As every entertainment junkie knows, the most fun thing about the Academy Awards is talking about them. All the speculative chatter — Is it Natalie Portman’s year? Is The Social Network an Oscar movie or too much of a heady/critical darling/digital generation movie? — may be the height of trivia, but it gives us all a (tiny) stake in the outcome, and it’s also a way of trying to nail down, each year, that elusive yet revealing thing that is the Hollywood Value System. Besides, the Oscars are still the ultimate media-buzz-industrial-complex horse race. Can True Grit, after getting snubbed by the Golden Globes, snag a nomination for Best Picture? How about 127 Hours, with its rave response from reviewers, its grisly (if transcendent) final twist, and its just-okay performance at the box office? And what about The Fighter? I personally think it’s a terrific movie, but did the media oversell it as a contender?
In the past, those might have been tasty questions to chew over. This year, however, I find myself having the same Oscar conversation — or, more to the point, giving the same Oscar answer — over and over again. It goes something like this:
YOU: Do you think True Grit will get nominated for Best Picture?
ME: Yes, I do. I’m not sure it would, though, if there were only five nominees. But with ten, it probably can’t miss.
YOU: What about 127 Hours?
ME: Same situation. With only five nominees, I’m almost certain it wouldn’t be nominated. With ten, I bet it will be.
YOU: How about Toy Story 3?
ME: Definitely! And it’s great that they’re finally nominating animated films for Best Picture. Of course, if there were only five nominees, I’m not sure Toy Story 3 would make it…
Do you sense a pattern here? And, what’s more, a certain creeping rhythm of ho-hum tedium? The decision to have ten Best Picture nominees, which was announced last year and is being continued this year, was made for a variety of well-documented reasons. The driving one, of course, was the desire to add more high-profile commercial movies into the mix — the kind of noteworthy popcorn pictures (e.g., The Dark Knight) that dominate the movie landscape more than ever before. For a variety of motives embedded deep in the mystery of Hollywood psychology (the need to keep artistic quality and the blockbuster mentality in separate categories, as if they were meat and milk; America’s 234-year-old inferiority complex about all things British; and so forth), a lot of people in the Academy still don’t want to think of big-ticket, comic-bookish fantasy hits as prestige “Oscar films.” And so this was supposed to be a way of shoehorning them into the ceremony. The driving motive behind that, of course, was to suck in younger viewers in order to up the ratings for the TV broadcast and, by extension, to maintain the once-Super Bowl-ish, everybody’s watching! global-juggernaut quality of the Oscar brand.
I have no problem with those goals, and will leave it to others to decide whether a slate of ten Best Picture nominees is accomplishing them. My point, however, is that ten nominees may be diminishing the Oscar brand in a subtler way: by making the Best Picture race less decisive and iconic and exciting — and, in effect, less competitive. In any given year (like, for instance, this year), it’s not as if there are that many good movies. A ten-film Best Picture slate can make it seem as if the Academy is giving a nod to … well, all of them. Sure, whether there are five nominees or ten, the contest itself usually comes down to either a sure thing or a horse race between the two top contenders. But with a slate of only five, the other nominees don’t feel nearly as much like tokens. As Dave Karger argued here last year, the ten nominees tend to break down fairly neatly between the five that would have made it on their own and the “extra” five, which increasingly feel like slightly lowly charity choices. And I’m hardly the first observer to point out that the grand irony of the ten Best Picture nominee experiment is that it probably expanded the field less to prestige popcorn movies (which was the whole point) than to medium-profile indies. Sure, Inception and Toy Story 3 will be up there this year. But more than ever, that over-bulging roster threatens to make the Oscars look like a gilded version of the Independent Spirit Awards.
The real problem, of course, is that it quietly diminishes what an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture means. In the past, when all of us speculated about what the nominees would be, then chattered and prognosticated a few months later about what got snubbed and what would win, we were able to ruminate away because the system forced Hollywood to put its money where its mouth was: to declare, with five choices, what it valued most. Now, with ten choices, the Academy can pretend, in effect, that it values everything. Even if that’s really a way of valuing everything a little less.
So what do you think? Are you, like me, already weary of the ten Best Picture era? Or do you think that it really does make the Academy Awards more democratic and intoxicating? Does it make you want to watch the show all the more? Or does it subtly encourage you to tune out?