Remind Me Never to Watch the Oscars Again

The Academy Awards were even more of a shitshow than usual this year. This is Jacobin’s last Oscars article, because we will find better things to do with our lives than watch that garbage.

The Green Boo' team onstage at the 91st Academy Awards ceremony on Feb. 24. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

A few salient facts on the 91st Academy Awards:

The Death of Stalin, perhaps the greatest film to play in the United States in 2018, wasn’t even nominated for an award, not even for one of those categories the power players don’t really care about and treat as token awards, like Best Screenplay. It got shortlisted for “consideration” for a nomination, if you can follow all that, for Best Original Score, but didn’t make the cut.

And Sorry to Bother You, Boots Riley’s glorious barn-burner of a film, was also shut out. Riley, full of the massive tolerance of a person with real politics who’s too good for the Academy Awards anyway, and who just won a Film Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature the night before, said the movie wasn’t nominated because there was no attempt to campaign for it, no endeavor to “create a buzz” with the ever-clueless Academy voters. It figures — if there’s no campaign, no glossy “For Your Consideration” promotional materials to shove films into their faces, these six thousand members can’t find them. It seems they can’t find their asses with their twelve thousand hands.

So as always when it comes to the Oscars, fuck that shitshow.

Admittedly the show made for pretty delightful next-day reading. For example, there was Spike Lee’s reaction to the farcical Best Picture Award going to Green Book, a classic American film about how a white guy repeatedly saves a black guy from violent racists and, most importantly when dealing with racism in Hollywood movies, has his own consciousness raised. This film beat Lee’s BlacKKKlansman, just as Driving Miss Daisy — about a black chauffeur working for a white woman who’s a racist but has her consciousness raised — won Best Picture and beat Lee’s Do the Right Thing back in 1990.

Lee threw up his hands furiously and attempted to stalk out of the theater, but was stopped by security goons who made him go back to his seat. Lee’s terrific one-liner: “Every time somebody drives someone, I lose.”

But there are consolations among the rich and famous: Spike Lee got to hang out with his new Brooklyn homegirl bestie Barbra Streisand at the Governors Ball afterwards. The Los Angeles Times reports:

Lee and Streisand — the latter of whom apparently contacted the academy to request she introduce “BlacKkKlansman,” her favorite movie of the year — huddled close for about 20 minutes as he downed a glass of champagne and kissed her hand repeatedly. She admired his Love/Hate gold knuckle rings and asked to hold his Oscar for a joint photo.

When Streisand introduced BlacKKKlansman at the Awards show, she wore a sequined black beret in some sort of addled Hollywood homage to those fabulously styling Black Panthers. She praised the film for the way it tells the truth, “which is something we all need so much right now.”

Unfortunately, the highly fictionalized BlacKKKlansman doesn’t tell the truth, and is its own nightmare of neoliberalism. It’s a celebration of real-life cop Ron Stallworth, a black rookie who sought advancement in the ultra-white 1970s Colorado Springs Police Department by infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan. You can inquire of Boots Riley how Lee’s film glosses over the more damning biographical info, such as the fact that Stallworth infiltrated the Klan only after spending a number of years working with COINTELPRO, infiltrating in order to undermine left-wing movements.

Yeah, America is in such deep shit we may never see daylight again. How’s that Academy Award-winning song sung by Lada Gaga go? “We’re far from the shallows now!”

I admit there’s a perverse glee of looking at the tryhard fancy-dress rich people wear that costs more than most people make in a year and still looks terrible — for example, this year’s favorite choice of vomitous shades of pink for gowns and tuxes. And there’s always the occasional delight in some mad movie star acting out like Norma Desmond. (Faye Dunaway, where are you?) But other than that, the one use for the Academy Awards is contemplating America’s attempt to showcase itself to the world and making an inadvertently revealing, wealth-and-fame-worshipping mess of it year after year.

The Oscars are a reliable travesty. The show itself, starting from 1953 when they started broadcasting it on TV, was always a psychotic endeavor, trying to be too many things at once to do any of them coherently — awards contest, variety show, fashion show, and glamorous party spied on by the uninvited hoi polloi. Oh, and dead last in emphasis though always sold as the main reason for the show, it’s supposedly a means of celebrating the art and craft of the film medium that is inevitably undercut by the fact that crappy mediocre films win all the time.

