Saturday, March 06, 2010

The 2010 Oscars - Out With The Old And In With The New...Or More Of The Same?

On Sunday night in Los Angeles – or Monday morning, for those of us in the UK – the Academy Awards will be handed out to those responsible for American cinema's greatest achievements of the previous 12 months. It should be a time for all film lovers to celebrate, but as the night finally edges closer, after a build-up that has been as dull as it has been repetitive, I can only muster a weary shrug of ambivalence. I can't remember the last time an impending Oscar night filled me with such disinterest, but this is simply the result of a growing malaise that has afflicted the Academy Awards for years. The producers, in their panic over falling ratings and a perceived lack of connection with the average moviegoer, have frantically reshaped the ceremony into something that – they think – we want to see; but most of those decisions have only served to dilute the show's potential interest further.

The biggest obstacle the Academy Awards broadcast faces is the lack of a surprise element. Think back over recent ceremonies and try to recall the number of announcements that genuinely caught us off guard. There was Adrien Brody – the underdog in a heavyweight field – winning Best Actor in 2003 (a nice surprise), and there was the Best Picture Oscar going the way of Crash in 2006 (not so nice); but by the time Oscar night rolls around every year, the general feeling is that we know how things are going to pan out. There are so many critic awards and guild awards being tossed this way and from January to March, and a quick totting up of the scores – multiplied by the person's likability/overdue factor – allows any of us to accurately predict the results. I recently posted up my own predictions, simply because I was invited to do so (I had planned to ignore it completely this year), but writing down the same names that I had seen everyone else coming up with was a very dispiriting endeavour. Is there really no room for an unexpected winner?

Perhaps I'm wrong, and I hope I am. I'd love to see everyone's predictions blown out of the water. As much as I love Jeff Bridges, how amazing would it be to hear Jeremy Renner's name read out? Wouldn't it be an incredible moment if Gabourey Sidibe was named Best Actress? Dream on. The Bridges/Bullock/Waltz/ Mo'Nique group have their names pretty much set in stone now (even if there's a quiver of uncertainty about Bullock's claim), and it has been that way for weeks. All that's left for those who know they've won, and those who know they've lost, is to wait for the announcement and go through the motions. I'd be able to forgive a lot of this if the categories themselves were more interesting, but once again the Academy have gone down a generally obvious route (Morgan Freeman's nomination was assured the moment Invictus was announced, regardless of his performance), overlooking actors who gave performances that are truly special. Didn't Sam Rockwell do more in carrying a whole film on his shoulders than George Clooney did in a role designed for his persona? Wasn't Mélanie Laurent's work in Inglourious Basterds more vivid and exciting than anything Maggie Gyllenhaal could do with her underwritten Crazy Heart character?

The accusation that The Academy Awards repeatedly reach for the Oscar-bait over more deserving and more popular fare is one that stung last year, and left a notable scar. The outcry that greeted the lack of nominations for critical and commercial successes such as The Dark Knight and WALL•E – in a year when the Best Picture category contained films like Frost/Nixon, The Reader and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – is the obvious motivation behind this year's biggest change. For the first time since 1943, ten pictures have been nominated for Best Picture, and instead of filling those extra five categories with more of the same, the Academy have settled on an unexpectedly varied bunch. There's ambitious sci-fi (Avatar, District 9), middlebrow indies (Up in the Air, An Education), earnest issue movies (Precious, The Blind Side), animation (Up), a contemporary war movie (The Hurt Locker), and original films from idiosyncratic directors (Inglourious Basterds, A Serious Man). It has turned out to be a pretty good snapshot of the cinematic year, and there's something in there for everyone to support. All it's really missing is a foreign-language film.

But for every positive decision the Academy makes, it manages to make a number of backwards steps. The chase for ratings, the need to please the network, and the desire to appeal to a younger demographic have led to choices that undermine the show as a whole, with one in particular feeling like a massively ill-advised move. In their infinite wisdom, the show's producers have decided to cut the award of the honorary Oscars from the main broadcast, and instead they handed them out to the very deserving recipients at a non-televised ceremony back in November. Gordon Willis shot the Godfather films as well as many of Woody Allen's greatest pictures; Lauren Bacall is a true movie star who certainly deserves to be honoured ahead of mediocre actress such as Sandra Bullock; and Roger Corman...well, that one makes me sickest of all. I was thrilled when I heard he would be given a lifetime achievement Oscar, this B-Movie legend receiving an ovation from the Hollywood A-list, and wouldn't it have been perfectly appropriate, given how many of the filmmakers in that room his work has surely inspired? We won't get to see that, because the show organisers have decided it doesn't fit with the more youthful, streamlined show, but hasn't honouring those that went before always been an integral part of this ceremony? If the Oscars can't give us any surprises, can't they at least ensure some memorable moments? These decisions seem to suggest that the producers are so focused on winning new viewers, they have forgotten why the old viewers watched the show in the first place, and if they do that, they are only increasing the danger of being forgotten about themselves.