The upcoming Academy Awards bring to mind a gluttony of gold, fashion and celebrity. The highest standard of the American film industry guarantees respect and success for nearly everyone lucky enough to get their hands on one of those shiny little Oscars. If only I knew half the movies on the nominee list. You might be tempted to blame the pandemic and lack of movie-going on your inability to recognize the majority of this year’s “Best Picture” contenders, but I urge you to reconsider. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has awarded Oscars to show-stopping fan favorites such as “Parasite” and… “Moonlight”? Despite winning the heavily sought out award, not many movies presented at the Oscars are very popular or even lucrative and that raises the question, why do so many movies win Best Picture when they’ve been beaten by other films in the court of public opinion? The truth is that many if not all Best Picture contenders don’t reflect popularity or even skill, but more so implicate the monopoly imposed on the film industry by the Academy.
Unlike the more recently created Teen Choice Awards, the Academy doesn’t consider public opinion at all. So, who decides the best movie, actor and director of the year? For the Oscars, voting is delegated to members of the Academy. To join, one must either have the sponsorship of two Academy members or win an Oscar even to be considered by the Academy’s Board of Governors, who then send out invitations assumed to be gold plated and possibly inlaid with pearls or scandalous jewels. All members are invited to vote. The member count as of 2018 was more than seven thousand, according to a report put out by the Academy that year. Essentially, you have to either be successful and wealthy or know some successful and wealthy people to be let in. As you could probably imagine, this means that an overwhelming 77 percent of members are men, and an even less surprising 94 percent of overall members are white, according to a study done and published in the Los Angeles Times. The study also revealed the average age of Academy members to be at or above the age of sixty. It’s no wonder then that the end results feel so alien to everyday viewers, since the people making these decisions represent a single specific (and obtusely overdone) point of view and then claim to be the end all be all of film critics.
The Academy’s lack of diversity is startlingly apparent when looking at Oscar winners over the last ten years. Of those ten Best Picture winners, six out of ten were directed by white men, two by Black men, one by a Korean man and one by a Chinese woman. Many of those directors came from wealthy or well-off backgrounds, and several had parents in the film industry. The films themselves sported overwhelmingly white casts, with seven out of ten of them having white leading characters (six out of ten if you don’t count the fish guy from “Shape of Water”). Even the films that did center on people of color clearly focused on trauma or hardship, both of which were explicitly racial in both “Moonlight” and the ever-infamous “12 Years a Slave.” In contrast, the films that sported mainly white casts had a much more comprehensive range of narrative, from the creepy fish romance in “Shape of Water” to Riggan Thompson’s riveting return to broadway in “BIRDMAN” The inarguable truth is that according to the Academy members, a lot of the only films with a majority non-white cast that hit the mark for Best Picture are about racial suffering, never joy.
The Oscars and most awards like it are pretty silly. Fish romances aside, what does being “best picture” even actually mean? The truth is the abundance of films awarded Best Picture, and many of the nominees, aren’t overwhelmingly popular with audiences. Instead, the films are judged by the individual preferences of each Academy member, whose collective opinions are then projected as proof of the nominee’s status as works of cinematic art. They do not consider public reception or any specific skill or criteria; the Oscars have no set standards for Best Picture or anything else. The stories portrayed don’t even have to be original, as is evidenced by the nomination at this year’s Academy Awards of the brand-new adaptation of “West Side Story.” Yet despite the lack of criteria and the questionable authority of those involved in the voting process to spot the best movie of the year, the power that the Oscars hold over the status of nominees and the film world is unquestionable. Getting an Oscar is “making it” in the film world. Winning an Oscar means a significant pay bump for most actors in their next film (at least if you’re a man, sorry Brie Larson). And for that reason, every year in February or March despite the lack of actual criteria, despite the blatant classism that makes joining the Academy impossible, and despite the racism; you and I tune in to our preferred network and watch a lot of rich people in really ugly thirty thousand-dollar outfits pretend to be happy for each other. Honestly, it’s impressive.
This year’s Academy awards nominees are out now, and like every year I’m rooting for the only movie I’ve heard of but never watched (this time it’s Dune, thank you Zendaya). It would honestly be a lot more exciting if I knew who the competition was, or if I trusted it was even a competition at all. Unfortunately, the structure of the Academy and it’s voting system make that impossible. It takes what has the potential to be a riveting clash of skill and artistry and minimizes it to “trust your elders, but only the white male ones”, a system that ultimately leads to as big a lack of diversity in the films nominated as there is in the Academy itself. Because of that lack of diversity, the Academy’s choice for Best Picture, as well as for winners in other categories, will always fall short and although I’m definitely not suggesting we point to the top grossing film of the year and call that the Best Picture (even I’m not that fond of Marvel films), I do think we can all agree that it would be nice to recognize at least some of our actual favorite movies of the year represented on the nominee list.
Bonus question; how many of these films do you recognize without Google (hint: they might get a really shiny award soon):
- Don’t Look Up
- Drive My Car
- King Richard
- Licorice Pizza
- Nightmare Alley
- The Power of the Dog
- West Side Story