Did Politics Ruin the Oscars?

The Academy Awards are this weekend. Almost no one has even heard of the movies up for Best Picture.


If nothing else, the pandemic has shown us the weaknesses of our cultural and political institutions. 

Case in point, this year's Oscars. They have problems. Big problems. 

You can see those problems in the public's relationship to the movies up for best picture, the ceremony's top award. 

For one thing, it's not clear anyone has seen any of the movies nominated. For another, it's not even clear that anyone has heard of them. OK, fine, I don't actually mean anyone. I'm taking a little bit of dramatic license here. (I myself have somehow seen all eight of them.) But this is the biggest event on the Hollywood awards calendar, the biggest night of the year for Tinseltown. It's the night when America celebrates the movies. Yet this year, almost no one is paying attention. 

Polling data indicate shockingly low levels of awareness about this year's biggest nominees. Obviously, the pandemic is a factor. Most theaters in the United States were closed for the better part of 2020, and many big releases were delayed. As a result, there wasn't much marketing, either. The Hollywood hype machine effectively shut down. 

Even still, the numbers are dismal. Industry research firm Guts + Data surveyed 1,500 active entertainment consumers—in theory, folks who are plugged in and interested—and found fewer than half of those surveyed were aware of any of the nominees up for the big prize. These aren't necessarily bad movies: I'm quite enamored with the searching openness of Nomadland, this year's best picture front-runner, and the anxiety and empathy on display in The Father. Both Promising Young Woman and Mank are stylish and pointed. But will the quality of these films matter if no one tunes into this year's ceremony, which airs Sunday night? (Frankly, it's not clear how many people even know that.)

There is a real possibility that this year's show will be a historic bomb. Awards show ratings, from the Grammys to the Golden Globes, have taken a nosedive this year, for obvious and understandable reasons: It's hard to gin up much enthusiasm for glitz and glamour after a year when everyone has been stuck inside, the offerings have been slim and strange, and the usual glitz and glamour hardly shine through when most of the attendees are attending from their living rooms, via video conference, audio headaches included. Who wants another is-this-thing-muted? Zoom call in his life? 

Thankfully, this years Oscars won't be Sunday-night conference-call-of-the-stars. Director Steven Soderbergh apparently had it written into his contract that there would be no acceptance speeches from home. Sorry, Room Rater!

Even still, it will be a strange affair. The stars won't appear from their living rooms, but there will be no live studio audience, and speeches will be delivered at a handful of satellite studios strewn throughout the globe. Instead of a Zoom call, it will be a cable news split screen event, with everyone siloed in their own professionally produced boxes. The movies are supposed to bring people together; in the pandemic year, they're deliberately keeping people apart. 

In the process, the Academy Awards may separate themselves from viewers as well: If ratings for other recent awards ceremonies are any guide, Sunday's broadcast could easily lose half its audience versus last year. 

Oscar viewership, of course, has been slowly declining for the better part of two decades. The last peak years were 1998 and 2004, when Titanic and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won best picture, respectively. Whatever else you think of those movies—James Cameron's second-worst film and the third-best Lord of the Rings movie, respectively—they were huge, huge hits. 

This suggests a fairly obvious correlation: People tune into the ceremony when it's likely to honor movies they've seen. And, to reiterate my earlier point, no one—even consumers who claim to be interested in Hollywood's output—has even heard of the major nominees this year: According to the Guts + Data poll, just 18 percent of respondents were aware of Mank, this year's most nominated film. 

It's funny I should mention that movie, since it's about how Hollywood is smug, cynical, self-absorbed, and completely deluded about its own political relevance and purity. Of all the explanations for why the Oscars has failed to capture the public imagination in recent decades, this is the one that has received the most attention. 

And not without reason either. The films in contention have, by at least one count, become more political in recent years, and it's probably true that the discussion around those films has become more political, at least for the Extremely Online. Movies have become grist for the culture-war-take mill; I've ground out a few in my time. 

And then there are the speeches themselves, about which The New York Times recently had this to say: "Increasingly, the ceremonies are less about entertainment honors and more about progressive politics, which inevitably annoys those in the audience who disagree. One recent producer of the Oscars, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential metrics, said minute-by-minute post-show ratings analysis indicated that 'vast swaths' of people turned off their televisions when celebrities started to opine on politics."

Fair enough. People love to hate celebrity politics; at this point, hating celebrity politics may well be more popular than the Oscars.

But there is something else at work here too. The Oscars have always served—or at least aimed to serve—as a kind of institutional stamp of approval, a declaration, by united Hollywood decree, that this was the best movie, the best actress, the best elaborate Victorian ball gown (I'm sorry, the best costume), the most and loudest sound—and perhaps even the best sound as well. 

The definitiveness of these proclamations, handed down from on high by the mysterious people who make up the Academy, has always been an exaggeration, at best, and more accurately a Hollywood fiction foisted upon the world.

I don't mean to say that the awards and nominations never went to quality films, but frequently they went to awful or, worse, forgettable material. Green Book is a forgettable feel-good film. Crash, which won best picture in 2006, is no one's idea of a classic, unless you mean the 1996 David Cronenberg sex-and-auto-wrecks film that wasn't nominated. Without Googling, does anyone even remember what Lion, nominated for best picture just four years ago, was about? 

Too many Oscar nominees and winners are not only obviously not the year's best picture, they are obviously not the year's third-best picture, or even its seventeenth. Add to this the fact that the awards increasingly go to movies few have seen (or—and I must repeat myself—even heard of), and in recent years that fiction has begun to sag. In this pandemic year, in which major films that people might have heard of were largely delayed and theaters were mostly dark, it has collapsed entirely. 

The real problem with the Oscars, then, is not one the pandemic caused but one it revealed: The Academy pretended to know what was best, period. The whole idea was that it knew what was best for everyone. That was a pretense it could keep up when Hollywood was at least trying, on a regular basis, to make movies that had something like universal appeal, and weren't about superheroes—films, for example, like James Cameron's second-worst movie and the third-best Lord of the Rings film. Which, again, may not be great movies. But they were movies that practically everyone had heard of, that didn't feel like sermons, and that everyone—or an awful lot of people—could relate to, somehow or another. 

The third act complicator here is not so much politics, per se, but relevance. The Oscars are an institution, a kind of (privately held) public trust, and its success depends on providing some sort of value to ordinary people outside the bubble of diehards and professional moviemakers and viewers. To succeed, they must demonstrate some value, which means connecting with people who have a choice to tune out, to watch something else, to stream Disney+ or TikTok or chat on Clubhouse or Discord or record themselves killing 553 people with a fish in the video game Hitman 2. Netflix offers a homepage of personally tailored recommendations every day; the Oscars offer a handful of undifferentiated recommendations once a year. 

What this year's dismal awareness numbers suggest, then, is not only that Hollywood failed in an unusual year to market and P.R.-blitz viewers into some vague sense of what was up for the big awards, but that Hollywood has failed for years and years to supply enough value that potential viewers might seek out those films themselves. Political speeches that turn off viewers are merely an outgrowth of the underlying malady: the Academy Awards have become irrelevant. And the one thing a cultural institution cannot lose is its relevance. 

Movies are supposed to be a distraction from the turmoils of the world, a brief escape from the banality and difficulty of daily life. The whole point of the Oscars, and maybe the whole point of Hollywood, is to try to get people to pay attention—to the movies, to the celebrities, to the filmmakers, to the outfits, and even to the speeches and the causes. But this year, when a lot of people could really have used some form of escapism, they couldn't even do that. The institution failed.