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Oscar bollocks
A recognition of greatness or a badge of mediocrity?
A very personal view by Slarek

So it's been and gone and the speeches have been made and all the backs have been slapped, and despite the hard-to-avoid news of Eastwood's third Best Director award and Scorsese's fifth rebuff, I still haven't even bothered to check who else won what. Why? I really, truly, honestly don't care. Once I used to. Really. In my innocent youth. But not any more. In the past couple of decades things have changed. OK, I've always found it possible to find a whole bucket of films that I think are better than the one that bags the Best Film gong, but recently a fair number of such winners have struck me as sitting somewhere between drearily mediocre and offensively awful.

In my time I have known plenty of seemingly sensible people who have stayed up late to watch the Oscars. They also claim that they don't care who wins, but apparently sit there shouting at the screen like soap opera fanatics in front of a Eastenders special. This is hardly surprising given the modern obsession with the cult of celebrity, the shallow over the meaningful, and the populist over the genuinely inventive, and you would be pushed to find a more self-indulgent and crass expression of celebrity culture than Oscar night.

Repeatedly hyped as a celebration of the greatest achievements of the movie year, it should be remembered that although in theory any film released in the preceding twelve months can win an Academy Award, it is essentially an American prize for (largely mainstream) American movies, with a special category set aside for a film in which the actors do not speak God's language. Given that the most daring, most adventurous, most entertaining and most groundbreaking films are almost never American mainstream movies these days, the selection is inevitably going to be a compromise collection at best, especially as the American films that really do matter – usually the low to medium budget independents – are rarely even considered, being thought of as the scruffy urchins of the film world and sidelined to Sundance and Raindance. If such a work does catch the public's imagination and make the necessary dollars, then it may get a token nomination in one or two categories, and the Academy can always reward the big budget remake or wait until the director goes mainstream and makes something less 'quirky'.

It's hard for independents to qualify anyway – the Academy prefers big films about big themes with big names, and preferably American themes and American names, though they will tolerate a few Brits as long as the subject matter is appropriately 'universal' and there is not too much controversy attached. Genuine controversy scares the Academy, though if it goes hand in hand with financial success then chances are sometimes taken, as with Michael Moore's box-office hit Bowling for Columbine. But that was soon sorted by his notorious acceptance speech, and despite making over $100 million and becoming the most financially successful documentary of all time, Fahrenheit 9/11 was excluded this year on a technicality to avoid any more trouble from Big Mike. I have a sneaking suspicion that some of the votes for Eastwood this year were prompted in part by his very public threat to kill Moore if he ever pointed a camera at him.

That's not to say that US mainstream cinema is not capable of producing great films, even if this an increasingly rare phenomenon. Take Curtis Hanson's superb L.A. Confidential, a film that was rapturously received on its release and as looks set to attain classic status in the course of time. It boasted two superb central performances from Russell Crowe and Guy Pierce, top notch cinematography and masterful direction. It did win for its screenplay, which was also excellent, but the only acting award went to Kim Bassinger, who for me was far and away the film's weakest component. The big gongs of Best Film and Best director went to....wait for it....Titanic, a godawful, overblown nightmare of a movie whose status has slipped alarmingly in the past few years, with even many of those who initially sang its praises later admitting that it was actually a load of old tosh. But it was a BIG film with a BIG story, it was about a real historical event rather than L.A. Confidential's fictional and noirish tale of cops and corruption, it had lavish sets and gargantuan effects, and it had Leonardo De Caprio, a rising and good looking young American star who had already bagged an Oscar for What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, whereas L.A. Confidential featured two Australian actors who had yet to prove their worth on the US circuit. That, of course, would soon change. And let's not forget, that though L.A. Confidential did make a profit, more than doubling its $35 million budget on its US release, Titanic is estimated to have cost a ludicrous £200 million and went on to make three times that in the US alone, and a truly terrifying amount in worldwide receipts and TV and video sales.

There are a whole number of reasons a film will be up for the top gong, and quality is rarely at the forefront. Box-office business appears to be the key qualification – the mighty dollar has replaced the mighty visionary as the major requirement for award recognition. Lead acting gongs are usually (although not always) reserved for the already famous, and you can take just about any Best Actor or Actress winners in recent years and find a more committed, daring or compelling performance elsewhere. Look at Ellen Burstyn in Darren Aronofsky's extraordinary Requiem for a Dream, an astonishing and bravely unflattering performance in a dark, dangerous and semi-experimental work, one too risky for the Academy – she may have got the token indie nomination, but what chance did she stand against superstar Julia Roberts as the plucky and determined Erin Brockovich?

The slide into mediocrity has been a steady one that followed the now well-documented move following the huge success of Jaws and Star Wars from creative film-making to more formula works that score big bucks in their opening weekend. In the 1970s the Best Film Oscars were often awarded to genuinely groundbreaking and sometimes boldly realised works such as The French Connection, The Godfather and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It should be noted, however, that another 70s film that has achieved genuine classic status, William Friedkin's The Exorcist, only won in a couple of technical categories, despite being widely nominated and setting the box office on fire. Sorry, but that's another general rule for the main awards: dramas are fine, but genre works – horror, science fiction, comedies, thrillers – are somehow thought to be comparatively unworthy, at least until they achieve rare and unexpected mainstream respectability. This happened in 1992 to Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs, landing Anthony Hopkins a Best Actor Oscar for a colourful performance in a role that had been played with considerably more menace by Brian Cox in Michael Mann's Manhunter. Thus despite being one of the most daring, exciting, frightening and brilliantly made films in cinema history, The Exorcist lost out to The Sting, an entertaining but essentially safe viewing experience that had the good sense to avoid including a scene in which a possessed young girl bloodily thrusts a crucifix between her legs and shouts "Let Jesus fuck you!"

