Meet our new awards expert Joe Reid -- keep up with his column for the predictions, news and opinions you'll need to sound well-informed at parties for the entire awards season.
The Oscar race makes film culture better, not worse.
The arguments against the Oscars at this point are as numerous as they are frequently repeated: they're crass, they're all about advertising dollars and hollow glad-handing, they only honor a narrow sliver of middlebrow "prestige" dramas. This is all true. Undeniable. I love it anyway. You should too.
The first time I watched any part of the Oscars was the 1991 ceremony -- the ceremony for the films of 1991, which technically occurred in early 1992; one of my all-time pet peeves is that there is still a need to clarify this. For reference sake, any time I say "the [X year] Oscars," I mean the Oscars for the movies of that year; the 2012 Oscars will be happening until well into 2013 and we should all be adult enough to not get pedantic about it. Anyway!
The 1991 Oscars, where "Silence of the Lambs" (a film I had heard of but was too scared, at 11 years old, to have seen) was the big winner, and I recall being very impressed when "Oscar-winner Joe Pesci" came out to present an award, because any organization that saw fit to honor that man's performance in "Home Alone" was worthy of my respect. (I eventually saw "Goodfellas" when I was 19.)
The first year I was able to stay awake to watch the Oscars through the end was the 1994 ceremony, and that was also the first year I ever followed The Race. That was a brilliant year for narrative, with "Forrest Gump" and "Pulp Fiction" representing all sorts of polar opposites: studio vs. indie, Boomers vs. Gen X, happy reassurance of the American dream vs. chaotic violence in a made-up world. It's almost laughable now that, in the Best Actor battle of Hanks vs. Travolta, that Travolta would have represented the faction of youthful party-crashing, but there we were.
I'm sure the allure of the Academy Awards would have eventually pulled me in, but I wonder if another year ("Braveheart"'s march to the sea; the respectful steamrolling of "Schindler's List") would have hooked me with Oscar's ability to sum up The State of Moviemaking Today as it did in 1994. Not to mention... that was also the year of Letterman! Who could have asked for a more memorable spectacle? (For the record, I've always been a Letterman partisan, though Steve Martin remains my preferred Oscar host.
Ever since, the Oscar race has been if nothing else an organizing principle, goalposts to set the year by. In many ways, the results don't matter. I was partial to "Pulp Fiction," to "L.A. Confidential," to "The Fellowship of the Ring." More than that, I was partial to "Heavenly Creatures" and "Boogie Nights" and "Mulholland Dr." Not even nominated for Best Picture! Yet the Academy's myopia never ruined those movies for me. That's because they got to be a part of The Conversation.
That's what I'm in it for -- The Conversation. The Oscar nominees, the Golden Globes, the Indie Spirits, critics upon critics from every corner of the U.S., guilds upon guilds. Each one gets to contribute to The Conversation about the best films of the year. So do I. So do you. And since there's no set scoring system, no one quantifiable criteria, we get to be as expansive as we want to be.
The Oscars don't have to be an end in and of themselves, even if they are a finish line. Cases are made, arguments are had -- some of it gets ugly and stupid and based on silly things like "campaigning." But if we're able to keep the PR stuff in perspective -- one limb of a many-legged beast -- then we have a shot at, at least from our end, making this about the movies. The Oscars get to be about what the rarefied members of the Academy -- as white and old and conservative as they often are -- like the best. As the Hollywood establishment, what they like "matters," in the same way that every establishment's values matter, even if only as something to push back against.
Sometimes, the stars align and they like what we like, and that can be exhilarating. "They finally GET IT!" we can shout, as Tilda Swinton takes the stage to accept her trophy. For better or worse, the Oscars are a time capsule chosen by popular vote; edges are bound to get sanded off when asking for the common favorite of a large voting pool. But those moments when something or someone WE find extraordinary pushes through and wins, that time capsule becomes a little bit ours.
Don't be fooled by all my high-mindedness, though. I'm not at all numb to the surface pleasures of the Oscars. Glamorous celebrities in pretty dresses, being funny and gracious and dramatic. Inebriated stars at the Golden Globes gabbing about God knows what during the commercial breaks. The thrill of correctly guessing which ascendant starlet will present the Scientific and technical Oscars at a ceremony held previously. Or which more established actor or actress will be there at 5:30am Pacific time to announce the nominees.
The predicting game can be just that -- a game. A parlor trick. So is picking out one horse with a funny name before the Kentucky Derby and seeing if your luck holds out. Doesn't make it any less fun. I'm going to try to keep this fun. Fun and expansive. Those are the words of the season. Looking forward to you all joining me for it.