Why you should cut awards season some slack

Screen

Criticism of the film-world is rife in the period between late November and the Academy Awards ceremony around the end of February. For some, this time is the height of Hollywood’s self-congratulation, praising a familiar collection of names – actors, writers and producers – and treating the already immensely rich to yet more decadence and luxury. For others, it is too political, or else too commercial – the members of the various voting bodies find their decisions dictated more by the hand-shaking and brown-nosing of the contenders than the merits of the films themselves. Many find their favourite films ignored by the major awards, either because they are too niche and indie, or because they have been shut out for more complicated reasons.

But the awards season has a romantic appeal that outweighs its flaws and makes it a compelling aspect for the world of the media. The broadcast and reporting of the ceremonies, and the rampant, lively speculation that leads up to them, serve as an insight into the often-distant world of Hollywood, and allows its worker bees to gain tangible recognition. Critical praise and word of mouth often applaud the merits of a screenplay, a score or sound mixing, but the people behind them rarely have a voice themselves, and aren’t afforded the same attention that the bigger names garner. Awards season gives the engineers of a film a chance to be seen and heard, rather than just being represented by their work. It adds to the public’s understanding of the broad range of talents required to make a good film.

Of course, the greatest interest always revolves around the biggest awards, for actors and actresses, directors and the best films. Here, awards-sceptics often find that their taste is what makes awards season so irritating. The Golden Globes, the BAFTAs or the Oscars don’t necessarily cater for those who don’t favour worthy biopics, historical dramas or famous directors. It is fair to say that the Oscars don’t always pick out the best film, or the most popular film, but to adopt such a wild antagonism towards these ceremonies for not aligning with personal tastes is pointless. It is a misunderstanding of what the season is for. Given that voting bodies are, believe it or not, made up of people too, such hostility places the opinion of the individual over the consensus of the many.

Yes. The Oscars, voted for by the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and so often by friends and colleagues supporting each other, are a show of Hollywood’s rich and influential patting themselves on the back. But for the cinema-going public, they don’t have to be so cloying and smug. Like the very films they celebrate, they are insights into another world; it is a world that is partly accessible to us, but one that we often romanticise and think of as impenetrable.

Narratives form, heroes and villains emerge, and we watch as other people live out fantasies in victory and disappointments in defeat.

Enough films have been made about the filmmaking industry to show that awards season is an intriguing phenomenon – when we watch it, we can be drawn in by the characters and the underdogs, and let others feed their narcissism without endorsing it or caring.

Because that’s what the whole thing is about: entertainment. Even if the ceremonies are televised for publicity and commercial benefit, they are only watched for amusement and distraction. The lesser awards, which don’t make it to our screens, are seen to have greater integrity, but are less popular in the same way people prefer the X Factor to the History Channel. The fact that the hosting job is such a hotly debated and contested feature is telling. Ellen DeGeneres was widely accepted to have injected the Oscars ceremony with energy last year, even though her most popular stunt, that Oscar selfie, was later revealed as a huge advertisement for Samsung. When Ricky Gervais upset Hollywood’s masturbatory mood at the Golden Globes for three years running, his savage jibes and abuse made for a far more appealing show. In that particular aftermath, the cinema’s glitterati were left fuming, but the wider audience were satisfied.

Awards ceremonies also give their winners chances to make statements that will be heard, and more importantly listened to by a large audience. Protests at the Oscars have included George C. Scott’s rejection of the whole institution when he declined both his nomination in 1962 for The Hustler and his win in 1971 for Patton, and Marlon Brando’s pro-Native American stand in 1972. In the latter case, a contentious issue in the film industry was brought into the middle of the public gaze, and, although for some it has fallen amongst the artificial shocks used to energise a lengthy show, it has heightened our sensitivity towards the portrayal of Native Americans in film.

In a more sedate manner, winners of awards have been able to speak to the public and inspire a demographic often protected or scorned for being malleable. Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto and, most of all, Lupita Nyong’o impressed in last year’s Academy Awards, not only for their performances but also for their eloquent acceptance speeches, which weren’t merely a slew of thanks and feigned humility, but instead contained sincerity and depth. For every drunken presenter or ill at ease legend of yesteryear trotted out onto the stage, there is a Nyong’o or a McConaughey to bring some class to the proceedings.

The awards season is self-congratulatory and far, far too long, but it is also a wonderful show. If you approach it with cynicism, you are bound not to be entertained, but if you go in with an open mind, it can be fun and compelling. And, with the exception of certain conspicuously left-field (or wrong) decisions, from Golden Globe nominations for Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie for the undeniably rubbish The Tourist, to the Oscar victory of Crash over Brokeback Mountain in 2006, the awards tend to go to the deserving candidates.

If someone criticises awards season because the awards don’t go where they want them, they are failing to grasp the subjectivity of cinema. Awards season isn’t about who wins, it is about how they win. It is a show designed for entertainment and money, which can sometimes carry a political or social message. And isn’t that just what cinema is too?

 

PHOTO/Fox Searchlight Pictures