They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?

Op-Ed: The La La Land Oscars in the Age of Politics

By J. Don Birnam

February 22, 2017

Jist of speech: Donald Trump sucks.

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As the end of the awards season draws near and the inevitable coronation of La La Land approaches, the predictability of the top race permits us to do a sort of pre “postmortem” of what the Oscars tell us about the Academy, the industry, and beyond.

The Academy is in trouble. They are at a potential crossroads again and may be shooting themselves in the foot with their choices. And it is the focus on easy controversies like #OscarsSoWhite (which as I’ve argued before is misguided and at the very least misdirected at an Academy that is really just the last link in a chain of prejudice that arguably starts with the audiences themselves), that is obscuring what the real issue is. The Academy is voting itself into quick irrelevance.

When I first started writing this column for BOP in 2014, I wrote an “impassioned defense” of the Academy Awards against criticism that I normally hear each year and grate my ears about the length of the show or about the movies they pick. I argued, back then, that the industry is stuck between the rock of fans not interested in these types of movies and the hard place of critics wanting even more obscure pictures. The outcomes selected by the voters were the best they could do given these dichotomies. I've had to repeat and remake that defense after each show since.

It may be time to revisit this argument. Today, I propose that the Academy may be making a horrific mistake if it anoints La La Land a sweep winner. The world has changed much since 2014. It is a wakeup call for everyone, and a potential problem for them if they don’t do so.

Before I get into my reasons, let’s not be glib about what I mean when I say they have a “problem.” I realize we are talking about the entertainment industry. I do not mean to exaggerate this into some sort of existential or urgent issue, or anything anyone needs to be outraged about. There are a multitude of actual problems with the world. Any “problem” discussed herein is simply fluff and life goes on just the same the moment the final envelope is opened.

A Brief, Relevant History

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is without question a remarkable, impressive institution. Born at the moment in time when the industry sought to unionize and was undergoing massive shifts from silent movies to talkies, it was conceived originally to stop these guilds and centralize control.


Since then, it has undergone various radical transformations, the most obvious of which is to embrace the unions it first demonized, but also the transition to color, the invention of TV and later video/DVDs, and now the Internet. How has it stayed relevant all this time? Awards bodies come and go, but only the Oscars convey that international sense of prestige that they do, no matter how it annoys the Academy naysayers.

One could point to their adaptability. In the 1970s, when audiences were discovering blockbusters and not necessarily flocking to dark movies like Taxi Driver or Dog Day Afternoon, or even The Godfather, the members of the Academy were politically active (perhaps against the wishes of the institution itself). The Oscars were raucous affairs that in one decade alone had a (fake) protest about the treatment of American Indians, Paddy Chayefsky and Vanessa Redgrave facing off over Israel-related issues, Jane Fonda shunned then rehabilitated for her opposition to the Vietnam War, and, most importantly and more fundamentally, a bevy of Best Picture winners and nominees such as The Deer Hunter and, later, Platoon, that spoke to the anxieties of the day.

In the 1990s, the Academy made itself relevant in other ways, mostly by prizing movies that, while sometimes derided by critics, were audience favorites. The triumphs of Forrest Gump, Titanic, Shakespeare in Love, and Gladiator all rewarded movies that audiences themselves had embraced. The times, they were a-changing, and AMPAS’s choices changed with them.

Today, both these formulas are gone. The Academy and the core movie-going audiences have parted ways, with the former ignoring the superhero/comic book films that the latter adores. Instead, the Academy has turned to mainstream critics to see what is acceptable and worthy of their elegy.

That was the case, at least, until The Artist won Best Picture.

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