For cinephiles, it’s the most wonderful time of the year: Oscar season. Movie buffs and film fanatics have been counting down the days, waiting with bated breath for the big night to finally arrive. The Academy Awards are the oldest, most prominent and most prestigious accolades for film, and each year millions worldwide tune in to the televised ceremony. Sunday night, Hollywood’s who’s who will parade down the red carpet outside the Kodak Theater, ingénues bumping elbows with legends, and a select few will walk away with a little dude named Oscar, the eight-pound golden statue that’s so entrenched in film history.
While millions will be throwing Oscar parties and filling out fake ballots in support of their favorite films (the Quad included), there are arguably as many who will not watch the ceremony come Sunday. Naysayers criticize the Academy’s affair for its self-congratulatory nature, a night bloated with long-winded speeches and hyperbolic tributes. Many believe that its focus over the past few years has shifted from film to fashion and frivolity, with “Who are you wearing?” being more readily asked than “Who are your influences?” With all the red carpet coverage, post-show parties and Ryan Seacrest cameos, the primary purpose of the Oscars- to award excellence in film- is all too easy to forget.
However, the question is, do the Oscars actually award excellence? Since its inception in 1929, 82 films have held the distinguished title of Best Picture, and many of them are undisputed classics. Just take a gander at some Oscar-winning titles: Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, On the Waterfront, Lawrence of Arabia, the Godfather films. All are classics, standing the test of time. That being said, looking back on Best Picture winners of yore, there is more than a few head-scratchers. Kramer vs. Kramer beating out Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now? The poorly paced Dances with Wolves winning over Martin Scorsese’s mob masterpiece Goodfellas? Glorified rom-com Shakespeare in Love upsetting the war film that redefined the genre, Saving Private Ryan? Even Citizen Kane, widely considered the greatest film of all time, didn’t win the big prize on Oscar night, losing to How Green Was My Valley in 1941. Ever heard of How Green Was My Valley? Exactly.
So how do such less-than-best pictures win the coveted award for Best Picture? Nowadays, there’s more to winning an Oscar than mere cinematic quality. There are a whole lot of politics involved, including much campaigning and lobbying to publicize a film and its major players during Oscar season. Take, for example, Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who head production juggernaut the Weinstein Company. The Weinstein brothers are notorious in the film industry for their heavy campaigning efforts. Recently, the brothers took out a lengthy ad to push their current Oscar-nominated film The King’s Speech, a commercial cleverly timed to run during the Jesse Eisenberg-hosted episode of Saturday Night Live. Eisenberg heads the ensemble of The King’s Speech’s biggest Oscar competition, The Social Network. See what they did there?
Though their aggressive techniques have been criticized in the past, such sneaky schemes have regularly gotten the Weinsteins up to the podium on Oscar night. Is it a coincidence, then, that the inferior Shakespeare in Love, produced under the Weinsteins, won seven Oscars? I think not. And the Weinsteins aren’t the only ones. Actors and actresses also succumb to lobbying during Oscar season, boozing and schmoozing members of the Academy to get votes, plopping down in armchairs across from Regis or Oprah to relay irrelevant anecdotes to win audiences over.
In an ideal world, an Oscar win would be based solely on the brilliance of an actor’s performance, but such is not always the case. The Academy has faced accusations of being swayed more by marketing than by quality, and an actor’s campaign can have legitimate effects on their Oscar odds. For example, recent controversy has risen over Melissa Leo’s Oscar campaign. Leo, the frontrunner to win for supporting actress this year for her work in The Fighter, released a self-funded “For Your Consideration” ad campaign featuring the actress donning faux furs and heavy makeup. The ads have been met with much confusion, with many industry professionals touting that Leo’s ruined her chances with the wacky, tacky campaign, and are rapidly backing an upset by Leo’s main competition, True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld.
The competitive horse race, pitting actors against each other, has become pretty standard during Oscar season. Come fall each year, critics, bloggers, and film fans immediately begin making predictions and placing bets, ranking films and their stars even before nominations are released. The Oscars have become a pseudo sporting event, a Super Bowl with better outfits and less carbs. The parade of pre-Oscar accolades—awards from festivals, guilds, critics and more— are the playoffs, and each win there helps determine how well they’re going to fare at the championship, the Academy Awards.
Despite all of the petty competition, studio politics, and the star-studded, shellacked spectacle of the ceremony, the Oscars still matter. Why? Because they’re the freaking Oscars. Meryl Streep is considered the greatest living actress not only because of her consistently brilliant performances, but because there’s tangible proof: she’s the most Oscar-nominated actress in history. The Oscar is a stamp of approval, a mark of distinction, a validation that’s seen the world over.
The exposure and prestige that comes with winning an Academy Award is unparalleled compared with other awards. A filmmaker or actor is instantly elevated in status when “Academy-Award winner” precedes their name. It’s a complete career changer. Take Kathryn Bigelow. Before her Best Director win last year for The Hurt Locker, she was best known for being James Cameron’s ex-wife. Fast-forward post-Oscar, and she’s now considered one of the top 15 greatest working directors in the industry, even besting ex-hubby Cameron. Being the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar has its perks.
The Oscars help give deserved attention to new or relatively unknown talents. Look at actresses Marianne Cotillard, Amy Adams, Carey Mulligan—all were plucked from near obscurity to become household names post-Oscar wins and nominations. In a similar vein, the Oscars also shower praise and publicity on films that otherwise may not be seen by the movie-going masses, films that without Oscar buzz would be relegated to small theaters in Los Angeles and New York. If you’ve bought a ticket to the little-seen Winter’s Bone, it’s likely because you’ve heard that actress Jennifer Lawrence gives an Oscar-worthy performance. If you’ve seen Bigelow’s low-budget indie The Hurt Locker, or even know who Bigelow is, it’s probably because of the Oscars.
It’s easy to give the Oscars a lot of flak, but anything that gets people seeing quality films and talking seriously about them, analyzing and arguing over them, is a good thing. For a few weeks a year, we’re all movie critics. Even people who think Fellini is a type of sandwich can sit around dissecting directorial choices and acting performances, can pick their favorite films and roar in outrage when they don’t win, or excitement when they do. Sometimes the Academy gets it right, and sometimes they get it wrong (Crash over Brokeback? Really?), but either way, the Oscars still hold significance for filmmakers and film fans.
The 83rd annual Academy Awards will air Sunday, Feb. 27th at 8 p.m. ET on ABC. See Quad Film’s liveblog of the event here.