Why Diversity Saves the Oscars

The Academy Awards are a problem. Last night went pretty much as planned. Dujardin, The Artist and Hazanavicius. Spencer and Plummer. And here’s the thing. I wrote this yesterday, before the awards ceremony even started. For guys like me who pay pretty close attention to the award season, it was a bit of a bore. Yesterday morning, The Miami Herald ran a very good piece by Rene Rodriguez on how the Academy has mismanaged the Oscars into irrelevance. Rodriguez’s main contention is they have become so predictable that, instead of excitement and suspense, the show draws cynicism and boredom for the viewers. This isn’t entirely correct. I know a lot of entertainment writers live in a bubble with other professionals or friends who obsess over the movie industry as much as they do. But this is not the reality for most of the 40 million viewers who will tune in to the telecast. Most of them have never heard of or seen the bulk of the movies nominated. They are tuning in to watch a show, see celebrities wear fancy clothes and tell us who made their fancy clothes, see some clips for some movies they’re supposed to rent in the coming months - that’s it. They keep hearing about this movie, The Artist, what is that exactly?

Two days ago I was at a party with family. I spoke with a number of relatives and other familiar faces who planned on watching the telecast. They asked me what I thought. I told them I would likely watch it but thought it would make for a boring show; that it was too predictable and, overall, 2011 was a weak year for great films. This took them by some surprise. And it was a reminder that it is only us – the crazies – who obsess and make a science out of something that never really should be in the first place – who have this increasingly embedded cynicism. The telecast’s dwindling ratings are not the result of predictability, they are the result of sub-par productions and a lack of popular films. The rest is insider obsessive stuff no one is aware of, or cares about.

To be fair, I think the Academy has at least tried to fix the latter problem by increasing the number of films nominated each year. That was not an insignificant effort on their part. But a greater problem persists in the show’s predictability because the demographic that makes up the bulk of the voting body is so lazy and unimaginative and therefore easy to predict.

Take a gander at this fantastic L.A. Times piece and the crux of the issue becomes clear. The piece focuses on just who is representing the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences when they mark their ballots. In the words of Dennis Green the Academy voters are who we thought they were: Old, white dudes. Lots and lots of old, white dudes.

“Oscar voters are nearly 94% Caucasian and 77% male”

I doubt anyone is shocked finding out Caucasians make up a ridiculously unfair share of the voting body. Minorities are underrepresented in movies, guilds and executive branches within the industry, so one would follow the other. Now the 77% male number shouldn’t have shocked me, but it actually did. Only 23% of all Academy voters are women? Not even 30% of the votes come from women? Wow. In my naiveté, I thought Hollywood was different than D.C. But it’s a fundamental truth: old, well-to-do white men run things.

“Oscar voters have a median age of 62, the study showed. People younger than 50 constitute just 14% of the membership.”

No offense to old people. I think they are great. I hope to be one some day. And sometimes, younger people (let’s be super liberal here and define 20 to 49-year-olds as “younger” just to make me feel good about myself) can be really, really stupid. So it’s important we have some of that aged wisdom to bring us back to earth. I’m just not so sure old folks should be representing the majority interest of a living, breathing population, especially a living, breathing population with strong interest in the arts.

Most great artists don’t hit their prime at age 62. The passion just isn’t there. There are exceptions, of course. Clint Eastwood made a nice run in his twilight years, and his best film came as he turned 62 with 1992’s Unforgiven. Martin Scorsese’s films feel as vibrant today as they did in the 70s. But nobody expects Scorsese to make a better film than Raging Bull or Taxi Driver today (he also managed to make Goodfellas before he turned 50). Nobody expects Spielberg to make a better film than Jaws, Raiders of the Los Ark or Schindler’s List. It’s a young man’s game. And only 23% of the time is it a woman’s.

