The Autumn of the Oscars
To pick a representative year from my adolescence, in 1996 the academy nominated five movies for Best Picture — a classic-novel adaptation and romantic comedy in “Sense and Sensibility”; a historical epic-war movie in “Braveheart”; a work of can-do Americana in “Apollo 13”; and then an ingenious children’s movie in “Babe” and a foreign film in “The Postman” (“Il Postino”). The foreign movie made “only” about $21 million in domestic United States box office (still a large haul for a subtitled movie); the other four made about $354 million combined, with “Apollo 13” the easy leader. Adjusted for today’s ticket prices, that works out to well over $700 million in contemporary dollars between them …
… which is more than the total earned by the nine movies nominated for Best Picture in 2018. The winner, “The Shape of Water,” is the most popular trophy-getter in five years — and its current box office take is just $58 million.
What has happened in the intervening years is well known to everyone. The combination of a global audience (which doesn’t necessarily relate to a lot of old-Hollywood genres and tropes), the ease of substituting special-effects work for storytelling, the ascent of geek culture and the lure of online life and the flight of talent and viewers to the ever-expanding realm of prestige TV have turned Hollywood into a comic-book blockbuster industry with an Oscar-bait subsidiary.
The result is a cinematic common culture increasingly reduced to Marvel sequels and other genre remakes and reboots and spinoffs. Half the Top 10 highest-grossing movies in 2017 were superhero movies; you have to go 13 spots down the list, to Pixar’s “Coco,” to find a movie that isn’t based on a “presold” pop culture property. This is the landscape from which the academy has to pick its nominees, and it basically offers them a choice between mass-market mediocrity and the more rarefied fare that now dominates the Oscars.
Could the voters do a better job sifting through the reboot-remake mediocrity to find high-grossing jewels? Perhaps: A list of nominees for this year’s Oscars that included “Logan” and “Blade Runner: 2049” might have boosted the nominees’ popular appeal without sacrificing quality.
But there’s already been a respectable attempt to nominate the better genre efforts, from “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Arrival” (probably the best movies of their respective years) to this year’s garlands for the low-budget racial horror of “Get Out.” And there’s little to be gained from having the academy go down the same path as certain fanboy (or bullied-by-fanboys) critics and ask us all to pretend that “Wonder Woman” was more than just a fun vehicle for the charismatic Gal Gadot, or that “The Last Jedi” really deserves its absurd 90 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, or that Marvel’s assembly-line showcases are actually good movies the way “Sense and Sensibility” or “Apollo 13” or “Braveheart” were.
But the alternative to such a lowering of standards, as the sharp Hollywood observer Richard Rushfield notes, is an Oscars that increasingly resembles the Independent Spirit Awards — which in turn tends to politicize the awards beyond the movie business’s usual broadly liberal bent.