As early as the first ceremony, its awards overlooked King Vidor's progressive liberal drama The Crowd in favour of the dazzling but apolitical romance Sunrise. It's barely deviated since. If in doubt: play safe.

Social polemics, state-of-the-nation dramas and movies that with one fell swoop have created entire genres have been - and are - consistently ignored, in favour of unchallenging, box-ticking, hateful, award-ogling guff. That underwhelming, simplistic fare can be so easily dismissed as "awards fodder" is a damning indictment of what these events represent. This is the awards ceremony that heralded Rocky over both Taxi Driver and Network, that decided Kramer vs Kramer was not only better than Coppola's Vietnam opus Apocalypse Now, but also knocked the Tin Drum into a cocked hat. That has just overlooked In the Loop. That seems to think Gandhi isn't shit. (The film, not the man).

The awards are reactionary, even regressive, with pet fixations that members think compensate for their general blinkeredness. Disabled people are sort of alright, and gays can get up to what they want - so long as we don't have to really see it - but keep the dissidents and the self-possessed blacks away at all costs. The Oscars have always prized the worthy and the preachy above the challenging or the new, consistently celebrated the cautious, the mawkish and the dull. The awards are pointless and redundant, irrelevant and obscene. And did you see what Sandra Bullock was wearing?

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