A couple of weeks ago, based on the fact that The Artist, as it began to open across the country, didn’t exactly seem to be setting the box office aflame (I don’t mean when compared to Thor — I mean on the traditional indie-crossover circuit), I made an Academy Awards prediction. It had much in common with a lot of the Academy Awards predictions that people have been making recently, in that it was fearlessly wrong. I said that I thought The Artist had peaked, and that The Help would win Best Picture. That could still happen, of course, but at this point I wouldn’t bet the farm on it, or even a nice steak dinner. Despite its less-than-Richter-scale-rattling performance thus far, The Artist, as it racks up wins (the Golden Globes, the Producers Guild, the Directors Guild), is looking more and more like a classic Oscar juggernaut, a runaway awards train fueled by the metaphysics of the entertainment-media echo chamber, in which the relentless chatter about the “inevitability” of one movie winning becomes a big part of the reason that it inevitably wins. (It’s Access Hollywood meets the doctrine of predestination. Or maybe just the doctrine of Harvey.)
I bring up my mistake not so much to come clean (the great thing about Academy Awards predictions is that so many people get so many of them wrong that you don’t have to), but because I think the reason I was wrong illustrates a quiet sea change that has taken place in the Oscars: The audience — remember them? — is no longer a very big part of the equation. I had assumed, mistakenly, that because The Help was an astonishingly big hit, and because its success sprung from the way that it clearly touched a racial-cultural nerve in people, that the movie’s organic popularity — as opposed to the heavily marketed freeze-dried quasi-popularity of The Artist — would be decisive at the Academy Awards. But all I was demonstrating was a mode of analysis about how the Oscars work that is now, more or less, completely outmoded.
The change has only really occurred within the last couple of years. As a kid, I loved the Oscars, but I always remember the first time I watched them as a film buff. It was 1977, my freshman year in college, and the year that Rocky won. You could say that Rocky was an inspired choice, but when you look at the movies it was up against — All the President’s Men, Taxi Driver, Network, and Bound for Glory — the triumph of Rocky looks a lot more like what it was: Hollywood honoring the movie that year that had struck the greatest populist chord. Of the five nominees, it was hardly the most indelible work of art, and no one pretended that it was. It didn’t have to be. It was a classic crowd-pleaser, and the reason it won is that, make no mistake, that was the business that Hollywood was in, and always had been in. Pleasing crowds.
For decades, ever since the dawn of the New Hollywood (and probably before), to be a movie freak and to watch the Academy Awards was to partake in a unique ritual of fused celebration and cynicism. The glamour and star power were the real thing, and a lot of the movies and performances that won were timeless. Yet the cynicism came from one’s awareness that the voters, no matter what their personal taste, always had one eye on “the mass audience.” At the Academy Awards, box-office success legitimized a movie, gave it cachet, and, in so doing, altered its meaning. And there was an unabashed hint of pop corruption in that. It was the “tasteful” middlebrow version of the blockbuster mentality. Yes, a movie that was a work of art could win the Oscar for Best Picture, and often did — provided, of course, that it was a major hit (On the Waterfront, Lawrence of Arabia, Midnight Cowboy, The Godfather, Annie Hall, The Silence of the Lambs, Schindler’s List). But just as often, the movie that won wasn’t a work of art, yet it was a work of entertainment that meant a lot to a lot of people (Marty, The Sound of Music, In the Heat of the Night, The Sting, Braveheart, Dances With Wolves, Chicago).
For a long time, it was all too easy to be a snob about the Oscars. Now, though, you could almost say that the snobs have taken over the Academy asylum. The Oscars now covet something much more than popularity: They covet cred. It all shifted two years ago, when The Hurt Locker won Best Picture. The movie had grossed around $15 million, and no Best Picture winner in history had been seen in theaters by that tiny or select an audience. That simply wasn’t the way that the Oscars worked. But now, suddenly, The Hurt Locker’s triumph among critics’ groups and its big win at the Academy Awards became part of a continuous, aesthetically dictated sweep. In the old days, or even just a few years before, Avatar — the main movie that The Hurt Locker was up against — would likely have taken the award for Best Picture. Now, though, it wasn’t just critics, or “small” or “elite” groups of viewers, who had become art-conscious at the expense of even thinking about popularity. The entire Academy, reversing course on 80 years, had tossed out popularity as a priority.
You could argue that it was a fluke. The following year, the Oscars got swept by The King’s Speech, which was a classic art-house crossover movie. Suddenly, it seemed, popularity was relevant again. I began to think that the year of The Hurt Locker was merely an anomaly. Only here we are in a new Oscar season, and the hot buzz is gathering around a movie — and one key performance — that remains stubbornly unaffirmed by the old populist yardstick. The Artist, when it first began to generate excitement, was presumed to have a major mainstream viability: It would be the silent black-and-white heart tugger that made the antique new, that turned everyone in the ‘plex onto old-movie magic. But now it’s looking a lot less universal in its appeal (not that there’s anything wrong with that). And wouldn’t it be ironic if Meryl Streep, who looks like she might take home an Oscar for the first time in 30 years, did so for a film that, with its already middling per-screen average, has basically demonstrated how little most people want to see a movie about Margaret Thatcher. (Or maybe they just don’t want to see one as brassy and maladroit as The Iron Lady.)
At this point, a lot of you are probably thinking: This is all a good thing! Why not sever the Academy Awards from the scuzzy sway of popularity? I’m tempted to join the chorus. Except that a couple of things bother me about how, and why, the issue of what the audience thinks has become a nonstarter for a great many Academy voters. It seems to me that in the old days, the Oscars were striving, in their way, for a fusion of commerce and art, of popularity and acclaim, that represented the very soul of the Dream Factory. Sure, the Oscars didn’t always achieve that fusion (remember when Chariots of Fire won? Or, of course, Crash?), but there was something honorable in the attempt. In the current era, Academy voters have evolved to the point that they keep a new kind of kosher, with Art and Mass Entertainment on separate tables, and increasingly rarely shall the twain meet. That’s why franchise movies, even stupendous ones like The Dark Knight, or a cathartic zeitgeist comedy like Bridesmaids don’t get Best Picture nominations. They may be works of art, but they come from the wrong table. And that’s why a likable (but, to me, minor) curio like The Artist, even when it has connected only modestly to the enlightened audiences that made hits (and Oscar victories) out of The King’s Speech or No Country for Old Men, can already look like an official shiny winner in the hermetic new world of Academy Cred.
I guess I’m saying that there was something, in its wisdom-of-the-mob way, that made the Oscars sort of soulful in the era when the judgments of the Academy had to be validated by the raw power of the audience. Back then, you could only take the Oscars halfway seriously (if that), but at least Academy Awards night, in its combination of glitz, pandering, and middlebrow taste, represented the unity of Hollywood movies and everyone around the world who adores them. On the surface, at least, the new Academy Awards appears to be far more tasteful and pure. The movies, by and large, are smaller, the judgments more refined, and the popcorn movies — remember them? — that the vast majority of the audience prefers are nowhere to be seen. (In effect, they’re shunned.) But since the folks in Hollywood spend most of their time making those movies, you have to wonder if leaving the audience behind on Oscar night is a sign that the Academy Awards have evolved to a new artistic seriousness, or if they’ve turned art into another high concept, and if the voters are just pandering in a new way: not to the masses but to themselves.
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