The Oscars, that time-honored tradition of insanely beautiful and wealthy people handing each other golden statues, is strangely drifting away from mainstream America. This year, the program dropped 9 percent from 2010, down 5.7 million from that year, and this coming on the end of a ten-year slide in rating, dropping far below the 1998 record at 57.25 million (that year there was this little indie-movie-that-could called “Titanic,” if you remember). Since then its all been downhill quicker than a spinoff series. Doing a little quick math, we can conclude that pretty soon the Oscars will even be in danger of losing their core audience of gay men, elderly grandmothers and those assholes at Blockbusters who roll their eyes when you rent “Observe and Report.”
There are many reasons for this, and an excellent article in the SF Chronicle explains most of them, but really it comes down to this: In the last 15 years there’s been a drift away from what made the Oscars great, and this change is emblematic of the widening cultural shift between Hollywood and the rest of America. Once upon a time, the program was hosted by the likes of Steve Martin, Billy Crystal and David Letterman, solid choices from Middle America.
My memories of those years were rousing musical numbers, wit and aplomb for acceptance speeches and a sense that they were here to entertain the audience, of all things, all played out to the grinning approval of Jack Nicholson in the front row with his 23-year old date. Yes, we knew she was boinking him for the Laker tickets, but in that one magical night a year, we had the chance to feel like they did, to be in their world, and it was kinda like we were all boinking Jack Nicholson for his Laker tickets.
At its best, Oscars is a celebration of not just one year in cinema but a whole tradition in America, going back to the Golden Age of Hollywood of Frank Capra, musical comedies and the films that got the country through the Great Depression. America has always had a love-hate relationship with Hollywood–love their products but hate the people that make it. We read tabloids of their divorces and calculate who holds the record (Elizabeth Taylor, by the way, at seven marriages and counting) and rail against their spiritual fads and moral decadence, all while going to their films in droves.
Meanwhile, they in turn lecture us about the evils of the American way of life with pedantic documentaries about the electric car or nearly-endangered African insects or whatever the hell else won Sundance this year, while making a full-time job of pandering to their audience for ticket sales. The Oscars were like a yearly truce, a chance when both sides had the opportunity to remember what brought these two groups together in the first place: their love of movies.
But after some point, it’s been all out war. It began when Michael Moore accepted for best documentary in 2002 and condemned George W. Bush for creating the Department of Homeland Security (yes, he really was that big of a douchebag). The hosts became Jon Stewart and Chris Rock, the former who could not stop commenting on how little he thought of the event, and the later who insulted the nominees to their faces. Somewhere in there the acceptance speeches became long rambling recitations of names that meant nothing to anyone outside of LA.
The event has taken on all the fun and spontaneity of a national convention for orthodontists: it means a lot for the people who do that for a living, I’m sure, but I don’t really want to watch it for four hours. Oh, and then there was that year when Bill Maher wore a leather business suit and made fun of Americans for believing in God–a dick move, to be sure, but note that it was not a leather jacket, but an entire suit made out of leather. I don’t have a point here, I just wanted to remind people that Bill Maher is a massive tool, and that he actually did that.
Simply put, it’s become too self-referential. The Oscars are tanking because they are not entertaining, and for all the crazy piles of bullshit that America is willing to put up with from Hollywood, boredom is not one of them. So, allow me to explain to the Academy how we can put the razzle back into the dazzle, and save this beleaguered tradition from the ash-heap of oblivion that has befallen other great American traditions like literacy and non-steroids baseball.
1) Cut out the technical categories, and save yourself an hour-and-a-half. I’m dropping a truth-bomb here: ugly people don’t deserve Oscars. I know that these people are the “unsung heroes” of Hollywood and all, but I am completely serious when I tell you that literally no one cares. Film editing, art direction, sound editing, sound mixing…we don’t even know what these mean, literally do not know, and that’s the way we like it. Outside of LA these are known as the Boring Parts, the ones that we must endure until something interesting starts to happen again. There is already a separate ceremony for other technological breakthroughs that year, which is really where this belongs anyway, and it may not be fair, but we have got to cut the four-hour telecast down. It is ungodly long, and this is the place to cut.
2) Separate categories of Best Picture. Last year, the Academy at least recognized that the Best Picture category is unfair when they expanded it from five to ten nominees, trying to broaden the category beyond the dominance of drama, but they should go further. The Dark Knight was a brilliant film that didn’t even get nominated because it was unmistakably action, while (500) Days of Summer was easily the most innovative romantic comedy of the decade, and was ignored for the same reason. Do it like the Grammys and Emmys, a “best of” for each category, so comedies and action movies can get their own well-deserved recognition. It would draw in a larger audience, those that didn’t get out to the independent theater in downtown but still check out Will Ferrel on NetFlix. While we’re at it, create a category for best independent film, too, because I’m sick of my art friends bitching about this.
3) Gratuitous explosions. Enough said.
4) Pick better hosts. I enjoy James Franco as much as the next average American (which is to say I don’t know who he is), but this crap needs to stop. Academy, stop degrading yourself. You’re like the woman in the club who’s pushing 40 so she gets out the spiked heels, tapes her breasts together and starts buying drinks for the guys at the bar. It’s pathetic, and this cycle of self-destruction must end. You will not attract a younger audience with these hosts, so stop booking them. Chris Rock didn’t get black people, Jon Stewart didn’t get the college crowd, and Steve Martin didn’t even get back your old audience (they all died 10 years ago…sorry). Instead, focus on steady choices, people that are entertainers, who are fun and exciting and controlled, and let the demographics be damned. Ellen DeGeneres was a great choice, and should be considered again. If you can create a solid program, Americans will watch it. Make a strong show, and you won’t need controversial hosts to generate interest.
5) Stop lecturing us! I said enough about this at the top, but it bares repeating. We put up with one ridiculously preachy movie from you chowderheads a year, that’s our courtesy to you, so don’t abuse it. The fact is, the acceptance speeches have gotten more preachy–George “Hollywood-Is-Responsible-For-The-Civil-Rights-Movement” Clooney, I’m looking at you–as have many of the presenters. Whatever the merits of Al Gore’s movie, when you give him unfiltered airtime to advance his theory you are essentially telling the American people that Hollywood is here to correct their politics, free their minds and save their souls, and that this is the official position of the Academy. I cannot imagine a more contemptuous attitude to take, or one will turn Americans away faster.
This is not a place for celebrities to voice their charity projects or make a statement, this is a time to celebrate achievements in film and to entertain, and everyone involved in the ceremony needs to understand that. I don’t want to hear about the Third World or whatever else these people do to assuage the guilt of whoring themselves for the last four months of publicity tours just to get here. Save that for Twitter. As far as I’m concerned we gave Oliver Stone a career, so we’re even. Put on your dancin’ shoes and do a two-step, that’s what you’re good at. I’ll take economic lessons from an actor as soon as I go see a movie made by an idiot who can barely conceive of a linear plot. And I’ve already seen “The Last Airbender,” so count me out.