By Evan See
The Academy Awards, or the Oscars, used to be the paragon of filmmaking excellence – a night where the brightest stars of Hollywood got together year after year to celebrate the most extraordinary films and the people behind them. But in the last five-odd years, they’ve become a bit of a laughing stock.
The show is typically one of the most-watched programs of each year, averaging around 25% of US audiences. The 2018 ceremony, however, achieved a US viewership of just 18.9%, the lowest in the Academy’s 90-year history.
It’s not hard to see why. Oscar viewership had already been declining for the past 5 years, where audiences were finding it more difficult to sit through four-hour long TV specials that weren’t terribly entertaining in contrast to the crisp, two-hour telecasts of the British Academy Film Awards (BAFTAs) and the Screen Actors Guild Awards or the witty, informal repartee commonly seen in the Golden Globe Awards.
And the shows aren’t getting any better. Besides Jimmy Kimmel and Chris Rock, most critics agree that the quality of the Oscars’ hosting has been spiralling downwards for several years, with Neil Patrick Harris, James Franco, Anne Hathaway and Seth McFarlane getting the brunt of the criticism. We’ve seen too many hosts relying on corny gimmicks that quickly fall flat, like Franco and Hathaway’s cross-dressing in 2011, or Harris’ trick involving his award predictions locked in a box in 2015. Even Ellen DeGeneres’ memorable selfie that broke Twitter turned out to have been sponsored by Samsung. And if the hosts weren’t bad enough, leave it to the show’s administrators to mix up the winner’s envelope, leading to Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway infamously crowning La La Land as the Best Picture winner in 2017 instead of the actual winner Moonlight.
After Kevin Hart pulled out of hosting this year’s ceremony in December, the show’s producers announced that it will be held without a host for the first time. Was there simply not enough time to find a replacement, or has it just become a show that no one wants to get involved in anymore? This year’s ceremony had also previously received backlash for its newest “popular film” category, and its decision to only include performances of two of the five Best Original Song nominees. Both decisions were eventually reversed.
Ceremonies have been reduced to red carpet photoshoots, timid political commentary, seemingly random film montages, and the same few actors and directors winning year after year for typical “Oscar bait” films. For those unfamiliar with the term, just look at some of the Oscar-nominated films in previous years and you’ll see what I mean. The King’s Speech. Argo. Phantom Thread. Darkest Hour. Bridge of Spies. 12 Years a Slave. While these aren’t bad movies, the thing they have in common is that nobody would really mind too much if they didn’t exist. Well, unless you’re a voter.
It appears that the best way to win Oscars is to appeal to its milquetoast, conservative voter base by making similarly milquetoast, conservative films touching on serious, progressive issues. Clint Eastwood, I’m looking at you. But the films that take risks, the unconventional stories, the films that make you laugh yet etch themselves deep into your memory, the films that transcend genres – rarely receive the same awards. Films like Get Out (2017), Lady Bird (2017), Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) which were universally acclaimed by critics (with average Rotten Tomatoes scores of 98%), injected distinctly fresh, provocative and memorable material into cinemas, yet failed to match the “safer” Oscar-worthy picks like eventual winners Spotlight (2015) or The Shape of Water (2017).
Controversy rarely strays from Hollywood’s most prestigious award either. The 2015 and 2016 ceremonies stirred outrage when every single acting nominee was white for two years running, while only five females have been nominated for Best Director in the award’s history. Not surprising for a 94% Caucasian, 77% male voting base which has often been criticised for lacking diversity in its choices. Unsurprisingly, the following year’s awards in 2017 appeared to take special care in nominating a diverse racial group, including Dev Patel, Mahershala Ali and Viola Davis, while Moonlight, a majority-black cast film was awarded Best Picture.
Unfortunately, many couldn’t help but feel that this was merely tokenistic virtue-signalling after back-to-back screw-ups the previous years. This became even more apparent in 2017 after Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment allegations and the Time’s Up movement revealed an industry riddled with abuse, while accusations of “whitewashing” in films like Ghost in the Shell (2017) or Aloha (2015) revealed that Hollywood, despite the veneer of faux-progressiveness, remained deeply lacking in virtue.
As the 91st Academy Awards ceremony rolls around this February, one has to wonder – have the Oscars simply lost our attention? Perhaps twenty years ago, when the record-breaking megablockbuster Titanic (1997) was awarded Best Picture, people might have bothered to tune in. But after years of letdown, controversy and pure boredom, maybe we’ve all but given up on this once prestigious ceremony.