If there were to be such a Borgesian thing as an industry award for industry awards, the Academy Awards would be a worthy nominee and would have every reason to begin composing an amusing, heartfelt, rambling, good-cause-invoking speech that takes itself very seriously and doesn’t stop for the cut-off music. The outstanding achievement of the Oscars is certainly not that they accurately reflect the best films in a given year or offer up a tasteful, compact or even mildly entertaining ceremony, but rather the quaintly odd fact that they retain a direct link with their original function of celebrating the film industry and showcasing its wares and players. This is truly anomalous within the field of televised award ceremonies with, for example, the Grammy Awards and VMAs surviving as floating signifiers with only the most vestigial connections to a feeble music industry.
The Oscars are effective not only in drawing in a significant television audience (40 million people in the United States alone in 2013), but also in increasing the audience for the films in contention. Until recently, commentators would blithely cite the fact that wins in the important categories of Best Actor, Actress, Director and Picture would provide a measurable box-office bump to the winners. In truth, however, from the beginning of October until March, cinemas and cinemagoers are already dominated by films vying for these awards. If you are blindly venturing out to the cinema during awards season, you’d better have a high tolerance for worthy historical drama, uplifting biopics, Meryl Streep, affecting epoch-altering speeches, the music of John Williams, and beautiful actors temporarily looking as godawful as the rest of us, or you’d better have an extra-strength EpiPen hovering in readiness just above your heart to deal with some serious anaphylaxis. Of course, some of these films are great, but many – and there seem to be many more of these pretenders each year – are not. It is only when the nimbus of Oscar glory has drawn out the very last of the taste-conscious laggards that cinemas change the fare and the variety of the awards season yields to the steroidal mass of the summer blockbusters, a new one arriving each week to strong-arm at least six screens per multiplex in a determined smash and grab before the next disappointing behemoth rolls in.
If we shift focus from the strictly industrial purpose of the Oscars to their capacity to discern quality, it is necessary to do a little throat clearing and swiftly make allowances for fallibility. Time has not been kind to many of the films chosen as Best Picture. In the last decade alone, we’ve seen the paint peel rapidly off Chicago, Crash and Million Dollar Baby. Last year’s big winner, Argo, is already looking like an unspeakable mediocrity, as unlovable as a month-old novelty record. Too often, the awards fall prey to the competing campaigns mounted by the studios vying for the prizes. The significant categories mentioned above (Best Actor, Actress, Director and Picture) end up reflecting wider debate and discourse, not strictly because the Academy is either sensitive or responsive to trends, but rather because the producers and distributors trying to win support for their particular films often resort to modish and inflated appeals to make the case for their work. For example, in 2013, Bill Clinton was drafted in to introduce Lincoln for the Hollywood Foreign Press’s Golden Globe Awards, the former president obviously happy to embrace the association, but not necessarily doing his predecessor any favours.
Over the years, there have been rumours of behind-the-scenes dirty campaigning on behalf of, and against, certain films; such stories evoke nothing so much as the “ratfucking” of the Nixon White House, but, to my mind, the worst excesses of the campaigning are the out-in-the-open appeals made on behalf of the nominees. This year, for example, the contest reduces certain categories to whether you are an AIDS person (Dallas Buyers Club) or a slavery person (Twelve Years a Slave). The particular qualities of the films in question are sidelined, all sorts of exaggerated claims are made for the inspiring or improving effects or art, and producers and political activists meet in a mayfly coupling of shared self-interest that terminates abruptly when the credits roll on the Oscar broadcast.
Against these reliable-as-clockwork pieties stands the equally studied quirkiness of American Hustle, a lucrative vein director David O’Russell is now tapping for the second year in a row, on the back of the goofy and wretched Silver Linings Playbook. This kind of film harks back to the victories of other “leave-me-out-of-it” oddities such as The Sting and Fargo, which forsook the sobriety of the usual Oscar contenders and sailed above the fray on a chuff of whimsy. Argo almost took that route, being an equally vapid assemblage, but it also leaned heavily on its based-on-a-true-story blather and its setting in Iran during the revolution. In fact, Argo spanned a number of the perennial discourses, including satisfying sentimental requirements for a comeback by marking the completion of Ben Affleck’s return from years of J-Lo-assisted ridicule. Like this year’s Gravity, Argo also occupied a separate unspoken category, that of the studio-supported film that feeds the Academy’s desire to hoist up at least one strictly commercial feature as a stand-in for all the solid work it would like us to believe Hollywood produces: Such an avatar status also applied to Titanic, The Lord of The Rings: The Return of the King and, appropriately enough, Avatar.
Just to demonstrate how slippery the unspoken classifications that surround these films are, Dallas Buyers’ Club’s lead actor, Matthew McConaughey, is just as likely to profit from the Academy’s fondness for a comeback story. The line behind McConaughey’s campaign is that this is an actor who has seen the light after a lucrative decade of idling around in rom-coms, who has turned down the money to seek out better parts that demonstrate his gifts. The appetite for a comeback draws in Bruce Dern, who could also be said to profit from the Academy’s willingness to patronise the odd older actor with belated recognition: Jessica Tandy, James Coburn and, last year, Emmanuelle Riva. To apprehend the needless generosity of this gesture, consider the fact that Gloria Stuart was nominated for her bit part as old Rose in Titanic! A similarly schmaltzy impulse is apparent in the nomination of children, many of whom fade from attention when their cuteness expires. A more novel strain within the established order is the non-campaigning campaigning started by Joaquin Phoenix in 2013, on the way to being nominated for The Master, and vocally taken up this year by Michael Fassbender on his way to being nominated for his role in Twelve Years a Slave.
We shouldn’t watch the Oscars, however, just for the limited pleasure of snarking at the kitsch and conservatism, though it’s as reliable a spot to find those things as one could wish for. Now and again, something good slips through and snags a statue. The supporting actress and actor category is a good source of this surprise. There’s something satisfying in the thought that, given all the energy and money squandered by some very vain and wealthy people to secure this prize, someone as unaffected as Brenda Fricker could justifiably trump them with her performance in My Left Foot. There’s a similar joy in the idea that, under the creaking monumentality and worthiness of Oscar bait, down-and-dirty genre films could result in John Malkovich getting nominated, rightly, for In the Line of Fire, or Tommy Lee Jones winning, rightly, for The Fugitive. As for the show itself, amid the ridiculous musical numbers, the misfiring teleprompting and the long-winded false modesty of the winners, there is sometimes an acceptance speech as free of gloss and self-regard, and as short, as the one made by Joe Pesci when he won for his role in GoodFellas:
“It was my privilege, thank you.”