The Rocky Road to This Year’s Oscars

Like a good Hollywood screenplay, each Oscar season has burbling conflict, a colorful cast of characters, and a few plot twists. Take, oh, the Oscars of 1942, which were held two and a half months after Pearl Harbor. With America at war and a spirit of austerity at hand, the Academy decided to scotch its ritzy banquet, prompting Variety to declare that “the Golden Boy of Hollywood . . . has covered his gilded epidermis with a coat of camouflage.” The Academy president, Bette Davis, quit her post in a huff after the board scoffed at her proposal to move the Oscars from a ballroom to a theatre, give the proceeds to war relief, and present wooden statuettes. Eventually, the Academy decided to go ahead with a dinner, without formal dress (or, in Variety speak, “sans orchidaceous glitter”). At the ceremony, much of the attention went to a different kind of war, between the two rivalrous sisters nominated for Best Actress: Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland. (Fontaine won.) In the end, the 1942 Oscars went down in infamy for an entirely different reason: it was the year that “Citizen Kane” lost every award but Best Original Screenplay, whereas the wistful “How Green Was My Valley” won Best Picture.

Eighty years later, the Oscars are again taking place amid the outbreak of war, with drama rocking the Academy, a stacked Best Actress category, and a late-breaking Best Picture face-off between a coolly mischievous critical darling (“The Power of the Dog”) and a tear-jerking family drama (“CODA”). The central conflict, though, has had less to do with the horse race than with the Academy’s announcement, last month, that eight categories would not be presented during the live broadcast. Reportedly under pressure from ABC, after years of dwindling television ratings, the Academy gave in—and received weeks of blowback, its detractors including everyone from Steven Spielberg to the excitable entity known as Film Twitter. In a way, this was a Hollywood sequel. Three years ago, the Academy tried to banish some categories to the commercial breaks but reversed itself after a similar outcry. This time, it held firm: those eight categories will be presented during an unaired first hour, and the winners’ speeches will be shown in edited form. (Ironically, one of the demoted categories is for editing.)

This year, Netflix finally has a front-runner, “The Power of the Dog,” but the film has suffered from a bout of inevitability fatigue.Photograph by Kirsty Griffin / Netflix / Everett 

It’s hard to imagine which potential viewers who were disengaged from the Oscars will tune in now that Best Production Design is gone—but, in the process, the Academy sure has succeeded in irritating a lot of people. Don’t the producers realize that the makeup-and-hairstyling winners give fabulous speeches? The category-cutting fracas, though, is best understood as a symptom of a deeper identity crisis. The Oscars strive to be two things at once: an industry recognition of the various aspects of moviemaking represented by its branches and a splashy television event that must appeal to a mass audience. In the past few years, those two goals have appeared increasingly incompatible. For one thing, mass audiences don’t watch network television like they used to. But moviegoing has changed, too. The films that make big money are almost exclusively superhero flicks, which don’t typically get nominated for Oscars. In 2009, after “The Dark Knight” failed to get a Best Picture nomination, the Academy expanded the category to up to ten nominees, presumably to make room for Batman and friends. Instead, the category filled up with small, worthy movies such as “Nomadland,” which won last year. Meanwhile, the kind of movies that are supposed to get big audiences and win Oscars, such as Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story,” have stumbled at the pandemic-depressed box office. Without a sustainable middle, Hollywood is bifurcated: on one side, “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” which has grossed more than 1.8 billion dollars worldwide; on the other, “The Power of the Dog,” Jane Campion’s enigmatic Western, which got twelve Oscar nominations and some undisclosed amount of Netflix streams. The only thing they have in common is Benedict Cumberbatch.

Instead of embracing the discrepancy—because the Oscars should be celebrating merit regardless of profitability, and they should be lifting up small movies—the Academy has contorted itself trying to be something it’s not. Four years after announcing a new award for Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film—and then backtracking into the hedges after a round of ridicule—the Academy will now recognize an “Oscars Fan Favorite,” as calculated by online voting and Twitter. The top contenders, as if to keep things nice and untidy, include both “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and “The Power of the Dog.” (Go, Cumberbatch!) Meanwhile, a steady drip of ceremony news has kept Oscar enthusiasts in a perpetual state of high dudgeon. This past week, Rachel Zegler, the twenty-year-old star of “West Side Story,” revealed that she had not been invited to the ceremony. (After a social-media firestorm, she was asked to be a presenter.) The Academy simultaneously announced a puzzling slate of presenters, including Shaun White, Tony Hawk, and Kelly Slater. Excuse me, but is gym class horning in on drama club? Who, the real question seems to be, are the Oscars for?

“Spider-Man: No Way Home” is among the top contenders for “Oscars Fan Favorite.”Photograph from Sony Pictures /  Everett 

While the Academy flails around with a “Kick Me” sign on its back, the Best Picture race tells a parallel tale. For years, Netflix has circled the top prize like the shark in “Jaws,” snapping closer and closer with no clean bites—despite a full-fledged awards operation run by Lisa Taback, a Miramax veteran whose track record includes “The Artist” and “Spotlight.” Netflix mounted a gargantuan campaign for “Roma,” during the 2019 race, only to have it lose to Universal’s “Green Book.” The next year, Netflix put its chips on Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” which got ten nominations and won zero awards. Last year, it struck out with “Mank” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which both lost Best Picture to “Nomadland.” The common wisdom is that the traditional studios, threatened by the changing distribution model, have resisted awarding the top prize to a streaming company—even as they add streaming services of their own, such as Paramount+. Still, it’s hard to call Netflix an underdog, no matter how many auteurist masterpieces it gobbles up; it’s an empire that just can’t conquer the City of Gold.

This year, Netflix finally has a front-runner, “The Power of the Dog.” But, like other front-runners before it (“Saving Private Ryan,” “La La Land”), the film has suffered from a bout of inevitability fatigue. Last weekend, “CODA” won the Producers Guild Award, raising the possibility of a late surge. Sian Heder’s feel-good drama, about an aspiring singer with a deaf family, is a throwback to the little-movie-that-could likes of “Shine” and “Little Miss Sunshine.” Admirable as it is for shining a light on the deaf community, it’s a less sophisticated film than Campion’s, in part because it lets you know exactly what to feel and when—which may help it gain a wide enough constituency to pass through the Academy’s preferential-ballot system. If it wins, it’ll be an astonishing loss for Netflix, but not for streaming services: Apple Studios acquired “CODA” for a record-breaking sum—more than twenty-five million dollars—after its Sundance première. Either way, it seems likely that 2022 will be the first year that a streamer wins Best Picture—and if it’s not Netflix the Schadenfreude will be palpable.

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