This anti-genre snobbery ensured that industry demiGod Steven Spielberg would not win for his finest film, Jaws, or two that are held in almost equally high regard (not by me, it has to be said), Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., but allowed him to score for Schindler's List, partly on the basis that, like Titanic, it was a big film about a big story that was based on fact. And it has to be said that Holocaust tales, no matter how exploitative, often find favour with the Academy, hence the very unusual three nominations for Roberto Benigni's non-English language Life is Beautiful. Horror films are still held in low regard and horror films with yucky effects especially so. And so the slickly made but somewhat saccharine study of how divorce affects a young child who is caught in the middle that was Kramer vs. Kramer (social issue, respected writer/director, two big name actors in the leads) was voted Best Film in 1980, yet David Cronenberg's powerfully realised and genuinely disturbing but very low budget and visually nasty horror take on the same subject that was The Brood was almost universally dismissed, an injustice that at the time was only discussed at all by genre writer John Brosnan.

Now this is my idea of an awards ceremony

The family issues of Kramer really fired the Academy up, and the following year we had more big name actors pretending to be down-to-earth ordinary folk with big family and relationship problems in Robert Redford's Ordinary People (social issues, ordinary Americans, big star names, big director) and a couple of years later with Terms of Endearment (ditto). In between, Colin Welland announced that the Brits were coming with Chariots of Fire, an annoying tale of plucky personal triumph and public school notions to honour that appealed to both American sentimentality and a skewed perception of what England is really like. Ken Loach's powerful and altogether more honest social dramas don't tend to even get a mention to Academy members. But then he's a great director.

Scale and reputation also played a key role in the Best Film shouts for Richard Attenborough's Gandhi and Milos Foreman's Amadeus, both fine films that were also historical dramas that had BIG on their sides in every respect, as did the lushly shot and overblown commercial for the African Tourist Board that was Out of Africa and the beautifully costumed history lesson of Bertolucci's The Last Emperor.

It was then that things really started to slip. Barry Levinson's Rain Man felt like a film specifically designed to grab Oscar attention – big stars giving 'serious' performances, the highlighting of a not-that-well-known condition, a famous and respected ex-indie director who had moved into the mainstream, and the chance for an actor to play one of those roles that just everyone is going to remember him for. The result? One of the most tiresomely over-praised films of the decade. But parts of it were at least watchable, which is more than can be said for next year's winner, the utterly wretched Driving Miss Daisy, which was memorably shat on by Public Enemy in their spot-on musical assault on film industry stereotyping, Burn Hollywood Burn.

Big star Kevin Costner made a big film about a big (American historical) subject with Dances With Wolves and won in 1991, and three years later Spielberg won with his big holocaust film, but it was in 1995 that things hit rock bottom with awards piled on what remains for almost everyone I know one of the most nightmarishly awful experiences they have every had in a cinema, Forrest Gump. This is the film that most perfectly illustrates where the Oscars have ended up: it was a big film in every respect, covering decades of a man's life and (this is very important) key events in American history; it starred Tom Hanks, who was on his way to becoming the country's most popular star; and it featured then gasp-inducing special effects that placed the lead actor alongside a number of famous figures, the perfect melding of historical America with the fakery of La-La Land. And it was absolutely fucking unwatchably awful. You don't agree? Tough, I don't care. One of the most satisfying moments for me in any film in recent years was when the title character in John Waters' cheesily enjoyable Cecil B. Demented led a group of self-styled film terrorists onto the set of Forrest Gump 2 and, during a reprise of that horrible (and as fellow reviewer Camus has pointed out, nonsensical) "box of chocolates" speech, machined gunned everyone on set to death.

Size continued to be everything with the wearily over-rated Braveheart (big story, based on a historical event, big star directs, the Brits are the bad guys) and the primly tolerable The English Patient (big personal story, sweeping locations, lovely cinematography), but peaked again the following year with the wretched Titanic. Many would argue that Ridley Scott's sword, snot and sandals tale Gladiator (also a size-driven winner in 2001) successfully melded the scale of the setting and effects with a genuinely gripping story, but you'll not find much sympathy for that view here – stand Gladiator next to Spartacus and it frankly pales. As for A Beautiful Mind and Chicago – the less said about them the better.

Perhaps the most dispiriting aspect of the awards is that the selection is so narrowly focused. The Internet Movie Database lists almost 15,000 films released in 2004, yet there is a sense that each year a mere handful of them are chosen and then the available awards divided up between them. And even then that handful has not been selected through careful consideration of thousands of hopefuls, but as a result of relentless lobbying by the studios and distributors.

The question, of course, is does it matter? For many it's not about the films at all, but the glitz and the glamour, the pleasure of watching emotionally insecure performers make ridiculous acceptance speeches and burst into tears at the drop of a tiara. But it also represents everything that is superficial and hollow about American mainstream cinema, a gigantic firework display with no substance that serves to illustrate all to clearly why film is still held is such low regard in some quarters, and not taken remotely seriously as an art form.

Big Oscar winners nowadays are the high school jocks of the movie world – well built, good looking, hugely popular, in all the magazines and on all the TV shows, but contributing precious little to the development of the art. That is the job of the outsiders, the scruffy independents and the foreign language movies that most western viewers simply will not watch. They'll wait for the remake, the big budget Hollywood version in which actors they recognise play to a formula they feel safe with in a language they can follow without recourse to subtitles.

As a final thought, ponder on a few of the names that have never won a Best Director Oscar, despite making films that are widely recognised as classics: Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, Sidney Lumet, Robert Altman, Oliver Stone and Charlie Chaplin. Nowadays, that's a badge these gentlemen, or at least those still surviving, should wear with pride. They are in good company.

Oscar Bollocks
by Slarek
article posted
2 March 2005