What About Oscar? Some Thoughts on the Academy Awards

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What About Oscar? Some Thoughts on the Academy Awards


It seems to happen every year now. After the Academy Awards telecast has ended and the names of the Oscar winners cease to echo across the internet a few days later, I make a belated New Year’s resolution I only half intend to keep: I will swear off Oscar-watching this year. 

By Oscar-watching, I mean much more than watching the awards ceremony itself. For many film critics, Oscar-watching is a year-round guessing game, much like how a political analyst would follow presidential primaries. But unlike the professionals who are paid to do so, I have no good reason for the absurd amounts of time I tend to devote to this game. I probably shouldn’t be playing at all, for although I have a decent track record when guessing the winners, accurately predicting the nominees is far more difficult — and more costly. It requires an obsessive amount of attention that borders on the unhealthy, and it takes far more than it could ever give back. No matter how attuned I might become to the winds and waves that sway voters, when the Academy announces its list of nominees every January, there are always shocking snubs and baffling inclusions. And that is usually the moment each year when I finally wake up. 

I regain some self-awareness. In the midst of berating the Academy for its folly, I realize that I’m the one who is foolish. Why am I so frustrated that my predictions were frustrated? Why did I invest so much time, and thought, and energy, and emotion into forming my predictions, as if by concentrating on them hard enough I could will them into existence? Why does it bother me to recognize, and why is it so hard for me to concede, what most everyone already knows: that the Oscars really are that arbitrary, that capricious, and perhaps, that meaningless?

But even after waking up from the dream and realizing it is morning, I will still bury my head in my pillow for just a few more minutes. While I may sheepishly admit to myself that this obsession has gotten out of hand, I still won’t give it up, not yet. After all, the Oscars are only a month or so away. If I’ve taken this train so far already, why not stay on board till the end and see where it leads?  

But the train will arrive at exactly the same place as it did last time and every time before that. And even if I were to guess all the winners correctly, I would still be unsatisfied with the results. When I guessed the nominees, there were many exciting possibilities. But when I guess the winners, I am limited to three, five, or at most ten predetermined choices per category, and now I am guessing like a cynic, not a dreamer, choosing what is most likely instead of what I want. If the cynic wins a bet, he also loses. The outcome was as predictable and bland as he expected, and there’s no joy in having that suspicion confirmed. 

As I slouch off the Oscar train, I will promise myself that this was the last ride. But I already know that in a few months I will be lured back by the next cycle of trailers, reviews, festivals, award shows, and speculations. I will begin again to entertain the thought that, just maybe, this year the Oscars will get it right, I will get the Oscars right, and all will be right. 

Why do I care?

Clearly, all is not right. Perhaps I exaggerated my story for dramatic effect, but the substance of it is true — uncomfortably so. So why do I, despite every compelling reason not to, still care about the Oscars?

To answer that question I have to start a ways back, well before I fell into this strange hobby of Oscar-watching. I didn’t declare a desire to become a filmmaker until my early teens, and I didn’t start watching the Oscars regularly (read: religiously) until high school, but I became a film fanatic almost as soon as I could watch them. My family had a massive library of VHS tapes and eventually DVDs, and as a child I would comb through that library constantly, making mental lists of the most intriguing films I had yet to see. Many times what would catch my eye and push a film to the top of my watchlist was the picture of a golden statuette prominently displayed on the VHS box or DVD jacket art. Next to the golden statuette an elegant, stately font would declare that the film I held in my hands was the “Winner of Oscars,” the “Winner of Academy Awards,” or the recipient of “Best Picture.” Back then I knew nothing about the Oscars except that they were given to the “best” films, and I never thought to question why they were the “best.” I simply took it as the truth. 

For as long as I can remember, the Oscars had an aura of authority. As I grew older and my desire to become a director began to crystallize, whether a film had earned or at least been nominated for an Oscar became all the more important. I wanted to make great films someday, and so I wanted to learn from the best: the Best Pictures, the Best Directors, the Best Actors, the Best Screenplays. In and of itself this was not a wrong desire. While I was naïve to believe the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had the final say on the subject, it was appropriate that I wanted to learn what qualified as excellence in filmmaking. 

But the heart is deceitful above all things. My interest in the Oscars did not stop there, but subtly morphed into something more suspect. As I continued watching films, making films, and dreaming about the films I would make in the future, I moved from wanting to make great films to wanting to be a great film-maker. More precisely, I wanted other people to recognize me as a great filmmaker. I didn’t just want to learn from the Academy, I wanted to earn their favor and approval. I lost sight of the intrinsic and greater rewards that come from excellent filmmaking for the sake of excellent filmmaking, and more and more I craved the extrinsic and lesser rewards of the praise and honor of men. It is quite possible I came to care more about winning an Oscar than making a great film that would truly deserve one. 

More troubling still, one day I was forced to realize that I wanted a golden statuette, a standing ovation, and five minutes of primetime attention more than I wanted God. I wanted to hear “And the Oscar goes to… Robert Brown!” more than I wanted to hear “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Decades before I was born, C. S. Lewis described my heart with terrifying accuracy when he wrote The Great Divorce:

Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the things he tells, to love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him… They sink lower — become interested in their own personalities and then in nothing but their own reputations.

