Oscars so Right: how the Academy Awards became relevant again

After Moonlight swept the 2017 Oscars, could this year’s awards be the most socially conscious and boundary pushing yet?

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.Entertainment awards shows: what are they, but a celebrity party to which the likes of you and me are never invited? The relationship between award-winners and cultural excellence has always been coincidental, at best. How else to explain why How Green Was My Valley, not Citizen Kane, won the 1942 Oscar? How the Emmys managed to completely overlook The Wire for five whole seasons? Or the fact that, in 2014, Macklemore beat Kendrick Lamar to the best rap album Grammy?

Based on the list of nominees for the 2018 Oscars – or, as Chris Rock once called them, “the White People’s Choice Awards” – change is afoot, however. This year, films such as Get Out, Jordan Peele’s horror-satire of white liberal racism, the gorgeous gay romance Call Me By Your Name, and the low-key mother-daughter relationship drama Lady Bird sit alongside the more traditional Oscar bait, such as The Post’s Hanks-Streep-Spielberg triumvirate and a fat suit-donning Gary Oldman. It is the mark of an institution in transition. Where the Academy Awards lead, other awards shows follow, albeit more slowly.

This year’s Grammys pulled off one of the most moving manifestations yet of #MeToo power, in Kesha’s live performance of Praying, but its reputation is far from restored. There have been public boycotts by Drake, Frank Ocean and Kanye West (who once called the show, “completely out of touch”); this year’s no-shows (Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber) may have been circumstantial, but could suggest that its importance is waning.

Tarell Alvin McCraney, Barry Jenkins and two Oscars
Over the Moonlight:
Tarell Alvin McCraney, Barry Jenkins and two Oscars
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Composite: Frank Hulley-Jones

It is clear that, aside from awards responding to a wave of excellent artistic output, audience dissatisfaction has prompted part of this shift. In 2016, the Emmys broadcast ratings sank to an all-time low, with TV viewers deciding they would rather watch a grim documentary about murdered child JonBenét Ramsey than admire the stars’ couture gowns. That same year also saw record ratings dips for the Oscars, Grammys and MTV VMAs. The real insult came in February of that year, when YouGov released the results of a poll asking 1,000 Americans which of the Oscars, Emmys and Grammys they were most interested in. A whopping 68% choose the fourth option: “I don’t care about any of them”.

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However, the awards show cul de sac also seems to have contained the seeds of its tentative regrowth. Around 2013, the TV networks began to notice that Twitter had created an incentive for audiences to tune in to live events (awards shows included) by allowing viewers to get involved in their own play-by-play commentary. The ratings bump was fleeting, but the issues raised in such tweet-along conversations proved to have more momentum. Why didn’t awards shows reflect the diversity of audiences, #OscarsSoWhite wanted to know? Why, in the era of Wonder Woman, Fleabag and Rihanna were women still so under-represented and their alleged abusers so often celebrated? In January 2016, in response to these criticisms and others, the Oscars’ Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences overhauled its membership and voting rules, and the results may already be apparent.

“For two years running, we’ve seen major upsets in the best picture category,” says Guy Lodge, chief UK film critic at Variety. “In both cases it was the smaller, more socially conscious drama [Spotlight and Moonlight] triumphing against the bigger, more escapist spectacle [The Revenant and La La Land]. I don’t think that’s accidental: the Academy’s younger members – and the membership has had a major demographic shift, racially and generationally, in the last few years – seem to be conscious of rewarding the film that wears its politics more conscientiously, that attempts to say something a little more challenging about modern America.”

Each awards show seems to have reached a different stage in its evolution towards relevance, but all are now open forums for political statements of some kind. In the past, when Marlon Brando sent Native American rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather to the stage (1973); or when Vanessa Redgrave criticised “Zionist hoodlums” in 1978; or when Michael Moore protested against the Iraq war in 2003, their speeches elicited as many boos as cheers from the audience. When, during the 1975 Academy Awards, a winning producer read out a statement critical of the Vietnam war, co-host Frank Sinatra felt the need to issue an apology and disavowal from the same podium. Now, it seems that taking a strong stand on the issues of the day is as much a professional obligation as meeting the press. Just ask those few women who were foolhardy enough to ignore the Time’s Up all-black dress code at this year’s Golden Globes or Baftas.

“The commitment to Times Up and #MeToo is admirable, but there is a lot of work to do.” Holly Tarquini

The Hollywood iterations of #MeToo and Time’s Up were, of course, instigated by the multiple allegations of sexual misconduct against Harvey Weinstein, but it is an uncomfortable irony that he set Oscars change in motion in other, intentional ways. Miramax and, later, the Weinstein Company pioneered an aggressive style of campaigning for Academy votes. This involved negative whispering campaigns against rival nominees, plus Weinstein personally pressurising talent into relentless media meet-and-greet schedules. It was effective enough to steer the forgettable likes of Shakespeare in Love (1999) and The King’s Speech (2011) to best picture glory and help redefine the Academy’s notion of an Oscar-worthy film in ways that have likely benefitted several of this year’s nominees. So, while the Academy took the unusual step of expelling Weinstein last November – and he may even be repudiated by name at this year’s ceremony – that is no guarantee that the tactics he pioneered won’t continue behind the scenes.

For all the attention that #MeToo and Time’s Up in particular have garnered, Hollywood stars are still relatively new to agitating for change. More experienced activists in the arts are divided over how far-reaching this movement will be.

“I’m looking forward to the next step, when all of the female stars arrive at awards ceremonies in tracksuit bottoms, flat shoes and hoodies in defiance of being clothes horses,” says Holly Tarquini, executive director of Bath film festival and founder of the F-Rating system that allows viewers to support the work of women in film. “The commitment to Time’s Up and #MeToo is admirable, but there is a lot of work to do.”

Andrea Holley, strategic director of the Human Rights Watch film festival also agrees that the badges, black dresses and big speeches must be followed up with sustained action. “If there is one thing you learn at Human Rights Watch, it is that lasting change takes time,” she says. “One female best director nominee? Not impressive. [And this] does not even touch on the question of where trans or gender-nonconfirming individuals fit into the current framework. See any nominees who identify as people with disabilities? I know that when enough allies use their privilege to leverage the system, we will see a difference.”

Tipping point? 2017’s best picture gaffe
Tipping point? 2017’s best picture gaffe Photograph: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

So, how much have awards shows changed? The fiasco of the best picture award announcement at the 2017 Oscars was always destined to go down in history, right from the moment Warren Beatty first looked askance at that envelope. Yet it won’t be until after this year’s 90th ceremony (and perhaps after the 91st, 92nd and 93rd) that we’ll really know the reason why.

Will the Moonlight v La La Land mixup be remembered as a highly embarrassing snafu? Or will it become known as the moment when awards shows finally matured into relevance? The time when the entertainment industry learned to recognise the merit of an independently produced, gay coming-of-age drama with a mostly African-American cast over the self-flattering charms of a Hollywood-celebrating Hollywood musical? Bringing change to awards shows may turn out to be the easy bit. It’s what happens next in the culture they represent that really matters.

The Oscars is broadcast live on Sunday 4 March, 1.30am, Sky Cinema Oscars; highlights on Monday 5 March, 9pm, Sky1

Contributors

Words by: Ellen E Jones, Typography by: Steven Wilson and Design by: Frank Hulley-Jones

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