That same zeal for filmmaking applies to audiences. There is no “apply to all” rule, but I would argue the majority of older audiences are looking less for what feels different, innovative and against the grain than they are what feels most satisfying and – here’s the real issue – most comforting. And by “comforting” I don’t mean the film’s subject matter or whether there is a sad ending. Sad endings can be comforting, too. I’m talking about either the expectations of what an Oscar film is supposed to be and also the language of the film, how challenging an experience it is for a viewer. If you want an example for what I’m referring to, look at some of the big misses the Academy has had over the years.

As far as expectations go, witness Raiders of the Lost Ark losing to Ghandi. The real problem is the Academy did not feel comfortable giving the Oscar to Spielberg and Raiders because they thought it didn’t feel important enough (at the time) to warrant the prestigious Oscar. An ode to B-movie serials is an Oscar movie? This cannot be.

A more complex example is Ordinary People beating out Raging Bull. Now, I want to be clear about something: film, of course, is subjective and I’m not saying it is incorrect to like Ghandi over Raiders or Ordinary People over Raging Bull. I’m just focusing on how predictable those choices really were and how it’s easy to understand why Ordinary People won Best Picture and Raging Bull didn’t. It isn’t that Raging Bull is too depressing. I mean, Ordinary People is pretty depressing. How the two films deal with their morose subject matter, however, is totally different.

Ordinary People grants us a cathartic moment. We can dry our tears with a hankie and take solace – even some joy – when Mary Tyler Moore is sent packing. It’s a feel-good, feel-bad movie, a complete emotional experience. Raging Bull, is sticking two fingers in your chest; it’s in your face and it’s not going to tie anything up with an emotional bow (this is neither a good or bad thing by the way and I think far too many critics assume it is).

The Academy voter invested in the characters of Ordinary People and the film followed through with an ending that – while certainly a downer – at least follows through with an emotionally satisfying result. It feels complete, whereas Raging Bull is a lot more complex – for better or worse. Jake LaMotta is real and tragic and he’s still out there, beaten and alone, a happy ending repellant because he blew every shot he had at a graceful life. Our protagonist never learns his lessons. Justice may be served, but there is no catharsis because our protagonist is also his own antagonist. There is no villain in Raging Bull but Jake LaMotta himself. We are left with this beautiful, sad portrait of a man who cheated himself out of happiness and we feel like maybe he cheated us too. This is not a comforting experience. It’s an exciting one if it stirs you, it makes for great 3:00 a.m. diner chatter, but I could understand living in my twilight years, a little more world-weary and a little less interested in discomforting thoughts as the stresses of my life and that of my own mortality weigh in on me. I could see being a little more willing to lay my head on the pillow and dream of a world where Mary Tyler Moore gets her comeuppance. Maybe, if I was older, I’d want to spend less of my time with nightmare lives of regret like that of Jake LaMotta.

In turn, I think younger movie geeks take movies like The King’s Speech for granted, dismissing them as safe, Academy fodder, dismissing the excellent performances because the archetypes seem traditional, because it’s so easy to be this good when you are handed “Oscar-y” material like this; dismissing the remarkable execution of a satisfying and focused script; dismissing the entire film because it’s the type of movie the blue hairs fall in love with – as if this in and of itself is a rational critique. Look, I didn’t have The King’s Speech in my top ten or anything, but I admire the film and whenever I’ve discussed it with other geeks I get the eye roll or the sneer so I felt it - and Ordinary People - (another film I happen to really like) required some defending here. I think they and other films that share their genetic makeup, make us overly-cynical, overly-analytical and smug as we're faced with films we know our parents will just love. I think the same wall that goes up for an Academy voter when faced with genre films like Raiders, E.T., Inception or The Dark Knight goes up for the younger crowd as well when faced with The King’s Speech or The Artist.

And this is why diversity is so important in the voting block. Old white men are still going to vote for movies that fit their old white male sensibilities. A young white male is going to vote for a movie that fits his and a young black woman will vote for one that fits hers. Maybe at some point down the road, when the Academy truly is diverse, the idea of what an Academy movie looks and feels like will change. Or better yet, maybe we will never have an idea of what an Academy movie should be at all, making the whole thing harder to predict as well. That would be something.