My Oscars obsession was a symptom of a deadly disease. I was hungry for glory, and I couldn’t stand the thought that God’s demand for my complete allegiance to His glory would require the death of my own.

How God graciously rescued me from myself and my little golden idols — by a severe mercy that involved my quitting film school and putting my directing ambitions on indefinite hold — is a story for another time. But now it should be clear why the Oscars had such a pull on me in the past. On this side of eternity they were the closest thing to glory that an aspiring director could find. I studied the Oscars so keenly, trying so hard to guess who would win each trophy, in the hope that I would find out how to win one myself. And it should be clear why the Oscars still have some pull on me. The mythic view of the Oscars that I developed in childhood is so deeply rooted that all the controversial snubs, snafus, and upsets of the past few years have not dispelled my romantic fascination with them. On top of that, their aura of authority is now compounded with a whiff of wistfulness. Now when I think about the Oscars, the “what if” questions are not far behind. What if I hadn’t quit filmmaking? What if I got back into it now? If I were to make movies again, could I be a contender? For me the Oscars will always represent a way of life that might have been, and there are days when that way of life is still attractive. If I am not careful, the Oscars still have the potential to encourage discontent and awaken old idolatries. 

Why should anyone care?

But so much for my own reasons for sometimes worshipping the Oscars and sometimes being wary of them. My own experience of the Oscars does not make the Oscars good or bad, worth watching or worth skipping. I’ve explained why I care about the Oscars and why I probably shouldn’t, but now I want to ask a broader question: Should anyone care about the Oscars at all?

The Academy Awards have many serious demerits, and readers are likely aware of them already. I will only list the purported problems with the Oscars that I find most persuasive. The upshot of all of them is that the best films according to the Oscars are not necessarily (and rarely ever) the most excellent films released in any given year. 

First, there is the problem of using preferential ballots in the Best Picture category. When voting on which film should win Best Picture, Academy members rank the nominees, with their favorite picks getting the most points and their “worst-case scenario” picks getting the least. In preferential voting, films that all voters place in the middle of the pile can get more points than the films that even most voters place at the top. As a result, it is likely that the winning film is not the one that the majority of voters loved but the one that the majority liked or tolerated. (The problem with preferential voting is similar to the problem with “fresh” and “rotten” ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. Because all film reviews are boiled down to either “good” or “bad,” a 95% fresh rating on the website only means that 95% of critics didn’t hate the film but found it at least somewhat amusing or competent.)

Second, there is the problem of the Oscars being an expensive popularity contest. The possibility of winning an Oscar, let alone being nominated for one, greatly depends not on craft but on clout: who knows who, who knows the system, and who can spend the most money on a “For Your Consideration” campaign. 

Third, there is the problem of legacy awards: awards given to Hollywood veterans, not because they reached a career pinnacle this past year with a particular film, but because after so many omissions and losses it was about time so-and-so won. It is satisfying to watch eminent stars and craftsmen, known for decades of consistently excellent contributions to the art-form, finally get their due. But if the particular contributions in question are not really among their greatest and the contributions of relative newcomers are actually superior, then the legacy award further cheapens the claim that the awards were given to the best of cinema this year. In trying to right the wrongs of the past (“So-and-so really should have won in 1987, or 1996, or 2001”), legacy awards can end up wronging the rights of the present.     

Fourth, there is the problem of relevance — or rather, the attempted signaling of relevance. For years the Academy has been desperate to attract new viewers and prove that it is not out of touch with the rest of American culture, and so they will nominate and award films that would appear to be historically or politically significant. However, lasting relevance is almost impossible to determine just a few months after a film is released, and the Academy seems to care more about portraying itself as progressive than actually being progressive. (“Here’s where we think the tides are turning, and we want you all to know we’re going with the flow this time!”) But relevance doesn’t make a film great. It’s the other way around. Great films will always be relevant, and relevant films that are worth anything will be as relevant in ten years as they are today.

Fifth, there is the problem of a small handful of films claiming the majority of the nominations and wins each year. While it is possible that one film really could have the best directing, the best adapted screenplay, the best lead performance from an actor, the best supporting performance from an actress, the best cinematography, the best editing, the best production design, the best make-up, the best costumes, the best sound design and the best sound mixing, the best song and the best score, and the best visual effects of the year, it is highly improbable. But if the Academy would stop fixating on the five to ten films that most heavily campaigned for its votes and instead went looking for the hidden gems, the Oscars would be more eclectic. We would see more films winning awards in the areas in which they truly did outshine all their peers. 

Sixth, there is the problem I mentioned earlier: awards are extrinsic to good filmmaking, not intrinsic. This is the problem with all artistic awards. If you set out to make something for the purpose of winning an award, you won’t make a good film, musical, book, or album. Instead, you will make something that is good for winning an Oscar, a Tony, a Pulitzer, or a Grammy — and maybe not much else.

Is that all?

