The Academy Awards and their Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year
The Academy Awards and their supporting organization, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, are no stranger to controversy. Yet, it seems the past year has been a particularly troublesome time for the already embattled organization with a new faux-pas or misguided bid for increased viewership seemingly cropping up every few months. From public outcry after their attempt to hire Kevin Hart as host to industry uproar when they suggested cutting four awards from the live broadcast, the Academy appears to be more desperate than ever before to remain relevant and popular. Now, less than a week away from the 91st Academy Awards, one has to pause and consider what all of this means. As a result, many, including this writer, have started to wonder what place the Academy Awards will fill now and in the future. But I’m getting ahead of myself. How exactly did we get to this full-blown existential crisis?
The Academy’s problems seemed to begin in earnest in 2015 when all the acting nominees were white. Activist April Reign launched #OscarsSoWhite to highlight the racial inequality present in how the awards show doles out nominations and wins. After a repeat year in 2016, then Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs promised in a statement that they would take “dramatic steps to alter the makeup of [their] membership” to hopefully remedy the issue of who held sway in the nomination process. 2017 seemed to be a slight reprieve with a more diverse set of nominees and winners, but the Academy could not escape unscathed for that was the year of La La Land (2016) mistakenly being announced as the Best Picture winner when it was in fact Moonlight (2016). It was a stunning misstep that undercut the remarkable fact that a tiny indie had vanquished a studio darling to take home the night’s biggest award. It seemed that the disarray had reached its pinnacle at that point, but then the #MeToo movement’s explosion into a zeitgeist in 2018 rightfully reckoned with an industry-wide gendered power imbalance that is reflected in who gets recognized on Oscar night. This pairs with the harsh truth that fewer and fewer viewers have decided to tune in to the show each year, steadily falling from 43.7 million in 2014 to only 26.5 million last year per the Hollywood Reporter. Cue Academy meltdown.
Six months after the Best Picture fiasco, a letter from Academy president John Bailey and CEO Dawn Hudson revealed that the Academy Awards would institute a new award for the 2019 broadcast: Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film. Reaction was swift and overwhelmingly negative, with many seeing the award as a desperate bid to fold cultural behemoths from the likes of Marvel into the program without including them in the Best Picture nominees. The Atlantic critic David Sims encapsulated the response nicely with a tweet that simply read “The Black Panther Memorial Award for Movie That We’re Afraid Won’t Get a Best Picture Nomination,” nodding at the fact that Black Panther (2018) was a critical and commercial darling that was at risk of being left out of the awards conversation due to its status as a superhero movie. After the Academy decided to rescind the new category, Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018) writer-director Christopher McQuarrie offered an alternative award during an interview with Collider. “I can be diplomatic, but fuck it. There was talk of a popular film category. I’m really glad they’re not doing that,” offered McQuarrie, going on to suggest that instead the Academy should add a category for “stunts,” calling them “an art…a craft.” The result was that hardly a month after announcing the category the Academy rescinded the idea, writing in a statement that they would table it for “additional input” and “further discussion.”
With the Popular Film fiasco hardly behind them, speculation about who would host the show gave way to uproar when the Academy announced Kevin Hart as this year’s host. The anger stemmed from a number of resurfaced homophobic tweets from 2011 that Hart had posted, such as one where Hart wrote ““Yo if my son comes home & try’s 2 play with my daughters doll house I’m going 2 break it over his head & say n my voice ‘stop that’s gay’.” After mounting pressure to apologize, Hart chose to quit instead, further inciting outcry over his actions. He was not without his supporters, though. Hart appeared on Ellen (2003-) where the two talked about the tweets and Hart swore that he was not homophobic, at which point Ellen asked the Academy to reconsider and take Hart back as host. After the interview aired, the backlash was swift; many saw Ellen’s decision to support Hart as undermining her support for the queer community. In the end, Hart appeared on Good Morning America (1975-) and stated that he was “done with” the controversy and would not return to host. In the aftermath the Academy decided to go ahead and have the awards without a host, a situation that has happened only a handful of times in the show’s history since the first occurence in 1929.
With that, a reprimanded and hostless Academy limped along through the reveal of its nominees in January and announcement of presenters over the past month. It seemed the storm was over, at least until they announced their decision to present four awards during commercial breaks instead of giving all 24 awards out live. The four cut from the program were cinematography, film editing, live action short, and makeup and hairstyling. As to be expected, no one was happy with that decision. Alfonso Cuaron minced no words, tweeting that “In the history of CINEMA, masterpieces have existed without sound, without color, without a story, without actors and without music. No one single film has ever existed without CINEMAtography and without editing.” Spike Lee chimed in as well, writing that “Without cinematographers and film editors, I would be lost, wandering in the cinema wilderness.” And so, five days after first making the announcement, the Academy again reversed a very public decision, writing in a statement that “All Academy Awards will be presented without edits, in our traditional format. We look forward to Oscar Sunday, February 24.”
So, where does all of this messiness bring us? I would suggest that we are witnessing the Academy experience the closest thing that an organization can have to a full-blown mid-life crisis. The Academy Awards used to be the coolest kid in school, a ratings bonanza that also enjoyed the respect of the industry it sought to reward each year. Yet, as it has entered middle and old age, it has become more akin to the drastically out of touch grandparent who might be found with a vat of scotch yammering on about how it was back in their day (this was rather poetically rendered in 2017 when aged movie stars Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were the presenters at the center of the La La Land/Moonlight flub). The much overdue reckonings of #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo served to highlight how out of touch the Academy is, and the ensuing years that have led to this year of scattershot attempts to reclaim a former glory reveal how unprepared the Academy is to catch up with contemporary standards. While I would argue that they have shown progress in diversifying the nominees and Academy members, the spectre of lost viewers seems to keep the Academy in a constant panic which results to these decisions that damage their integrity.
All this begs the question: what should be done with the Academy Awards? While some have suggested that the past few years signal that the Academy Awards should be cancelled, I personally believe that they are a useful and important part of the film industry. For all the chatter about how the Academy has gotten it dead wrong over the years in terms of who gets the awards, the Academy Awards remain the most public place for those who are a part of filmmaking’s less glamorized aspects to have their work celebrated. For every “alright, alright, alright” from an established star, there are the moments when someone new is given the spotlight to say something moving, such as when The Imitation Game (2014) screenwriter Graham Moore won for Best Adapted Screenplay and gave a rousing speech about self-acceptance. It is those moments that do precisely what something like the Academy Awards should do: remind us of the power of cinema and celebrate those that have contributed to its evolution.
Instead of seeing this terrible year for the Academy as a harbinger of their demise, I think we should celebrate the fact that in the face of changes that were universally regarded as reprehensible filmmakers and fans took a stand and defended what it is they love about the Academy Awards. People like Cuaron and Lee who have platforms and power used those podiums to stand up for those with less sway. Paradigm shifts continue to reverberate through the industry and so we are in a moment of massive change, change that should be applauded and continued. The only way to make the Academy the pinnacle of what it could be is to channel that spirit of change into its ranks and choose to fight on instead of chalking it up as a lost cause. The Academy Awards should be a coronation for every person who walks away with an Oscar, a place where the film community can come together and say this is what we do it for, and a moment for audiences the world over to revel in the power of movies. The changes must continue, and I truly believe that if the film community can carry on holding the Academy accountable we will arrive at a moment where the Academy Awards shall become all we hope they could and should be.