24 February 2008

ThREDbare Carpet

Tonight will mark the end of the Hollywood award season for 2007, with the Oscars. I'll certainly be watching, as my local cable is not a la carte and I therefore don't get Comedy Central; it's not worth $34 a month for Comedy Central and ESPN. Thus, this will be my first chance to really see Jon Stewart zing the political scene (and you know he's not going to restrict his comments to the film business!).

Tony Scott, the lead film critic at the NYT, wrote today with his opinion of what's wrong with the Oscars. For a relatively perceptive critic — "relatively" because, like virtually all film critics, his background is far too deep in film (tending toward worship of certain directors and stars) and far too shallow outside of it — Scott has a huge blind spot regarding the whole enterprise. Scott feels that the problems come from the commercial aspects of the film business, and the conflict between "art" and "business." That is certainly a defensible position, but it applies to the entire business, and does not explain the problems with the Oscars themselves. Instead, the weakness of the Oscars is more structural than anything else.

First, as I've mentioned here and elsewhere before, the Oscars are too damned soon after the close of the eligibility period. That, in turn, distorts both the results and the process. That the Oscars are determined less than 45 days after the close of the eligibility period only increases the emphasis on the last third of the year for release of "contenders" — one of the problems Scott points to — and, more importantly, eliminates any real chance for reflection on the year as a whole. Combine that with the distractions of many in film production, who are mired in late-stage filming and post production on the films planned for release in the next summer blockbuster season during the height of the award frenzy, and the Oscars (and Golden Globes, and every other award given during these first couple of months of the next year) are missing their most important voices — both cautionary (that might have prevented the Kramer v. Kramer multiple-award fiasco) and contemplative (that, that same years, might have recognized the enduring power of Apocalypse Now!, All That Jazz, and the huge range of outstanding leading-actor performances other than Hoffman's, including several that were not nominated).

Second, the public is under the (mistaken) impression that each Oscar represents the opinion of the entire Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It doesn't, with the exception of Best Picture. Instead, the various branches vote for the various awards. On the one hand, this does act as a jury that is more likely to be familiar with the demands and qualities of the various roles, which makes it a good way to nominate for awards. However, an outstanding aspect of a film must serve the film as a whole, or it is worthless (imagine, for a moment, a National Book Award category for "Outstanding Use of Vocabulary in a Work of Nonfiction"), or at least worth far less than an award of some nature implies. For example, as much as I admire Al Pacino's performances in ...And Justice for All and Dog Day Afternoon, they were so dominant that they masked the dubious overall value of the films that came from substandard scripts.

Third, and perhaps most important (to me, living here in flyover country, anyway), it might break the NY/LA lock on nominations. The Academy's condescending dismissal of the rest of the country in its eligibility criteria seriously undermines the ultimate value of the awards, and in fact explains in part the Kramer v. Kramer fiasco... as that film was "released" in New York and LA a few days before the end of 1979, but didn't make it outside those areas until into 1980. That relatively ordinary film would not have stood much of a chance against the next year's contenders. Too, the isolationism and six-degrees-of-anyone-elseness of the NY/LA axis too often results in "sentimental choices" — Hoffman in Kramer v. Kramer is far from the only one; that same year, Melvyn Douglas got his Supporting Actor award in Being There on sentimental grounds, not defensible substantive ones — based as much on personal knowledge off screen as what makes it on screen.