Awards season is a time of traditions. Opinions will be shared passionately, actors will desperately campaign for attention while simultaneously claiming they don’t care about winning, critics will squabble over their respective circle’s winners, someone will get a touch too drunk at the Golden Globes, an actress will come close to massacring the entire E! News team over yet another sexist question about her dress, and we’ll all wake up the next day after the Oscars with headaches and suspect levels of satisfaction. It’s what makes the entire spiel as fun as it is needlessly exhausting. You go through the motions because you secretly love being a part of this arbitrary nonsense, even as you insist it’s all meaningless.
There is one relatively recent tradition I could do without. Every year, some time between the Golden Globes and the Oscars, publications like The Hollywood Reporter give us special insights into the thought processes behind anonymous Academy voters, who share their ballots and explain their choices. You’ve probably read a few of them in your time, or you’ve at least seen the social media responses to some of the cattier and more bigoted explanations. Some standout moments from years past include the various voters who seem proud to admit they didn’t see everything nominated, the ones who don’t know or care about technical categories enough to make a choice, the one dude who said ‘I know a girl who only has sex with animators’, the voter who decided not to vote for Star Trek Beyond as Best Make-Up and Hairstyling because the screener DVD she was sent didn’t work and they never sent a replacement, and one voter who excitedly proclaims how much she now loves ‘that black woman’ Taraji P. Henson after seeing Hidden Figures, because before that point, they hated how she always seemed to be posing. This year, we’ve already heard gaggles of gossip from voters on how Get Out is too genre for the Oscars, and there’s no need to nominate Call Me By Your Name because they already did ‘the gay thing’ last year.
Such ballots can serve a purpose. They illuminate the sheer dinosaur nature of the Academy, an institute for whom the average voter is still a 60 something white man. We didn’t exactly need confirmation that this bloc of people were prone to making backwards decisions with faulty reasoning: That’s how Ron Howard won an Oscar over Robert Altman and David Lynch. Still, looking at how these various nameless individuals seem bound together by sheer ego and ignorance does remind us that yes, the Oscars are ultimately a bit daft. The big issues come with how we perceive these ballots and the skewed perceptions it gives the rest of us in judging not only what is and what isn’t an awards worthy movie, but what constitutes a good film in the first place.
I’ve heard the argument that, even under the cloud of anonymity, sharing these ballots and exposing the pure arrogance behind them is a helpful form of industry-wide shaming. It seems like the only way anything gets done in Hollywood is through public embarrassment - look at what it took to get the business to recognize that harassment is a thing and we should maybe stop rewarding the people who perpetrate it. I question this argument. Being anonymous covers most of the shame, and there’s hardly a chance for such individuals to really question why they make the choices they do when every other anonymous ballot is doing the same thing. It ultimately becomes nothing more than perpetual back-slapping.
The major problem with these ballots, as tiresome and repetitive as they are, is that they’re part of a bigger awards season issue that sees everyone buy into the same old arguments and support the same old films even as change is in the air. I remember last year, when the big fight for Best Picture seemed to be an uneven duel between La La Land and Moonlight, and how everyone, myself included, asserted that the former was 100% likely to win the top prize. It seemed as inevitable as the sun setting, because we knew how this game was played. We knew the flashy musical love letter to classic Hollywood was more the Oscars’ bag than the quiet, introspective drama that interrogated the intersections of race, sexuality and class. We’d been given every indication that this was how the wild would blow, and more than once, we all referenced those damn anonymous ballots as vindication for our predictions. Look at these voters and their reasoning. Yes, it’s bigoted and outdated and it’s ridiculous that you still get to vote on these things when you proudly admit to not having seen every film on the ballot, but that’s just the way it is. And so we allow the problem to grow, and we repeat these ballots verbatim simply because it’s what we always do.
As much as the industry is evolving, we in the media and awards prognosticating circles are still prone to relying on the status quo. It should be our job to report, but we should also challenge those assumptions supposedly set in stone and offer alternatives. When we don’t, we end up regurgitating the softball PR lines and push stuff as dead certs for Oscars just because we’ve been told they’re locks. It’s the same problem we have with the roundtables and special interviews that happen during this season. Look at how many of them are tundra white and imagine the justifications for it.
The ballots didn’t get it right in the end last year, anyway. Moonlight won, and we saw the first major sign of change within the Academy. The newest bloc of voters they initiated into Oscar voting privileges just before the ceremony were mostly women and people of colour, and it’s clear that their small but mighty contingent had an impact. You don’t see that kind of change when you look at a handful of anonymous ballots, nor do you account for simpler things like how awards campaigning works or how the socio-political climate effects decisions. Think of how this effects the current contenders for the Oscar: Will we all end up scratching Get Out off our predictions lists because of one or two cranky white men? What are the odds, say, some homophobic spewing over Call Me By Your Name will lead to its cast and crew having to answer asinine questions about it for the next three months and beyond? When you elevate anonymous ego festivals to gospel, it’s no wonder we’re all so afraid of change.