The Oscars: Why do We Bother?

Every year a guns goes off and the Oscar race begins, and jamming the running lanes are respectful, important, prestigious pictures; many of which are good, but few of which are great. And – in a sadly all too familiar fashion – allegations of racism have returned this year amidst the nominations. There’s no sign of Tangerine, little room for Creed, and no nomination for Samuel L. Jackson’s performance in The Hateful Eight. Yet, these films are all vastly superior to hotly-tipped favourites like The Revenant – so much so that it’s easy to resort to the obvious explanation of their absence: those films star black people, Oscar films star white people.

But my beef with the Oscars goes even further.

I wouldn’t mind the Oscars so much if they didn’t regard themselves as supremely judicious; the arbiters of fine filmmaking; the ultimate voice on artistic screen merit. (On their website they boast winning an Oscar is “the highest honor in filmmaking” – modest bunch, aren’t they?)

But the Oscars are a crock. They always have been and they always will be. Comedies are routinely snubbed, horror is completely disregarded and action films are treated with disdain (this year’s Mad Max: Fury Road is a stark anomaly). Sure, all award ceremonies are ridiculous. They’re also entirely subjective. But Oscar voters have an astonishing taste for mediocrity – so much so that Alfred Hitchcock never won an Oscar. Neither did Robert Altman, Montgomery Clift, Gena Rowlands, Gordon Willis, Thelma Ritter, Barbara Stanwyck or Howard Hawks – Howard Hawks! Roger Deakins still hasn’t won an Oscar and Buster Keaton was never even nominated.

Go figure.

Instead, the Oscars have a shocking habit of awarding the wrong films and the wrong people; or the right people but at the wrong time (Martin Scorsese for The Departed but not for Taxi Driver; Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman but not The Godfather Part II). When its track record is examined, the Oscars’ awful, smug, self-importance turns out to be laughable.

This complacency is, of course, completely unwarranted. But the Oscars’ view of itself as the ultimate judge on worthy cinema is downright delusional. It’s delusional for many reasons, but primarily for this: Oscar voters don’t really care about cinema – because “cinema” includes world cinema, and the Oscars have always – always – treated world cinema with contempt.

Foreign language performances rarely win Oscars; foreign language screenplays rarely win Oscars – and foreign language films never win Best Picture. Instead, these films are given their own, patronising subcategory, “Best Foreign Language Film”; whereby, under the rules of the supercilious Academy, only one film can be submitted per foreign country. As for the English-speaking countries though? No limit.

Think about that. Few African-Americans have been nominated this year, but even fewer Africans have been nominated. Few Asian-Americans have been nominated this year, but even fewer Asians have been nominated. Two entire continents rich in culture, history and art are consistently shut out of the big categories at the Oscars – a ceremony that claims to value cinema and art. The power of world cinema – its ability for us to empathise with those around the globe – is profound, and absolutely essential. Foreign films help us gain a better understanding of the world around us, a better understanding of our fellow man and woman – a better understanding of ourselves.

The Oscars’ disregard of world cinema is partly due to the English-speaking world’s aversion to subtitles. But showing extreme dedication to your own language and culture at every single opportunity does not benefit cinema or moviegoers. By exclusively awarding English language films, the Academy, in effect, deems foreign language films as inferior – which is insane. But anyone who champions art should also champion diversity – not just racial diversity, but global diversity. Because by increasing diversity we soon realise that we’re not all that diverse. We’re human. We all have the same emotions, the same desires and the same experiences.

Such is the power of world cinema.

But the Oscars don’t care about the rest of the world – even if it makes them look ridiculous. How can any Academy claim to offer a “Best Director” award but never gave it to Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, Agnès Varda, Luis Buñuel, Chantal Akerman, François Truffaut and countless other deserving auteurs? How can any Academy offer it without a shred of irony?

Unfortunately though, people take the Oscars seriously – almost as seriously as they take themselves. The Oscars, in practice, can serve as a platform to introduce an underappreciated artist to a wider audience. But they rarely do. They never dare award anything that diverts from the solemn, English language prestige pictures. On occasion they will consider themselves daring and nominate the odd film outside of that parochial bracket. But they never give it the prize, and certainly never the top prize.

So why take them seriously? This is the Academy that has never once thought the year’s “Best Picture” was made anywhere other than the English-speaking world. During the Oscars’ 88 years of dishing out statuettes, only nine non-English language films have ever been nominated for Best Picture (that’s nine out of 528 films).

So yes, the Oscars are a crock. They always have been and they always will be. Unless they start acknowledging that there are different cultures out there, different backgrounds and different languages – all equally deserving of recognition – why bother with them? Honestly. Why do we bother? Instead, treat the Oscars as the nonsense they are: a three hour-plus slog of unfunny jokes, dodgey speeches and the Hollywood machine patting itself on the back for its English-speaking prestige.

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