There are a thousand published lists of “Worst Best Picture Winners,” and everyone has their favorite outrageous example. Mine is poor old Martin Scorsese’s status as the Most Robbed Director as far as Best Picture awards, for two of his film masterpieces that didn’t win: Raging Bull lost to Ordinary People in 1980, and Goodfellas lost to Dances With Wolves in 1990.

But there are no real surprises here. Especially if you know any Academy members, you know exactly how seriously voting is treated overall. They hand off their screeners to pals, they ask their kids to vote, they vote without seeing half the films, and other notorious don’t-give-a-shit behaviors. The notion that the Academy is, as a body, dedicated to celebrating the greatness of the film medium and the talented people who work in film and revere it, got wonderfully exposed for the bullshit it is when the decision was made to cut the Cinematography and Editing awards from the televised show.

Cinematography and editing define the medium itself, for those who were wondering why cinephiles around the world freaked out and forced the Academy to restore those awards to the show at the last minute.

Of course, if you know the actual sordid history of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, you aren’t shocked when nothing good ever comes of it. (Other than maybe Olivia Colman winning Best Actress for The Favorite. Occasionally the Academy trips up and accidentally does something right.)

Pay no attention to most accounts of the origins of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). Almost all of them trot out the most bogus PR releases cribbed from AMPAS’ own account. Here’s one randomly chosen account leading off in typically gullible fashion:

The Academy Awards, popularly known as the Oscars, are the most prominent movie awards in the United States and most watched awards ceremony in the world. In 1927, shortly after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was incorporated, a dinner was held in the Crystal Ballroom of the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles to discuss the goals of the new organization. One of those goals was to find a method of honoring outstanding achievements, thereby encouraging higher levels of quality in all areas of motion picture production….

Luckily, David Thompson, critic and author of The New Biographical History of Film who’s called for the Academy Awards to be put down like a rabid dog, provided the inside story of the impetus behind creating the organization. Louis B. Mayer, legendarily monstrous head of MGM during the studio era heyday, decided he wanted a lavish beach house built almost overnight. He planned to commandeer studio labor to do it: key crew people to head up work teams and then hire non-union labor for the rest.

The head of design at the studio, Cedric Gibbons, drew up some plans and the production manager, Joe Cohn, worked out a schedule for building it—in six weeks. For that they’d need three shifts of laborers a day, working round-the-clock….[B]ut there was a catch. The studios were about to sign an agreement with the union that looked after studio laborers (soon to be known as the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees). Those guys had secure rates of pay, with overtime. That house was going to cost if studio labor built it. So Cohn suggested using just a few skilled people from the studio and then outsourcing cheap labor….But Mr. Mayer was worried. Until this very practical example, he had never quite appreciated the deal made with these carpenters, painters, electricians, et cetera. He began to dread the day when those other people—the so-called talent: the actors, the directors, and worst of all the writers—got the union idea in their heads.

Since paying union rates across the board would really cut into studio profits as well as his future beach house money, Mayer came up with an idea. How about an organization that represented itself as dealing with labor issues, while at the same time actually working to promote both studio management interests and the wholesome values of Hollywood to the larger world in showy bursts of favorable PR. It was 1926, and big Hollywood scandals involving wild parties, drug addiction, rape, and murder were starting to bother the general movie-going public.

AMPAS was an inspiration! And the “Arts and Sciences” part of the name was particularly smart, as Thomson put it, “because it made you think the Academy had always been there, arranged by God and Harvard and Albert Einstein.”

Of course, once the Depression hit, the unionization drive couldn’t be put down, and the various unions and guilds were all created anyway and began advocating for higher wages and health benefits and pensions and all the other drains on profit that Mayer had feared. But it was the thought that counted, and AMPAS has gone on trying to sell us on the excellence of Hollywood’s films and the wonderful values they represent ever since. Actually the most surprising thing is, even as the audience numbers for the awards show continue to fall every year, how many people keep buying it.

Oh and did you notice there was no Oscars host this year? Yeah, I didn’t care either.