Art, business and why people talk about the Oscars every year
It seems every year the film industry slowly contorts itself to face the Titanic spectre of the Academy Awards (pun intended.) Every year there is a new controversy to reignite public debate, one that fundamentally reexamines the role of awards in an artistic medium - imposing hierarchy in a space where energy should be shared cyclically.
In my lifetime, the most prolific cultural trial and widespread questioning of this awards body came with the #Oscarssowhite movement in 2015. This moment took a stark look at the makeup of the Academy (a largely white and male institution that purports to have authority over the best films of the year.) Ever since this wave of inevitable outrage the Academy have been frantically trying to avoid controversy, committed to appearing relevant, sometimes at the expense of being relevant. In some ways this has resulted in some sort of measurable change behind the scenes, with the body "having doubled the number of female members" between 2016 and 2020 and "tripled their members of colour" according to the BBC.
But instead of putting faith in this institutional rearrangement, trusting this change would prove itself valuable to viewers, the Academy have fabricated new, superficial ways to remain in the zeitgeist. Last year the awards body was ruthlessly mocked for including a publicly voted #OscarsFanFavorite and #OscarsCheerMoment in the ceremony. This backfired. Instead of celebrating blockbuster cinema this segment exposed an industry powered by embarrassing stan behaviour and scenes that were so forgettable they may well have been rendered by AI.
Perhaps it is pointless to get excited about an awards show that does nothing but consistently disappoint committed film lovers within the industry and looking on. Yet there is something intriguing about allowing a deserving winner to contextually sit alongside the great performers of classic Hollywood. And there remains a thrill at watching an industry newcomer face off against established talents. Needless to say, the leadup to each show offers a chance to publicly reflect on a year in film.
In the spirit of optimism, it is worth saying that this year feels like it is sidestepping some of the normal Hollywood naval gazing. This year 16 of the 20 acting nominees will count this as their first nomination. While many of these people are established actors who have long been waiting on institutional acknowledgement there are a few who would consider these films their breakout moments.
The Academy awards will take place on Sunday, March 26th. In the leadup it is worth following some campaign arcs. Stephanie Hsu is an actress who was relegated to side characters in streaming shows before her emotionally prescient turn in Everything Everywhere All At Once, Barry Keoghan has been a long-time favourite of film Twitter for his engaging performances in arthouse films, with a BAFTA under his belt he could be a front-runner for the Best Supporting Acting Oscar for his role in The Banshees of Inisherin. Hong Chau (nominated for her performance in The Whale) and Brian Tyree Henry (nominated for his performance in Causeway,) have been delivering consistently impressive supporting performances in films like Inherent Vice and Widows (respectively,) proving themselves quietly crucial to the prickly tones of their films. The Oscars are riddled with corruption, propping up the business of moviemaking rather than its artistry. Yet it is still worth focusing on the artists who are being honoured, especially this year, and investigating what you can learn from them.