Based on what I have said so far, it may seem that I think the Academy Awards are a sham and a farce and a waste of any person’s time, regardless of whether that person has delusions of Oscar grandeur or not. But is that all? Is there anything that could be said in Oscar’s favor? At the risk of appearing wishy-washy, and without any intention of excusing the Oscar-watching excesses I confessed earlier, I would like to make four modest defenses for the Awards.

First, what I appreciate about the Oscars is that they continue to preserve an old-fashioned belief that artistic excellence does exist, that it can be identified, and that we should celebrate it wherever it is found. To be sure, more often than not the Academy falls far short of Paul’s exhortation that we should hold before our eyes and cherish in our minds “whatever is true… honorable… just… pure… lovely… commendable… excellen[t]… [and] worthy of praise.” But a thoroughly postmodern, relativistic Oscars ceremony — in which all the participants brazenly admit that every winner was chosen out of ulterior motives, joke that the Oscars really don’t matter, and treat the viewer like an idiot for watching them — is hard to imagine; it would be self-defeating. It’s refreshing that the Academy still uses the word “best” without irony. Most winners still receive their “best” awards with some humility, sincerely honored that anyone ever considered their work worthy of that lofty superlative. We may complain that the Academy has lost its mind, but as long as it claims to demand the “best” it will still be somewhat sane.  

Second, if we believe in artistic excellence, I think it is appropriate, within reason, to be saddened when excellent films get passed over for not so excellent ones. And I think it is appropriate, again within reason, to be glad when excellent films do win the awards. We don’t have to shrug off the snubs by smugly protesting, “The Oscars are stupid.” (Translation: “At least I’m smarter.”) And we don’t have to feel silly for celebrating the wins we hoped for, even if for all we know the win might have been a byproduct of the problems described above. At the same time, our sadness or gladness should be tempered by the knowledge that the Oscars are a temporary thing. The ultimate judge of artistic excellence is God, not Oscar. Justice is approximated whenever Oscar chooses (more) wisely, and injustice is committed whenever Oscar chooses poorly — but either way, God always has the final word.   

Third, while some will say that another problem with the Oscars is that they are Hollywood’s own awards given to Hollywood’s own people — an elite class congratulating itself for being itself — I would argue that most Oscar winners could only be decided by industry insiders. Just as I appreciate the Oscars for preserving a belief in artistic excellence, I admire them for preserving a belief in artistic expertise: that there are good, better, and best practices in each area of film-craft, and that older and wiser craftsmen should preserve a tradition of excellence to pass down to the next generation. Only a professional editor, who has edited numerous commercially-released feature films, has any way to recognize and nominate the five best-edited commercially-released feature films of the year, and then help choose the winner — a winner that future editors will look to as a model. Only a professional costume designer — not just any fashion designer or fashion critic, but someone who has an established reputation for making costumes for the screen — can know which designers did best at making the costumes that fit the stories they were helping to tell, not the costumes that were especially pretty or ornate. If average audience members, film critics, or actors voted for Best Cinematography, the winner wouldn’t be the cinematographer whose visuals best captured the essence of the film assigned to her, but the cinematographer who worked in extremes to show off his virtuosity: the vividest colors and strongest contrasts, the longest takes and greatest flourishes in camera movement — whatever would impress the uninitiated voter. I am not saying that Best Cinematography winners couldn’t tend toward these extremes even when voted on by professional cinematographers only. But I am saying that the Oscars, at least in the categories where only fellow practitioners can vote, have the ability to maintain rigorous standards and distinguish what is truly best in each category. The system may be flawed, but it is not entirely broken or misguided. (The system for voting on Best Picture is a totally different and more complicated matter, and I won’t even try suggesting a fairer one.)   

Finally, the Oscars are not entirely meaningless because they bear an echo and promise of future glory. In the The Great Divorce, a sanctified Spirit tries to tell the Ghost of an idolatrous artist that “The Glory flows into everyone, and back from everyone: like light and mirrors. But the light’s the thing.” Like the Ghost Artist, and like countless others who covet artistic awards, I mistook “glimpses of Heaven” for “the thing itself.” The disordered love I had (have?) for the Oscars, fueled by the inordinate desire for the praise of men, was a distortion of what I really should have been after. I wanted to be seen and rewarded by people, but in Heaven, all of God’s people will be “famous… known, remembered, [and] recognised by the only Mind that can give a perfect judgment.” As Lewis writes elsewhere (in The Weight of Glory):    

It is written that we shall “stand before” Him, shall appear, shall be inspected. The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive the examination, shall find approval, shall please God. To please God… to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness… to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or father in a son — it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.

One day there will be an awards ceremony to end all awards ceremonies. At their best the Oscars have helped me better grasp what that will mean, what it will feel like to be seen and rewarded by God Himself. And for that I am thankful. 

All the same, I will not be watching the 2020 Oscars tonight. This year I have neither the time nor the inclination. But I won’t rule out 2021. I can’t seem to fully quit the Oscars, nor can I ever in good conscience return to the days of blind devotion. For now, this is a tension I am content to live with and leave unresolved.

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