Thursday, February 26, 2015

What We Learned From the 2015 Oscars

Every year when the dust of the Oscars settles, it’s time to look at them like Bunny Colvin looked at any given situation in The Wire: What did we learn? Most of the time, we intentionally avoid the real lessons and just pretend that the lesson is The Academy has terrible taste and the Oscars mean nothing. But that’s the cop out response. What did we really learn? Four major things:

1. Hosting and producing the Oscars is the worst job ever.

We always commend baseball players for how hard they have it, being in a job where even the best have roughly a 70% failure rate. But the hosts and producers of the Oscar telecast actually have a 100% failure rate. The problem in this regard is that failure with the Oscars is a subjective issue that morphs into objectivity. If enough of the population subjectively decides the show was terrible, then that becomes reality. And because enough of the population comes to that conclusion every year, it’s an objectively impossible job.

It’s also a self-fulfilling trap. Every year, when the public finishes saying that Host X was utterly wretched, they follow that up by saying “But man, they should totally get Host Y for next year!” But if everyone thinks the host sucks every year, what’s the possible incentive for the hosts we want to actually take the job? It’s the same reason LeBron refuses to enter the dunk contest—because winning wouldn’t matter, losing would be a disaster, and there’s a 99% chance that the Internet would declare it underwhelming.

My objective reality towards the Oscars is that both the show and the host are never as bad as people think. Usually, they’re pretty decent. When Bill Simmons wrote about the Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary show a few weeks ago, he said it was bloated, and that a lot of the segments fell flat, but then concluded that of course they did, and that’s just what SNL fans accept with the show. In the 40-year history of SNL, there has probably never been a single episode in which every skit worked. You really just have to hope that each episode concludes with the amount of times you laughed your ass off being greater than the amount of times you thought What the hell were they thinking with that bit? The Oscars are the same thing. There will literally never be an Oscar telecast where at least one major thing the host tries doesn’t fail. This year it was the locked up predictions, last year it was Ellen ordering the pizza, the year before it was Seth McFarlane’s classy “We Saw Your Boobs” song, the year before that it was Billy Crystal’s genial old-man humor that felt like it flew in from the time machine no one ordered, and the year before that it was literally everything that involved James Franco. This is just how it goes; some of it’s gonna suck. If you aren’t ready for that, that’s your own fault.

And yeah, some of what NPH did sucked. But certainly not all of it. The opening number was great, and confirmed why he was hired in the first place. And the Birdman segment, where he walked out in his tightie-whities, was priceless (as was the reveal that Miles Teller was the drummer and NPH snapping at him, “Not my tempo!”). He also nailed some of the presenter intros, like saying Benedict Cumberbatch is how John Travolta would introduce Ben Affleck. Other jokes didn’t work and looked awkward, as they always do. The bit with NPH interviewing audience members, like David Oyelowo, was especially bad.

But that brings us to the producers, who have an even more thankless and hopeless job, and ultimately give approval to every terrible bit the host takes part in. The only annual Oscar tradition that goes back further than bitching about how bad the host was is the one where everyone says the show was “too long,” and it “tried too hard to entertain.” This happens every year. Let me get on my pulpit here for a moment and just say that I can’t stand it when people bitch about how long the Oscars are. If you think they’re too long, you know where the power button on your TV is. The Oscars have 24 awards to hand out, 24 sets of nominees to announce, 24 winners that need to hug their spouses and walk to the stage, and 24 acceptance speeches to be heard. With commercials, the show has about 44 minutes per hour to work with. If you’re one of those people that just can’t believe the show would ever go longer than three hours, then do some quick math with me: a three hour show would allow approximately five and half minutes for each award, and absolutely nothing else. No introductory musical number or comedic monologue, no death montage, no Best Picture clips, no Best Song performances, no historical tributes like this year’s Sound of Music segment… nothing. And if you hate that the Oscars try so hard to entertain you or point out how wonderful movies are… I mean, those two things are basically the entire reason the Oscars exist.

So at a certain point (really, most points), annual bitching about the Oscars becomes a completely masochistic activity, in the same way that bitching about SNL is a masochistic activity; either accept them for what they are, warts and all, or cut them out of your life (which you’re entirely welcome to do). Making the same complaints about the Oscars every year is like hating a dish you ordered at a restaurant, and then going back for that dish every month. Just stop.

2. The Oscars have diversity, as long as you’re okay with your diversity being, you know, diverse.

One of the biggest talking points about the Oscars this year was the lack of diversity in the nominees, specifically in regard to the perceived snub of Selma. But if you were someone who cited lack of diversity in this year’s Oscars by using “diversity” essentially as a synonym for “African-American,” the real problem is in the lack of diversity in your use of the term. Of the 24 Oscar categories awarded this year, Latinos won four of them, which is (I believe) a new record. This was the second year in a row that a Mexican has won the Best Director Oscar, the third year in a row that it was won by a non-Caucasian (Ang Lee won in 2013), and the fifth year in a row that it was won by a foreigner. Additionally, John Legend and Common won Best Original Song this year for Selma, which made this the fourth year in a row (and ninth year this century) that at least one Oscar has been won by an African-American.

