This is not going to be a very popular “hot take” especially among members of the Academy, so I’ll apologize in advance for being so blunt, but I also promise that this will be the last I write about the Academy Awards for at least six months or more. Fair trade?
Last week before the Oscars, I wrote about some of the potential surprises/spoilers that might happen on Oscar night. In fact, there were only a few real shockers, and that’s even with the well-reported new members the Academy brought on board over the past two years to try and create more diversity.
One would expect that with the new membership, there would be a vast shift in which movies and people are nominated or win Oscars, and at least this year, that just didn’t seem to be the case. Guillermo del Toro’s A Shape of Water — which I loved and think is a wonderful film, mind you – just seemed like the most obvious winner, because it ticks off so many boxes that go along with many Best Picture winners over the years. So even with 1,000 new members divided between the various chapters, the Academy still went with the most obvious winner, depriving the Oscar night audience of a surprise on the level of last year’s La La Land / Moonlight shocker.
For decades, the Oscars have been seen by some merely as a popularity contest, which makes some sense because many assume that the “best” movie is alwaqys also be the “most popular.” Except that “best” is subjective, and we’ve seen time and time again that the “popular” movies (whether gauged by reviews or box office) aren’t the ones that win and often aren’t even the movies that are nominated. (And we’ll see that again when I write about why Black Panther won’t get a Best Picture nomination…. in six months from now.)
As a long-time film critic and movie writer, I make it a point to know about the different aspects of filmmaking both in front and behind the camera, and I feel that if I was pushed, I could write something about cinematography, film editing, production design or some of the other categories for which the Academy hands out awards. (Maybe not costume design or hair and make-up, because I know very little about fashion and clothing and such, which should be obvious if you’ve met me and seen my own hair or “fashion sense.”)
The Academy makes a real point to make sure that individual chapters nominate in their respective categories so directors nominate directors, writers nominate writers, make-up and hair people nominate in that category, etc. But once the nominees are tallied, the entire membership can vote in every category whether they have the qualifications to vote for some things or not.
Part of what got me thinking about this was the fact that War for the Planet of the Apes didn’t win the Oscar for visual effects, which I also wrote about before, and it made me wonder whether many Oscar voters might not know enough about CG or visual effects to be able to properly judge between the visual effects in various movies.
In most of the shorts categories, Academy members are required to prove that they’ve seen every single nominee, and I believe that’s also the case with foreign language films and docs, but who knows how well that’s even enforced? I believe that the Academy only has one member that’s a film critic, and critics are generally trained to examine and evaluate as many aspects of a film possible, so they have to know at least something about what they see on the screen. Directors and producers, particularly those that were trained in film school, are obligated to know what each department does under them but part of the “trick” of being a great filmmaker is knowing how to find talented department heads and crews that can help define your vision.
I love screenwriters, as should we all, but who is to say that even some of the best writers have spent enough significant time on a movie set to know how duties like production design, costume design and others are broken down? How many Academy members can tell the difference between a gaffer and a grip, and why they’re part of different departments? Maybe that doesn’t matter so much if you’re an actor and you just have to go in front of the camera, say your lines and look pretty – I’m being facetious here, because I don’t want to diminish the role of the actor by any means – but there are those on a set who need to know that information and those that don’t. Not that you need to know what a gaffer is to pick a best screenplay or actor or other categories, but shouldn’t members of film’s most prestigious group be just a little smarter than the average Joe or Jill on the street, not to mention those writing about their movies?
Academy members who don’t work as directors or producers or in one of the tech chapters don’t necessarily have to know anything about cinematography or film editing or production design to pick their favorites in each category, which is what leads to popular films like Dunkirk and The Shape of Water winning so many categories over others. In the case of Blade Runner 2049, there’s no denying that it’s a very pretty film, but why does the Academy decide that the departments that deserve to be honored for how pretty the movie looks are Roger Deakins and the visual effects team? Shouldn’t the production designer also get some of the credit? Or Denis Villeneuve, the film’s visionary director. (Granted, I’m really happy that Deakins won, so we will never ever again have to read yet another story about how he’s been snubbed 14 times in the past.)
My suggestion is simple, even though it probably will sound somewhat insulting to the talented professionals who managed to get into the Academy, but maybe members of the Academy need to be given a simple test that covers different aspects of filmmaking. Questions on it can be as simple as “What is cinematography?” with multiple choices. Maybe there can be a picture of Gary Oldman without make-up next to one with him as Winston Churchill with the question “In which picture has Gary Oldman clearly been sitting in the make-up trailer for the longest?” or something like that.
I would expect anyone who has ever been on a movie set either in front or behind the camera, should be able to pass this test. Maybe passing such a test would allow the Academy member to be a part of the group that votes in every category. Those that don’t pass can still vote for Best Picture, Director and their own categories or related ones, but not for all 25 categories.
And of course, once the nominees are announced, it should be mandatory that members can prove they’ve seen all nine Best Picture nominees or the movies by the five nominated directors, etc. This would go a long way to ending the myth that the Oscars are just a popularity question because members would be obligated to prove they’re well-versed in the best that a year in film has to offer. Think about how many people you know who haven’t seen, say, The Post or Darkest Hour or Lady Bird, and then ask them to fairly judge those movies they haven’t seen vs. the movies they have.
Granted, most working actors, directors, tech people are doing just that… working… so they won’t necessarily have time to see all 60 or 70 films nominated films including the 15 shorts. Fair enough, but then they should bow out of voting in categories where they haven’t seen all the options.
Maybe doing stuff like this will help end all the controversies and squabbles about the nominees and winners both before and after they’re announced, but also it will give us an Academy that’s far more knowledgeable than the annual office pool winners, who should generally know more about other things. It would also offer the transparency that so many that follow the Oscar race each year have wanted.
Listen, I don’t expect Meryl Streep to be able to have an in-depth conversation about camera lenses with Roger Deakins or Steven Spielberg, but knowing which part of the camera is the front would probably be helpful.
As promised, this is the last I’ll write about the Oscars for a while, but I do hope that the Academy will start evaluating (or reevaluating) its membership and who gets to vote for what in terms of the Oscars. There are thousands of talented individuals voting for the Oscars each year, but even the most talented of them must have a few weak spots in their film knowledge, and that’s generally why some of the best movies are often overlooked for the very good ones.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor