Just Another Sunday Night

February 26, 2017
A thought by James Berardinelli


I guess it’s incumbent on me, as a film critic, to write something about the Oscars. I haven’t done it so far because, to be frank, I am not the least bit interested in the awards show. My disinterest has grown over the years. I’m not sure of the exact reason. Back in the early 1990s, I used to look forward to Oscar night with great anticipation. I remember the excitement of the race between Dances with Wolves and Goodfellas (1991) and the question of whether a “tale as old as time” could become the first animated film to take home the big prize (1992). There were bizarre moments like Jack Palance doing push-ups. And Billy Crystal slid smoothly into the hosting spot previously owned by Bob Hope and Johnny Carson. (Hope hosted the first Oscarcast I watched. That was in 1978 when I tuned it to see if Star Wars would win.)

Today, the Oscars have become dry and predictable. They’re the most (over)hyped awards show around but there’s rarely much suspense about who’s going to win. Prognostication is no longer the purview of amateurs; it’s big business and billions of dollars are wagered annually on the results. Anyone think La La Land isn’t going to take home the gold statue? And, if it somehow doesn’t, will anyone (not involved in the production) really care? By Tuesday night, the buzz will be louder about Donald Trump’s latest tweet than who was crowned the 2017 Best Picture winner. The Academy hasn’t helped matters by making the show as irrelevant as possible. Not only is there a refusal to nominate box office heavyweights but, by keeping the Oscars in late February, this has become a Johnny-come-lately extravaganza.

Part of me wants to champion the Oscars but I’m not sure why. At this point, I don’t plan to watch them live and, when I turn them on, there will be a lot of fast-forwarding involved. There are too many commercials and the speeches are pointless since they predictably consist of a laundry list of “thank-you”s. We’ll probably get some politicking but nothing as dramatic as Marlon Brando’s infamous 1973 refusal (following in George C. Scott’s footsteps but with a little more flair). Anyone think Viola Davis or Emma Stone will send a Syrian refugee on stage to refuse her Oscar? Not likely. I’m more interested in the likely byplay between host Jimmy Kimmel and “archrival” Matt Damon than I am in whether Denzel Washington upsets Casey Affleck.

The “Beat Berardinelli” contest is a thing of the past for several reasons. First, it took an inordinate amount of time to record and score the entrees. At one point, I had the time to do that, but no longer. Secondly, it no longer seems relevant. As I wrote above, picking Oscars isn’t for fun anymore. It’s something people take very seriously and there are scads of sites devoted to the minutia of figuring out who’s going to win in every category. It has leeched away the joy from not only the show but the prognosticating. All you have to do is go to a popular site and copy down their meticulously researched predictions and you’ll probably end up missing only one or two.  

Hollywood politics have always played a role in the Oscars but this has become more extreme in recent years and it threatens to taint the results. Nominees and winners should be selected on the basis of performance without consideration of race, creed, or religion. Meryl Streep’s controversial nomination, possibly a result of her Golden Globes speech, is an example of something that shouldn’t happen. It likely led to Amy Adams being left out in the cold. Ask yourself, based purely on their 2016 work, who is more worthy of being acknowledged? Stuff like this diminishes the Oscars.

Winning an Oscar is still the ultimate award in Hollywood but the gold doesn’t shine as brightly. It used to be that a studio could see as much as a $40M box office bump if an Oscar winner was still playing at the time of its victory. $40M in those days is north of $100M in 2017 coinage. Today, the theatrical revenue increase related to an Oscar triumph is often negligible, although there may be some home video impact. Then there’s the question of the overall cultural relevance. Pop quiz, hotshot: what won last year? Two years ago? Three years ago? Back in the 1950s, everyone could have answered those questions. Today…not so much. I had to think long and hard before answering. The problem isn’t that we’re forgetful but that we can only remember so much and Oscar winners don’t rank high on the list of trivia worth committing to memory. (For the record, if you don’t know and don’t feel like looking up the titles, they’re Spotlight (2016), Birdman (2015), and 12 Years a Slave (2014).)

I’m curious about what will win this year, but the curiosity is mild and could as easily be satisfied by going on line at 12:15 a.m. EST as sitting through 3+ hours of self-congratulatory spectacle. So who/what do I think will win? Viola Davis and Mahershala Ali are locks, or as close to it as is possible, in the Supporting Performer categories. Emma Stone will probably win Best Actress; the noise about Isabelle Huppert, although justified, is just that - noise. Casey Affleck probably should win Best Actor but the whiff of a scandal plus the universal love that exists for Denzel Washington may cause an upset here. If I was predicting, I’d go with Washington, who has the momentum despite Affleck’s BAFTA win. La La Land and its director will both take home the biggest prizes. Beyond those awards, I don’t have any opinions nor have I looked long and hard at the nominees.

Every year, I live in the constant hope that the Oscars will do something radical to reclaim their relevance: change up the format of the show, making it shorter and punchier; change the nomination process to allow critically-lauded moneymakers to nab a few nomination slots (really - nine Best Picture nominees and not one of them was Deadpool?); move the awards show date to mid-January… It’s always “maybe next year.” That’s fine because if they revamped the Oscars, I might lose a couple of hours on a Sunday night watching them live. Right now, my fast-forward heavy approach gives me time to catch up on a movie I missed while it was in the theaters. And what better way to celebrate motion pictures than watching them?