Thursday, February 26, 2015

What You Can Predict About the Oscars

Sheila York

Watching: Season 3: White Collar
Reading: The Drop, Michael Connelly   

You knew what was coming. You knew that the second the Oscars were over, the requisite movie critics’ proclamations would begin about how out of touch Hollywood is with moviegoers.

The biggest moneymaker didn’t win Best Picture.  The movie that did had, at that point, been seen by roughly one-seventh the number of people who watched the Oscars (5 million vs. 36 million). 

Many of the most popular movies of 2014 were ignored entirely in nominations.

Great performances; Total number of people who've seen their movies
probably less than saw them win
How can that be? the critics seem to be saying. How can an industry that regards receipts above all things not want to just hand out statues to whoever’s movies made the most money?

And you knew they’d complain about the show. They always do. What’s that line about insanity being when you do the same thing over and over and expect a different result?

I wasn’t bowled over by the show, either, but I don’t expect to be. Producing that show is an enormous task, especially given the limitations and demands (you have to let Travolta present so he can publicly apologize to Idina Menzel). So I lay on the sofa, cheer for my favorites and drink too much wine. But I guess if you’re a movie critic, you’d lose your job doing that. (The low-expectations/laying-on-sofa part; I think getting sloshed would be fine as long as you made deadline.)

I watch. And when something wonderful happens – like John Legend and Common’s performance of Glory – I am reminded what artists can do and shout hallelujah.

I might have let one series of reviews upset me too much: Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes’ in the New York Times continued to report that the orchestra played off two documentary-film winners while they were talking about suicide. Messrs Cieply and Barnes, the orchestra did not play those women off while they were talking about a suicide. The orchestra began to play them off after they had reached the limit of allotted time. Then in wrapping up, one of the women said, “…he committed suicide…”.  The orchestra – as soon as a human being would have had time to process that (maybe two seconds) – stopped playing. I’m giving Messrs Cieply and Barnes the benefit of the doubt here and assuming that they actually watched that part, and have not relied for their opinion on Twitter comments.

All right, let’s move on. David tells me I really need to let go of that one.

I’d like to explain the Oscars’ alleged audience “disconnect” with a bit of (very high-points-only) history.

The Oscars were largely irrelevant to audiences before TV almost killed the movies. The Academy was formed in the late 1920s to negotiate labor disputes and improve the image of Hollywood, which it sorely needed, given the uproar regularly created by the content of some silent films. Ask Kate about that!

But rather quickly, it became American films’ historian, librarian, and artistic arbiter with its awards of merit. Established stars won; A-list pictures did too. It was a party given by Hollywood for Hollywood. Of course, studios and stars liked winning, but by the time a movie won, it was no longer in the theaters, and the studios couldn’t cash in on it.  

Then in the early 1950s, TV began its rampage. Movie profits plummeted. Hollywood began to use the awards as a way to help return focus to the movies – and used TV to do it, by broadcasting the show (beginning in 1953). 

And they made flashy films, the sort of thing you couldn't see on the small screen. Spectacle got rewarded in that decade: American in Paris, The Greatest Show on Earth, Around the World in 80 Days, Ben-Hur and The Bridge on the River Kwai (which actually deserved it). 
The Production Code – the censorship that ruled Hollywood beginning in 1934 – had made any forthright examination of complex human emotions and conditions almost impossible. But after WWII, foreign films, mostly European at that time, began getting attention. 

They were experimental, edgy, and dealt frankly with real life – Whoa there, Mr. De Sica, you have a scene in a brothel? No way. Cut that out of The Bicycle Thief, or we won’t show your movie over here in the good old US of A. Still audiences turned out to see it in very limited release – uncut.

The Code continued to weaken as more and more of the US audience wanted more complexity, and Hollywood wanted to find something to get those baby boomer butts into the theaters. In the 1960s, prosperity put considerable disposable income in the hands of teenagers for the first time. And while there were certainly big-budget, broad-appeal films like The Sound of Music, you could also find gritty, brutally honest movies without happy endings – hello, Midnight Cowboy. They got screen time and took home awards.

Then Hollywood discovered the Blockbuster in the late 70s (Jaws – nominated; Star Wars – not) and not long after, Oscar began getting thumped soundly for not recognizing all that money being made.

That thumping, however, coincided with the growth of “small films”.  Producers and distributors appeared for less expensive movies because the audience and available venues were expanding in number.  Then the Oscars, looking to get more big films nominated, expanded the Best Picture nominee list to as many as 10 films. Which resulted in more small films being nominated. And winning. And more of those films' artists being invited to join the Academy, and more small films being nominated, and ... I’m getting a little dizzy from the going round in circles.

Which brings me to . . .

I haven’t seen all of Birdman, which won Best Picture. I did hear all of it, though. The currently very popular loose-camera technique – where the camera joggles and swings as it records action – makes me nauseous. Not figuratively, because I really like the right-in-the-action feel it can give. I mean literally nauseous. After 20 minutes, I'm carsick. In some movies, (and it happened in Birdman) I have to close my eyes, take off my socks and shoes, and put my bare feet on the cold (sticky) floor to keep from sharing my grief with the back of the head of the person in front of me.

I don’t have the same reaction on a small screen, so I can watch the whole movie soon on Blu-ray.

My favorite film of the year was Guardians of the Galaxy. Too bad Groot couldn’t present the best-support Oscar. Now I think on it, if nominees had been required to come from big-money movies, Bradley Cooper would have been nominated twice – for American Sniper and as the “I’m not a raccoon” in Guardians. (Guardians could also have won had there been a category for best use of music from other decades.)

After that, these are the rest of my favorites of the movies I saw in 2014 – in no order whatsoever. I recommend them.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Gone Girl
Get on Up
The Imitation Game
Edge of Tomorrow (or Live. Die. Repeat.)
The Theory of Everything
Big Hero 6
Begin Again
The 100-Foot Journey

They were among David’s favorites, too, but he’d like to add these:

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
John Wick
Captain America: Winter Soldier 

Copyright 2015 Sheila York


  1. I didn't see the Oscars, but I was sorry that Neil Patrick Harris didn't fare well. He's been so delightful on the Tonys, but then I think the Tonys are are a better show because you're dealing with folks who are used to performing live on stage.

  2. And people who aren't afraid to laugh at acerbic humor. I liked him fine. That hosting gig is the toughest job in Hollywood.

  3. What was your favorite film of 2014?

  4. It shames me to say that I didn't see a single movie in a theater in 2014. Or 2013. Or 2012.

  5. What we do is have some friends in for dinner, put up the screen and show an old movie on the projector. My favorite last year was an exquisite French farce called Carnival in Flanders, made in the thirties. The last one we showed was Big Trouble in Little China, which the twelve-year-old girls loved. They want an Elvis movie next.

  6. That is fabulous, Kate. I'd love to see one of your favorite vintage films on your screen. I was talking to my friend Kathy about the Oscars and the "disconnect" -- while swilling more wine -- and she said, "It doesn't matter what they produce, most people just don't go to the movies." I look at my very large TV, and think, yeah, she' s right.

  7. It will be interesting to see how the local movie house audiences shift in the near future... since we can get just about anything on some kind of home screen, computer or gadget... and the prices of food and bev has gone so high! I used to love small town drive ins and look where they went! tjstraw

    1. A movie at your fingertips 24/7 is still wondrous to me. I like to watch movies on larger screens, but it's marvelous to catch up on a favorite show while waiting on the train because there aren't enough tracks to take passengers smoothly into NYC.