February 25, 2010

Oscar thoughts: are film professionals qualified to judge their own kind?

The concept of Oscar voting is simple, at least at a basic level: people vote for their own. Directors vote for the directing category, editors vote for the editing category, makeup artists vote for makeup (the exceptions are Best Picture, which is voted on by everyone, and some of the other "best film" categories, which have committees). It makes sense in theory: people in that line of work should be able to recognize a job well done. But I'm starting to wonder - can they?

Certain trends emerge. The win in the costume category always goes to a period piece with gowns if there is one. The editing award more often than not goes to the nominee with the shortest average shot length. Sound editing/mixing goes to the loudest movie. And acting, well, it's quite well-documented that there are basically four types of wins: The Underdog/Cinderella Story/Comeback Actor, The Historical Figure/Biopic, The "So and So Doesn't Have an Oscar Yet? Let's Give Them One," and the Caricature (extreme physical transformation or a particularly histrionic role). If these are truly the people most informed about their craft, wouldn't they be the first to break these patterns and be vocal about the fact that those are not the only ways to excel in that field? Where are the costume designers standing up and saying that it's just as hard and creative to design costumes for The Devil Wears Prada or Milk as it is for Marie Antoinette? Or that in editing, sometimes the art is in having long shots? Cinematographers this year apparently don't even know the definition of cinematography - they nominated Avatar, of which more than half is completely animated and apparently the other half just looks lame (see my boyfriend's analysis of that weak move here).

And actors. Oh, actors. Acting is a very subjective thing to judge, don't get me wrong. But 20% of the Academy is comprised of actors, over 1000 people. And of them, how many have formal training? How many are actually huge movie lovers? How many are just paycheck actors, who discovered that people throw money at them when they grace a screen? The Academy doesn't disclose its full list of members, but from press releases of new members I can glean that their ranks include such names as Seth Rogen, Hugh Jackman, Paul Rudd, Jet Li, Jennifer Aniston, and Dakota Fanning. Now before you scream at me and start listing off great roles by these people, let me state that I find them all quite affable - hell, Paul Rudd is my number one celebrity crush - but they are not Brandos or Streeps. And for that matter, what does Streep know about acting? Not about doing it, which she's obviously very adept at, but judging it in someone else is really a different skill set. It's a similar story with directors - how many actually know what they're doing and can recognize talent in others? From the same press releases, I can see names like DJ Caruso, Peyton Reed, Peter Berg, David Frankel and Mark Waters, who work almost exclusively in the genres of generically lame action or romance movies that are ironically siphoning viewers away from Oscar-nominated fare. What do they know about the craft of directing?

This is my point. I feel that perhaps when people vote on their own kind like this, they're limited to viewing candidates through the prism of their own skills, weaknesses, and experience. Having a talent doesn't automatically make you able to recognize it in others. That's why I often find awards from critics' groups and hell, even the Golden Globes to be more dynamic, varied and well, accurate - because they come from people whose sole job description is to study and critique film. They're also distanced enough from the Hollywood game to not be swayed by its politics - how many people won't vote for James Cameron because they think he's a jerk, or will vote for Sandra Bullock because gosh, she's just such a nice person and she should just win by now? I don't mind the Oscars existing - it's fine to have an awards show voted on by your peers - but it seems strange and unqualified that it became the definitive award.

Also, actors and film people are some of the most absurdly busy people imaginable. They never have time to see all, or even half of the nominated films or performances. So we're asking the group least likely and able to see all these films to vote on them. And finally, having everyone vote for Best Picture? Most of the Academy works on such a small and focused sector of production that they may not be good at judging what makes a good film on the whole. Like, what qualifies a makeup artist to help select the best film of the year over someone in another creative field, like a graphic designer? I understand the mentality that if you get everyone together who is involved in making a movie and have them vote, you'll hear all the voices of production and have a well-rounded outcome. But does it actually work that way, or do you just get a lot of input from people limited to their own expertise? And did you know that PR people and other executives who cannot vote in any other category are allowed to vote for Best Picture? Um, conflict of interest much? Wouldn't they just vote for the films from their own studio so they get more money?

I still watch the Oscars with great interest and will continue to do so. While I don't whine and call the ceremony "just rich people congratulating themselves" as many do, I no longer consider them the last word, the authority in cinema. It's more of a bizarre sociological experiment, and I predict winners on my ballot by way of convoluted psychological explanations. The Academy Awards aren't concrete, they're symbolic. They're given for careers, personalities, or as a sign of the times. And rarely do I get really worked up about any one nominee, but this year that symbolic nature can be used for good in giving Kathryn Bigelow the statue for Best Director. It can kickstart the mountain of reparations that Hollywood owes women, and it couldn't be for a more deserving candidate.

What do you think? Is the Academy qualified enough to vote for itself?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wishing this post got wider publicity. All I can say.