They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?

In Defense of the Oscars?

By J Don Birnam

March 6, 2014

Who ordered anchovies?

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Every year after the Academy Awards, the Internet loves to fill itself with a by-now-trite set of grievances. “Too long.” “Too many montages.” “The movies are too obscure.” “They don’t reward X/Y type of actor or director or movie enough.” Etc. Is there something actually “wrong” with the Oscars as an award (as opposed to as an entertainment program, a point on which I express no opinion?

To start, it may seem odd to step up to defend the Oscars in one of the few years of late in which they have needed little defending - most people seemed to have liked Ellen as a host and the show itself and few are terribly upset over the crowning of a deserving Best Picture winner alongside another deserving sci-fi masterpiece. Still, I have been an Oscar aficionado far too long to forget that goodwill towards the Academy is a fickle thing, one that evaporates at the sight of the next James Franco and Anne Hathaway disaster, at the next “Crash,” or the next time the ratings become abysmal.

Today I will launch my impassioned defense of the Oscars, arguing that many facets of the awards that people complain about are simply inherent in the giving of awards, that criticism of the Oscars as irrelevant ignores the important work the Academy does for movies as art and, finally, that many problems with the Academy are not unique to it, but are instead endemic to Hollywood, or, worse, to society itself.


The Critique About the Process of Selecting What is “Best”

Start with a complaint we can all agree on: the Oscars are one large self-congratulatory orgy that can reach quite superficial heights. Ellen’s selfie was symbolic of the Oscars themselves: they are the industry’s selfie. That, of course, can also be said of all other awards shows — the Tonys, the Grammys, and the Emmys, to start. Of course, the Oscars are the most popular, so, naturally, they garner the most derision.

Therein lies a key to many critiques you will hear about the Oscars: contempt is directed at the Oscars because they matter the most. No one scoffs at the Golden Globes or the Critics’ Choice or the New York Film Critics.

The same, of course, can be said of criticism about what movie the Academy picks as “Best.” No one remembers or complains, for example, that other bodies passed over Citizen Kane for How Green Was My Valley - we only care about the Oscars because ultimately only the Oscars matter. And criticism about the process of picking what is the best movie of the year suffers from an additional flaw: it ignores that picking a “best” among a field of artistic pieces is an inherently and hopelessly subjective endeavor. Heck, even in sports, where one can look to relatively more objective measures of an athlete’s performance, the process of selecting individuals into a Hall of Fame or of award the “Most” Valuable Player can engender quite the heated debate. Which statistics should matter more? Which player produced more intangibles, etc.? If those questions become intractable in a field where at least some numerical data is available, it is hopeless to try to find a consensus in an almost entirely subjective field - or in any art form, for that matter. It is not the Oscars that are rotten, it is this whole process of subjectively picking the best art amongst a worthy group of contenders.

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