Are those results perfect? Of course not. But they’re also a far cry from the unmitigated failure that the media and the Twitter-verse is labeling them to be. Fair or unfair, the Oscars do not control what gets released in a given nomination cycle. It is disappointing that none of the twenty acting nominees this year were non-white, but that speaks less to an agenda or racial bias of the Academy than it does to the unfortunate fact that there were no performances by minority actors in 2014 that were better than the twenty nominated performances. Look, not all years were created equal. Some years don’t have any worthy Best Picture winners. That’s why Chicago won Best Picture in 2002—not because it was a timeless masterpiece, but because there was nothing better to give it to. Some years don’t have any Original Songs that are worthy of an Oscar, which was the case in 2011 when there were embarrassingly only two nominees, and both of them were exceedingly average. Every category goes through years that simply don’t reflect the norm. If you roll a die six times and the number four never comes up, it’s not a sign that your rolling technique is defective or that the laws of physics have a hidden agenda against the number four.

Of course some of this is debatable. If you personally thought that David Oyelowo as MLK or Chadwick Boseman as James Brown was a better lead actor performance than Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle, I won’t necessarily disagree with you. This was an extraordinarily tough year for the Best Actor race, which had at least a dozen performances worthy of a nomination. Miles Teller in Whiplash, Timothy Spall in Mr. Turner, Oscar Isaac in A Most Violent Year, Jake Gylenhaal in Nightcrawler, and Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel are five more that might have had a good chance in any other year. As I said, not all years are created equal. But seeing that neither Oyelowo or Boseman made the final list of five Best Actor nominees and immediately concluding that race was the key factor is simply an unfair conclusion to draw, as well as being a conclusion that just doesn’t follow from recent Oscar precedent, when African-American actors have been nominated (and won) at a very high frequency. Nine African Americans have won acting Oscars so far this century, and 23 have received at least one nomination. Several, like Jamie Foxx, Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Will Smith, and Morgan Freeman, have received more than one.

As to the rest of the alleged Selma snubs, well, all I’ll say about why Ava DuDuvernay might have been left off the list of Best Director nominees is because I believe (and the vote would suggest that others also believe) that Selma was not an exceptionally directed film. Selma deserved to win exactly one Oscar, and it won that Oscar: Best Original Song for the wonderful, triumphant “Glory.”

The real issue isn’t that the Oscars have a diversity problem, it’s that the film industry has a diversity problem. That’s a problem that can only be fixed over time if we all put our money where our mouths are. If you want a more diverse slate of films, then you have to pay to see the films that already do promote diversity. Heavy rumors started surfacing a few days ago that the next big screen Spider-Man very well may be played by a black actor, and if you’re someone that’s against this (as many people apparently are), or if you’re one of the people who’s rampantly opposed to Idris Elba being the next James Bond (which is also heavily rumored) make sure you’re not also bitching about the Oscar diversity problem that you’re directly contributing to.

3. The Birdman camp and the Boyhood camp are both mostly unaware of what a mirror is.

It was hilarious reading on Facebook and Twitter after the announcement of Best Picture how many Boyhood fans were dismissive of Birdman for the exact same reason that so many people were dismissive of Boyhood in the first place. Both fan bases see the other film as merely a “gimmick,” which immediately became the most overused word on the Internet Sunday night and Monday morning.

No one is required to like either or both films. Personally, I loved them both, and think they were the first (Birdman) and fourth (Boyhood) best films of 2014. But for a fan of either one to dismiss the other as a gimmick is pretty hypocritical. A huge aspect of the greatness of Boyhood is that it was made over twelve years, with the characters aging in real time. A huge aspect of Birdman is that it’s created to all look like one continuous shot. To dismiss either of those elements as mere gimmick is to entirely misunderstand what the film is attempting to say, convey, and play with.

Boyhood is a film about the passage of time and the way we experience that passage. The best way to show this was to literally show it. Birdman is a film about someone aspiring to meaningful creativity while descending into the chaos of their own mind, so the single-take style of it is reflective of both the way our mind meanders around our ideas and the way the main character constantly weaves around the theater he’s working in. In both cases, the films use a specific stylistic strategy to make their playground more narratively exciting, and their goals more uniquely emotable. These creative elements are only gimmicks in the loosest definition of the word—the one where a gimmick is a strategy designed to increase appeal—and in that sense, virtually all commercial art employs gimmicks. But as to the more devious definition of gimmick, I just don’t see how it could apply to either of these films. They both use their creative elements in pure service to the story they’re trying to tell. If you think both films employed gimmicks, I guess that’s fine. But saying one did and the other didn’t isn’t an argument that can easily be made cogent.

4. The Oscars remain on a hot streak.

This is the third year in a row that the Best Picture Oscar has gone to my favorite film of the year, and the one I named the best film of the year several months before the Oscar ceremony. This (sadly) doesn’t mean that I wield amazing powers or that I’m incredibly prescient, but it does mean that the Oscars are more in line with my taste than they’ve ever been. Only three times in the dozen years from 2000-2011 was Best Picture given to what I thought was the year’s best film (The Hurt Locker in ’09, No Country For Old Men in ’07, and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King in ’03). Because I’d like to think that, as a film critic, my taste skews towards the more objective side of things, I’m inclined to believe this means the Oscar results are becoming more accurate. I wrote about this trend a few weeks ago—the idea that as the nominated films no longer feature many crowd-pleasing box office hits, there’s much less pressure on the Academy for the results to be crowd-pleasing.

But the bigger picture of what this means is that the rough draft of history that the Oscars represent is the least rough it’s been since the second Hollywood Golden Age of the 1970s. Everything may not be awesome, but that definitely is.


  1. You're my go-to critic, Daniel. Brilliantly poised analysis. Always a pleasure and an insight bath. Your Uncle Tom. And, you know, the cabin.

  2. Wow. This is marvelous, Daniel. I learn so much from your insights and perspective and knowledge and... This is just great. Thank you.