Monday, February 21, 2011

Dishonorary Awards: Why Not to Watch the Oscars This Year


By refusing to broadcast the Honorary Awards for the third year running, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has blown a raspberry at the luminaries of film history. Perhaps we should return the favor. 

(originally appeared on 2/21/11, republished with some modifications before the 2012 broadcast)

This is not a clever list of "Top 10" reasons to ignore, criticize, or make fun of the Academy Awards. Right now I'm only interested in one deeply unfair and indicative reason. That said, a brief bit of background may be in order.

ORIGINS AND INTENTIONS

About eighty-five years ago, the Academy was established as a studio-run guild - the producers were seeking to stem trade union growth within the film industry. The awards ceremony was one of the group's earliest gestures, so from its very formation there was a top-down, conformist nature to the awards, an element of condescension as the bigwigs patted their underlings on the head. Though the members themselves were voters, votes were cast within a context created and facilitated by the industry's elite. However, this also meant that the Academy expressed Hollywood's view of itself at the highest levels.

Over the years, for better or worse, the Academy has become, if not a beloved institution, at least a widely influential and famous organization. People pay attention to its actions - and the ripples produced by the Academy Awards can ultimately have a tsunami effect on the public's perception of movies and the movie business. Over time, the Awards ceremony has, in addition to honoring the favored films of a particular year, established and maintained a vital link between different periods in its own history.

HOLLYWOOD HISTORY

Through enjoyable and well-intentioned (if often cumbersome) montages, and more importantly through the presence of living and deceased legends and icons on the ceremony's stage and screen, past Academy events clearly implied some continuity between cinema's past, present, and, presumably, its future. Certainly there are questionable undertones to these gestures: does the present live up to the past (and do latter-day celebrities deserve to ride their predecessor's coattails)? And from the other side, is history being over-idealized in the Academy's gauzy nostalgia?

Maybe so, yet ultimately these tributes were important and valuable - particularly the Honorary Awards, which could rectify past oversights or snubs (think Alfred Hitchcock or Orson Welles, receiving special achievement awards at the end of Best Director-free careers). In an environment where intense marketing, profit margins, and the hype machine determined what "matters," space was created for the vital traditions and accomplished figures of film history, many of whom were unjustly ignored by the Academy in their prime.

NO HONOR

Hindsight is 20/20 - one reason the roll call of such trophies is more illustrious than a list of actors and filmmakers awarded for contemporary films. Look at 2010, for example. Honorary Oscar recipients included historian Kevin Brownlow, actor Eli Wallach, and filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard (arguably the greatest living director). They were bound to outshine just about anyone else holding a trophy at night's end.

The same was true of Thalberg Award recipient Francis Ford Coppola, responsible for some of Hollywood's greatest triumphs - you'd think if anyone deserved center stage on the town's signature night, it would be him. Yet all of these people have been shunted out of the spotlight in the interests of a broadcast increasingly focused on being "hip" and "of the moment": Brownlow, Wallach, and Coppola were honored at a private ceremony in November 2010. (Godard, rightly, ignored the self-important yet condescending event.)

In 2012, for the third year running, the Honorary Awards will not be included in the Academy Awards broadcast. Presumably, this is so the show's producers can liberate more space for corny and instantly dated jokes, bad musical numbers, and appearances by starlets and celebrities who will be probably be forgotten within the limited lifetime of the ignored, elderly Honorees.

The irony is extreme (even more so this year, when nominees like "The Artist" and "Hugo" openly celebrate film history). With the advent of Netflix, the Criterion Collection, and the internet, the classics have become more accessible than ever - now is the perfect time to introduce home audiences to cinematic icons who contributed to this history. Instead, the Academy has decided to flip off the past - its own history, as well as that of the industry and the art form it ostensibly honors.

TUNING OUT

My own history with the Academy Awards goes way back. I started following the Oscar race in the spring of 1991, when I was 7 years old, too young to have seen most of the films nominated yet fascinated by the process and the hubbub. I devoured books on the Academy, casually memorizing the Best Picture winners of every year. To this day, if someone names a year I can tell them instantly what won - always a popular party trick.

For twenty years I watched every single broadcast, either live or via VHS tape the following morning - even the first year that the Honorary Oscars were first axed from the show. But not this time. If anyone wants to start a petition or spread the word, I'll sign on...but of course I doubt it will make much difference. My personal boycott is less an effort to change anything than an individual statement: enough is enough.

Any institution which ignores or disrespects its own history - especially when that history is far more bountiful than the present - merits only contempt and scorn. Despite its troubled and mixed legacy, the Academy Awards served as an intermittent beacon, reminding millions of viewers that the motion picture medium was an art form as well as industry, an art form with a rich and powerful history - created by legends, living and gone, illuminated on Awards night. This coming Sunday, all is dark - the beacon will be turned off.

And so will my TV set.

Cross-posted at Wonders in the Dark

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