The Academy of Motion Pictures is a gang of pretentious snobs. We knew that, of course, but its brazen hypocrisy comes into the forefront with their much bally-hooed celebration of James Bond’s 50th anniversary at this year’s Oscar celebration. They’re talking about bringing all six Bond actors out, and even if they don’t, I’m sure the moment will be a highlight of the ceremony. That still doesn’t cover up the fact that the Academy treats Bond – and by extension, popular films of any sort – like an embarrassment instead of the cinematic history he represents.
Why? Skyfall did not receive a Best Picture nomination. That may not sound like a big deal, but considering the way the Oscars is currently set up, its absence becomes an active affront.
Let’s start with a little background. After the 2008 Oscars, the Academy announced that they would expand the roster of Best Picture nominees from five to “up to ten.” They did this in response to the uproar created when The Dark Knight failed to earn a Best Picture nod, despite universal acclaim, serious themes and the kind of maturity that only the greatest directors in the world can exercise.
By changing the rules, the Academy could presumably honor such films in the future without actually having to give them the win. In other words, they could better hide their hypocrisy and elitism by throwing a bone to more popular genres. Since they couldn’t drop any middlebrow piffle from their honorees, expanding the roster instead of actually judging the films more fairly made sense.
(And before we move on, a last word about The Dark Knight. Yes, it did win a major award that year – Best Supporting Actor for Heath Ledger. But as brilliant as he was and as richly as the performance deserved it, there’s no way he would have won were he still among the living. Not. A. Prayer.)
At the time, they drew serious criticism for the idea. Observers argued, quite reasonably, that instead of honoring action films, comedies, science fiction and the like, the Academy would just elevate more of the same pretentious dramas they always have. Only now, with more slots to fill, they would reach further down the scale to find movies even less deserving of the honor. Popular genres would be left out again, shoved aside by panting slices of award bait and unimportant “important” movies that appear to say a lot without actually saying anything at all.
The first year after the announcement, those predictions seemed unfounded. Among the ten nominees for Best Picture that year were two sci-fi films – Avatar and District 9 – as well as Pixar’s Up. Sure, they all came from previous Oscar darlings, but they were each well-regarded, insanely popular, and had something worthwhile to say about the human experience. (How well they said it is a matter of some debate.) It looked for a moment like things really would change, and that the Academy would stay true to its word. 2010 looked bleaker, but still had some stand-outs. Toy Story 3 scored a Best Picture nod, in keeping with Pixar’s rep, and the Academy gave Christopher Nolan’s Inception a slot almost as an apology to Nolan for slighting him over The Dark Knight.
Then came 2011, and suddenly, the ruse was over.
In first place, only nine films were nominated that year, not 10 as was the case in the previous two Oscars. This came about because of the Academy’s Byzantine rules which demand a certain “critical mass” of votes in order to earn a nomination. And that wouldn’t be a problem… save for the fact that the Academy would apparently rather run with an empty slot than nominate something outside of their “important” bubble. Not a single genre film made the list that year: no horror movies, no sci-fi, no screwball comedies, no romance. Instead, we were treated to overhyped junk like The Descendants and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close… along with a blank spot to let “lesser” genres know their place.
That’s especially galling in light of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 which came out that year to the same kinds of praise and thoughtfulness that The Dark Knight enjoyed. It currently sits at 96% on Rotten Tomatoes – a higher rating than all but one of the actual 2011 Best Picture nominees – and, more importantly, represented the Academy’s last chance to acknowledge the impact of the Harry Potter franchise. They set a high standard over eight films, and will in all likelihood continue to be watched, enjoyed and talked about well after many Best Picture winners have faded into oblivion. It was the Academy’s last chance to make a gesture: their only remaining opportunity to say yes, cinema would be a poorer place without Harry Potter. They had a spot on the roster, they had critical and popular success, they had an almost assured legacy that would last for decades. So what did they do? Turned it down flat. “Sorry guys. We don’t care how much you’ve touched people or what you have to say about the human condition. Your movie involves wizards and dragons, and is therefore beneath our attention. Now fuck off, we have unwatchable turds about 9/11 to lionize.”
This brings us back to Skyfall, currently undergoing the exact same snubbing that Deathly Hallows did last year. Once again, the Oscars nominated nine films for Best Picture instead of 10. Once again, there wasn’t a single genre film in its ranks. And once again, a spot was left empty on the podium, despite a truly terrific motion picture that represents a significant part of the canon. It features an Oscar-winning director and two Oscar-winning actors. It has garnered near universal praise. It delves more substantively into an iconic character than ever before, and has a few surprisingly complex things to say about the nature of good and evil. And it arrives on the 50th anniversary of its franchise… the most successful of all time. Oscar couldn’t ignore the milestone completely, nor could it wish away James Bond’s abiding popularity over those long decades. But presented again with a golden opportunity to make a substantive gesture, they once again looked down their noses at it. “Sure, we’ll give you a montage in the show and maybe that song will score a win. But Best Picture? Come on, that’s meant for real movies.”
This isn’t meant to disparage the Academy’s choices this year. It’s a strong field with a good five or six films that genuinely deserve the top spot. The issue isn’t what they’ve done with those nine nominees. The issue is why they ignored a tenth. Having set this farce in motion, and having publicly stated their intentions, the embarrassing failure to honor them for the second year in a row only compounds how bankrupt the Oscars have become as an institution. They understand nothing of the medium that they presume to honor and their slavish adherence to unchallenging prestige pictures costs them dearly… especially when real movie history passes right by their noses. We’ve always known these things, but the rules change has made them exceedingly clear. Stop pretending you matter, Oscars, and stop whining when your ratings keep declining. You can pay attention to the movies – all of the movies, not just the ones you consider “important” – or you can watch the medium you presume to honor leave you on the ash heap of history.