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What do the Oscars mean?

Tonight's the night - or so Hollywood would have you believe

By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / February 22, 2009
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Another Academy Awards, another season of surly moviegoer discontent. Every year the Oscars come in for heavy lumps from one group or another. Foreign-language and documentary fans rage that the peculiarities of Academy rules render acclaimed films ineligible. A film will be nominated for best picture but not the man or woman who made it, leading to outcries such as Billy Crystal's 1992 onstage cri de coeur for Barbra Streisand and "The Prince of Tides": "Seven nominations on the shelf/Did this film direct itself?"

Then there are the pop culture juggernauts the Academy always seems ashamed to honor. At least movies like "Jaws," "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," and "Star Wars" have been nominated for best picture, and occasionally a "Titanic" or a "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" will take the prize. But this year's snub of "The Dark Knight" in the picture, director, and adapted screenplay categories seems calculated to alienate mainstream audiences and ratings-conscious network executives. Once again moviegoers and pundits wonder: Are the Oscars relevant any more?

Wrong question. The one that should be asked is: Why did anyone ever think they were relevant?

The Academy Awards are generally perceived and promoted as an imprimatur of quality, the film industry's way of stamping their finest product Grade-A. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Oscars are in fact a popularity contest designed not to award good movies but movies that make the film industry look good. The mission is public relations, and it is as old as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences itself. The difference is that what was once an intentional directive has been absorbed into the subconscious of Academy voters and the culture at large. We're better people for making these movies, these awards say, and you'll be better for watching them.

A little history: The Academy was found ed because Louis B. Mayer wanted to build a beach house. Because he was king of all he surveyed, the head of MGM wanted to use his studio labor force for construction, but a recent union agreement rendered MGM workmen prohibitively expensive.

Mayer seethed. A rabid anti-unionist, he decided the front office needed to organize to fight collective bargaining, and the more studios that jumped on board, the bigger their stick would be. Just to disguise the wolf as a sheep, why not call the new entity something high-minded, like an "academy"? After a few preliminary meetings, the "International Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences" was born on Jan. 11, 1927, at a banquet attended by 36 of the industry's leading citizens, including superstar Mary Pickford, director Cecil B. DeMille, comedian Harold Lloyd, and Jack and Harry Warner. No mention was made of handing out prizes.

The mission statement produced a few months later did mention awards in passing: "[The Academy] will encourage the improvement and advancement of the arts and sciences of the profession by the interchange of constructive ideas and by awards of merit for distinctive achievement." Mostly, though, the infant Academy existed A) to convince state censors, Washington senators, and media bluenoses that Hollywood turned out art rather than sin and scandal and B) to function as the studio heads' in-house union in the fight against outside groups like Actors' Equity.

People liked the idea of prizes, though, and in late 1928 nominations rolled in for a February 1929 awards ceremony. Right out of the gate, there was a movie considered "too popular" for inclusion - "The Jazz Singer," that talkie sensation, was ruled ineligible for awards because of fears it would overshadow the silent-movie majority. If there had been any press coverage, this might have been the "Dark Knight" scandal of its day.

There were other traditions established that first year. Host Douglas Fairbanks pleaded in vain for winners to keep their acceptance speeches short. Since Charlie Chaplin and "The Circus" hadn't won anything, the comedian was given an extra award for being a genius - the first "special Oscar" to correct an egregious oversight. The following year would see the first Oscar campaign when Pickford invited the Academy board of judges to dinner at her mansion. (It worked; she won best actress for 1929's "Coquette.")

And, too, there was the first sign of tension between commerce and class, a tension the Oscars have yet to resolve 80 years later. "Wings," the smash-hit WWI dogfight movie, won the first Academy Award for best picture, or "Best Production" as it was then called. Winning the "Artistic Quality of Production" award - the art-house prize, for all intents and purposes - was "Sunrise," F.W. Murnau's poetic fable about a married couple rediscovering their love for each other.

The following year the two categories were folded into "Best Production," and ever since the Oscars have wobbled insecurely between reflecting what Academy voters think is the best movie of the year and what they want us to think they think is the best movie of the year.

Out of that conflict have come hugely popular best picture winners ("It Happened One Night," "Gone With the Wind," "Casablanca," "The Sting," "Titanic"), artful "little" movies ("Marty," "Rocky," "Annie Hall," "Chariots of Fire"), a love of Hollywood gigantism ("Ben-Hur," "Around the World in 80 Days") and arrant corn ("Going My Way," "The Greatest Show on Earth," "Braveheart"). There have even been the occasional confluences of craft, success, and the highest art: "On the Waterfront," "Lawrence of Arabia," "The Godfather."

And there have been a lot of best picture winners that seemed like a really good idea at the time and that more than anything else reflect Oscar's love of middlebrow movies about Important Things. These go as far back as "Cavalcade," the 1933 winner about a British family living through the turmoil of recent history, and are as recent as "Forrest Gump," the 1994 winner about a backward boy living through the turmoil of recent history.

They include Great Man films like "The Life of Emile Zola," "Gandhi," and "Amadeus," and stories of emotional and mental struggle like "Rain Man" and "A Beautiful Mind." They heal war wounds ("The Best Years of Our Lives," "The Deer Hunter," "Platoon,") and deal with America's racial issues ("Dances With Wolves," "Driving Miss Daisy," "Crash"). Taken out of their zeitgeist context, many of these movies have aged dreadfully, and to think of "Dances With Wolves" in the same breath as, say, "The Godfather" boggles the mind.

What none of these best picture winners involve, though, are people running around with capes and masks. Academy voters will stoop to the pleasures of genre but only if they're musical ("An American in Paris" to "Chicago"), or come dressed in historical costumes ("Shakespeare in Love," "Gladiator"), or are directed by a filmmaker whose time in the spotlight has come ("The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," "The Departed," "No Country for Old Men").

So, no, "The Dark Knight" never stood a chance of getting a best picture nomination because it's a superhero movie and therefore can't say anything in a way Academy voters are equipped to hear. Same goes for "WALL-E," a brilliantly conceived and executed cinematic experience in kids-pic clothing.

Instead we have a Great Man movie ("Milk") that also happens to be very, very good, a Tragic Great Man movie ("Frost/Nixon") about two men in chairs, a Holocaust drama ("The Reader") with an extremely problematic moral message (Nazi death camp guards need love, too), and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," which one-ups "Forrest Gump" by being about a boy who lives backward through the turmoil of recent history.

And then there's "Slumdog Millionaire," the oddity, this year's "Chariots of Fire," the no-star drama that stands to win best picture only because it's the one movie enough people are actually enthusiastic about. Still, if Danny Boyle had set the film in the slums of Detroit, do you think it would be up for all those awards?

Ultimately, Oscar means nothing more than what sort of statement voters want to make at the instant they fill out their ballots. Rather than a standard of eternal cinematic excellence, the awards are a snapshot of a cultural millisecond - a reflection, not a summation, of the pop moment. They say everything about how Hollywood sees the world and very little about the movies they're meant to honor.

81st Academy Awards
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