Tag Archives: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

The Broken Prototype of “The Best”

It makes no sense to ask a sentient person to choose one “winner” from a list of films originating out of different narrative forms.

Awarding “best” for this or that in the arts—including film—is beginning to seem like a tired fiction we should be willing to give up. Perhaps never winning ribbons in my grade school’s field days soured me forever. But the annual cycle of film industry awards that has just concluded with the Oscars seems out of wack.  The obvious reason we already know is that individual efforts that result in vastly different projects are not directly comparable. A person only allows themselves to swallow this fiction if they want to indulge in the fantasy that only one can be “the best.”  There may be justifications for defining winners in sports competitions and hot dog eating, but not in the arts.

There is simple solution that preserves the important function of celebrating outstanding work in film, theater, writing and music. As is usually done now, use ballots of professionals to vote on those five or six colleagues or projects whose efforts seem especially praiseworthy. That’s what yields the nominations that set up Oscar night run by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  Thousands of members in 18 separate divisions vote those they deem worthy of recognition.

At that point, the process should stop.

Build an event praising all of those folks who were selected. The remainder of the A-list party at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles could then celebrate the work of more of their peers. Among the advantages is that small-budget and outlier films will not suffer from expensive Oscar campaigns  to secure votes.

In simple terms, it makes no sense to ask a sentient person to compare and choose one “winner” from a list of films that function in different narrative universes, including from this year: Barbie (a deceptively warm thumb in the eye to patriarchy), Oppenheimer (historical biography), and Poor Things (revisionist science fiction). The final list of category nominees could still be honored with brief clips and a few words from one of the persons who helped guide the project to the short list.

The Oscars Presentation is a National Touchstone

The pressure to turn the Oscars into a winner-takes-all game show game show is beneath what a serious art form should want. The process lowers the proceedings to something akin to Family Feud in tuxedos. It also suggests that money matters to the Academy more than pure art: not quite the idea of Ars Gratia Artis emblazoned above the old MGM logo.

An altered format that shuns the idea of a single winner also means that as the evening progresses, more of the attendees will not have been identified as losers, in a ratio of about ten to one. To the credit of the nominated actors and the heads of crafts departments, most still manage to take their defeat with admirable grace.

There’s also a bigger point here. Organizations everywhere end up adapting some of the strategies and assumptions of the Oscars for their own dress-up formal events. The event is a cultural touchstone. I’ve seen the outlines of the template within the events of college organizations, national academic conferences, variety shows, and even grade school assemblies. The ersatz point in these events is to identify a stand-out “winner” who will carry home a new piece for the mantel, leaving those looking on to suppress their disappointment.

It isn’t that we should skip the idea of acknowledging great achievers. The more unchallengeable point is that we should not be forced to choose between diverse projects. If we really think the broken Oscars works as it is, then we should have no problem putting our stamp of approval on the single “best:

– Family member

-Round fruit

– Painting in New York’s Metropolitan Museum

– Jazz musician living or dead

– Scout in troop 25

– Faith tradition

All of these as singular choices are clearly absurd, even though there is a hopelessly flawed part of us that loves manufactured competitions. I know: as things stand, nothing will move  the Academy to change its rules for the next big night, other than to make it flow better as a game show. It is in the American nature to celebrate individuals over groups. In addition, film producers want to spend a big portion of their budgets on promotion. Since many have already gambled in spite of terrible odds, the chance to become a winner is too tempting to pass up.

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The Red Carpet to Uncertainty

Awards ceremonies have the unintended effect of creating disappointment in celebrants who may not be celebrated.

The Oscars always loom large in February.  As the cliché goes, it is an American version of a coronation ceremony.  We may not have royalty to fawn over, but Hollywood celebrities can be suitable substitutes.

The event is interesting for another reason. Rhetoricians relish finding underlying verbal routines in recurring forms of discourse: certain generic forms of content and presentations that endure. And the annual awards given by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will not disappoint.  It seems that this peculiar spectacle has influenced how we stage many other humbler efforts at group recognition.  If you are associated with any organization, you know that there will be annual rituals to honor donors, participants and achievers.  And in many cases the format may have the same “deep structure” as the annual event held in the Dolby Theater in Hollywood.  In a university setting these kinds of celebrations include graduation, departmental awards given to students, awards to faculty and staff, and recognition of athletic prowess.  The form also survives at end-of-the-year dinners put together by all kinds of organizations, academic and business units, non-profit groups ready to woo more contributors, and even gatherings of pint-sized grade schoolers. We all have our Oscar moments.

It’s best if you can give award recipients a shiny object.  If the organization’s finances are leaner, a computer-generated certificate may have to do.

Any dress-up event includes most of the benchmarks of the form.

True, few of us show up at these events wearing a tuxedo. Indeed, universities have cleverly covered up the shabby clothes of their professors with academic robes.  But any dress-up event includes most of the benchmarks of the form: general praise for the work of the organization from the events’ host, anticipation focused on the honorifics that will be issued from the stage at the front of the room, awards introduced with just a hint of suspense, and the promise of witnessing the surprise of individuals as they chosen for special recognition.  The form is completed when the recipient stumbles to find dutiful praise for as many as possible.

Becoming an Also-Ran

These faux Oscars are usually defended as morale-boosting exercises.  And, to be sure, the award recipients must love them. But there is a downside as well.  As Kenneth Burke reminds us, ‘in unification there is also division.’ The problem is that, for every award winner, there is usually a much larger number of possible candidates who will become de-facto also-rans. If a university department singles out a few students at graduation for special honors, I am always reminded that there are many more who can’t help but feel they were unfairly bypassed. Similarly, make one person “employee of the year,” and there are bound to be others in the room who wonder why their contributions were overlooked.  The ratio of “winners” to slightly annoyed attenders can easily be 1 to 400: a real rhetorical effect that is often overlooked.

The point is a simple one: awards ceremonies have the unintended effect of creating disappointment in the celebrants who might have been, but were not, celebrated. I know, because I still remember those spring “field days” in grade school where the blue ribbons went to the fastest kids. The rest of us settled for the grey “participation” ribbons given to anyone who showed up.