How the Oscars work

Allan Lamb

As most of you may know, this Sunday is the 80th Annual Academy Awards ceremony. While the actors and filmmakers grace the red carpet flaunting their designer suits and dresses (of which the cost of one could pay off your student loans) as if anybody actually cares, everyone will be waiting to see and arguing about who is going to win. For the most part, however, the general public will know the winners before seeing the films.

All the movies with Oscar potential, pejoratively dubbed “Oscar-bait” by movie buffs, come out later in the year, sometimes at the last minute between Christmas and New Years Eve. This is so that the film’s release (although usually a limited one) is as close as possible to the ceremony while remaining eligible. The idea is that the movie can get all the publicity it needs with the Oscar hype, as the average person would not show any interest in such films otherwise, capitalizing on the prestige of the award. While this is a smart marketing technique, what does this say about the credibility of the award?

The award has always been accused of being more of a reflection of Hollywood politics than of artistic merit. This is particularly true of the four major awards: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Director.

This, along with the fact that studios lobby for their bait to be taken, only brings more controversy regarding the integrity of the award.

This year’s nominees are no different. They include many familiar names, not just familiar to the public, but to the nominee list. George Clooney, Joel and Ethan Coen, Paul Thomas Anderson, Tommy Lee Jones, Daniel Day-Lewis and Cate Blanchett, among others, are all nominated once again. The only new nominees are Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose), Juno director Jason Reitman, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly director Julian Schnabel and Ellen Page (Juno) for the major awards. This is also Viggo Mortensen’s first nomination, but he has been in the mix since The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

If it’s not one of the vogue names to pass around that’s nominated, it’s someone who’s old and has never won an Oscar, and the academy realizes that they actually probably deserve one before they die. However, this is regardless of whether they deserve it for the role they get it for. For example in 1999, Judi Dench won Best Supporting Actress for her cameo in Shakespeare in Love. Likewise, this year 83-year-old Hal Holbrook is nominated (his first ever) for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Into the Wild.

However, on a less cynical note, all of the mystery and controversy surrounding the nominations and selections is what gives the Academy Award its power over the general public. Whether or not one agrees with the chosen nominees and winners, anyone who cares will inevitably discuss them with their friends or get into heated arguments with strangers about them on IMDb’s message boards.

Regardless of whether the academy reflects mutual Hollywood fellatio or genuine artistic merit, there will always be people who disagree with the choices. Any award — regardless of its integrity — that carries an aura of prestige will always be met with opposition from the educated and uneducated alike. A good attitude for approaching the topic of the Oscars is not to expect an undebatable list of winners, but rather to view them as a starting point for an informed discussion about the art of film’s place as a medium and cultural force in our society.

Contact all editor Allan Lamb at [email protected].