The Importance (and Self-Importance) of The Oscars


Tuesday's release of the nominations for the 84th Academy Awards stand as one more reminder that the Oscars are incredibly important to movie fans in the face of the incredible, incorrigible self-importance of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. How to explain this non-mutually exclusive dichotomy? The only way we can think of is with a sports analogy. The Academy Awards are not unlike the elections for the Baseball Hall of Fame. Heck, even the nominations are announced around the same time of year (December for baseball, January for the Oscars).

Baseball fans will know all too well how tiresome the Hall of Fame debates are. The ballot comes out, and then an avalanche of sniping columns and blog posts and comments are unleashed upon the Internet for the next month by stodgy, moralizing columnists and know-it-all amateur sabermetricians about the relative merits of Jack Morris. It's only gotten worse with Steroid Era candidates now up for election.

The Oscars are not dissimilar. Here we have nine Best Picture nominations. And there we have a veritable monsoon of instant Twitter anger and Internet rage. We are just as guilty of this as everyone else, as you can see:

No, we're not happy that War Horse, The Tree of Life, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and even The Help are among the nine nominations for Best Picture. Six of our top nine films of 2011 got almost no love from the Academy. And yet, three -- our very top three -- got loads of it (The Descendants, Midnight in Paris, Hugo). Two other films which made our top 12 of last year -- The Artist and Moneyball -- were also nominated in many categories.

The point is, for as much as the Oscars gets wrong, they also get a great deal right. We're puzzled by the nomination of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, which was panned by critics and not exactly loved by moviegoers at large. But we're pleased to see convention bucked in the case of Gary Oldman's nomination for Best Actor (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), Rooney Mara's nomination for Best Actress (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), Nick Nolte's nomination for Best Supporting Actor (Warrior) and Melissa McCarthy for Best Supporting Actress (Bridesmaids).

More to the point, ostensibly there can be only one winner in each category. Greatness in film is even more subjective than on the baseball diamond, and so your pet film or acting performance might not win -- in fact it probably won't in most years. What matters more in the end is that one you can respect does, and it seems to us the Oscars do a fairly good job of this in most years, even if some of the motivations and reasons are ridiculously smarmy.

The Artist is the early favorite this year, and is a great example of this. The Los Angeles Times summed up a number of reasons why it is the frontrunner on Tuesday, and the last one is sure to make you roll your eyes:

Finally, for more than one reason, “The Artist” is that almost unheard of film that makes voters feel good about what they do for a living, that makes them take pleasure in working in the industry when so little else does.

In part this is because this is a movie about movie-making, a picture that makes being in the business seem glamorous and exciting in ways it doesn’t always do in real life. For voters who often may have jobs working on movies that even if successful tend to be mind-numbing sequels that succeed for all the wrong reasons, the chance to vote for a joyous film that’s accessible to all and insults no one’s intelligence was too good to pass up.

This is a terrible and intellectually bankrupt rationale for anointing The Artist the Best Picture of 2011. No one outside of Hollywood cares how difficult it was to make The Artist. Movie fans don't, nor should they, give bonus points for underdog stories that don't actually play out on celluloid. Yet the Academy, it seems to us, often gives in to this base impulse and in doing so confirms much of the criticism hurled at it for this entire process. Still, if The Artist wins, we wouldn't really howl and complain, even if it's a Machiavellian, ends-justify-the-means way of getting there.

The Academy is hardly perfect. Crash, after all, did win the Best Picture once upon a time. But it doesn't often screw up that badly. The Artist wouldn't be our choice, but we could certainly live with it as Best Picture. It's a lovable film at its root, even if snobs and film insiders like it a little bit too much for our taste.

The Baseball Hall of Fame? Well, it's no different in this way. The whole process is an absurd exercise in lunacy and mental gymnastics -- how else to classify something where retired players, who add nothing to their playing legacy during the up-to-15-year voting process, watch their vote totals fluctuate so dramatically?

And yet, the electorate gets most things mostly right in the end, even if they come around to it in an odd (even intellectually bankrupt) fashion. It's hard to think of an all-time great -- one of those names that engenders awe just by its mere utterance -- that isn't in the Hall of Fame. (Other than Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson, of course, who aren't in for committing the ultimate sin of gambling on their own games.) Someone has to be the best player who's not in the Hall of Fame, just like some (or several) movies have to be the best ones each year to not win an Oscar.

This ability to get most things mostly right is why the Baseball Hall of Fame still matters, even relative to its rivals in Canton, Ohio and Springfield, Mass. So it is with the Oscars, which, despite their enormous sense of self-importance, remain more important to movie fans than all the other awards handed out in Hollywood during this time of year combined.