This Sunday, actors, writers, makeup artists, VFX technicians, directors, producers and every working publicist in the greater Los Angeles area will descend on the Dolby Theater for the 87th annual Academy Awards. Stars draped in dresses worth more than most island nations will provide trite answers to insipid questions posed by the talking heads at Good Morning America. Shia LeBeouf might read from his latest volume of cartoon-based poetry rather than refilling the paper towels in the men’s bathroom like the custodial manager asked him to. In a boiler room deep below the Dolby, interns will draw straws to see who must fetch Bruce Vilanch from his adamantium cage. It’s a very regal and serious and self-aggrandizing ceremony that, strangely, will irritate the majority of its massive 45 million-person viewing audience.
Major awards shows exist in a weird space. They’re still extremely popular — the Oscars, Golden Globes, Emmys and Grammys all draw huge ratings and dominate social media conversation both during the event and well into the following day — yet very few people seem to enjoy the viewing experience. These events are basically today’s Tommy Lee/Pamela Anderson sex tape (autoplay video begins in 3…2…): a heavily watched, overlong, poorly edited display of star-fucking that leaves us confused and unsatisfied. We rarely agree with the nominees or winners, laugh at more than half the jokes or tolerate the format’s interminable length. Most of the enjoyment stems from criticizing entertainers’ fashion choices or their penchant for pretentiousness. Oh, Jesus Leto decided to say something about Charlie Hebdo? In French?
Getting bent out of shape about awards that many of us freely admit don’t matter is a baffling phenomenon. I love Kanye West for innumerable reasons, but the fact that he’s the last person in America who still believes the most deserving artists win Grammys is near the top of the list. We accept that the best films/albums/shows aren’t always nominated, yet perceived miscarriages still grate. We’re like the dude in the middle of an excruciating breakup who pretends the split isn’t a big deal when he’s around his boys. “Nah, man, I don’t care that my LYING WHORE EX-GIRLFRIEND SLEPT WITH MY GRANDFATHER, STOLE MY IGUANA AND LEFT AN EMPTY NON-TRANSPARENT MILK CARTON IN THE FRIDGE WHEN SHE BOUNCED! IT’S FUCKING FINE!”
The Oscars are a particularly confounding example. Society’s infatuation with celebrity is well documented, but that doesn’t explain why we’ll sit through a 240-minute trophy presentation when a visit to almost any website on Monday morning (choosey readers choose Pajiba) will provide a winners list, a fashion rundown, GIFs of the best moments, think pieces and more. Four hours is an awfully long time to spend in front of a television just to see George Clooney walk onstage and say, “And the nominees for Best Director are…” OHMAGERD HE LOOKS JUST LIKE HE DOES IN PEOPLE MAGAZINE! Uh-huh. They’re famous, remember? What are you missing by skipping the ceremony and browsing YouTube the next day instead?
Maybe it’s the communal aspect. After all, awards shows and live sports are the last remaining shared online experiences (Which reminds me: come back Sunday for Courtney’s annual Oscar live-blog. This year she’s stalking someone named Oscar and live-blogging his activities. I dunno, she’s pregnant just go with it). Still, what percentage of those 40 million-plus viewers participate in the Twitterverse? Snark and outrage are powerful catalysts, but even they can’t hold people’s interest when the Academy president delivers his stale refrain about cinema’s enduring importance at 10:45 Eastern.
OK, so people probably care for the same reason they punch holes in walls when their team’s QB throws a game-ending interception into triple coverage: we like rooting for favorites. Here’s the thing, though: it’s unlikely many fans have a favorite most years. Even though in 2009 the Academy expanded the Best Picture field to allow for as many as 10 films, late-December release dates for “prestige” Oscar contenders means many Best Picture nominees haven’t hit home video by late February, creating a situation where most Oscar viewers go into the telecast not having seen many or perhaps any of the nominated movies. Mainstream appeal is also a problem. This year’s eight Best Picture contenders averaged just $25.6 million in ticket sales the day nominations came out. Granted, the total gross is now nearly $604 million, although American Sniper accounts for more than half the revenue ($308 million). Remove Sniper — a film that has no business being anywhere near the Best Picture category anyway — and the seven remaining nominees averaged just $42.1 million in box office receipts (it’s $75.6 million with the Clint Eastwood flick included). By comparison, 2013’s Best Picture nominees averaged $90.4 million; 2012’s managed $111.4 million. It will be interesting to see how Sunday’s show performs in the ratings given the mostly obscure nominees.
Let’s assume some fans tune in or get online to pull for their favorite actor or actress regardless of whether they’ve actually seen the performances in question. That’s human nature. But that doesn’t explain why pop-culture aficionados like ourselves feel the need to follow along in real time. If anything we have even less incentive to care because we understand how the sausage is made. We know who votes on entertainment awards (mostly old white people), the batshit thought processes those voters employ when completing their ballots, and the often despicable tactics studios use to influence opinion. The Academy’s corruption, incompetence and shameful racial history have eroded their integrity and weakened their position as arbiters of quality entertainment. I certainly hope Michael Keaton wins Best Actor, but if he loses to
Kirk Lazarus Eddie Redmayne I won’t suddenly second-guess my opinion about either man’s performance. So why will I make sure I have access to a television at 8 pm Sunday evening?
Ultimately, I think it boils down to the fact that we’re irrational creatures conditioned to appreciate any event where famous people compete to crown a champion. It doesn’t matter that the awarding body has as much credibility as another Bill Cosby denial. Famous people take trophies seriously, media outlets present the shows as Important Events™ and society unwavering interest grants them power. Therefore snubs and undeserving winners still elicit strong opinions. Selma director Ava DuVernay isn’t a lesser auteur because a predominately white Academy that frequently botches nominations overlooked her accomplishments. Her absence does matter, though, because it denies DuVernay deserved recognition, which reduces her overall popularity and visibility, which is the only currency that really matters in Hollywood anymore. Slights like these — ones with tangible consequences — override our instincts and force us to care in spite of nihilist tendencies.
During his Twitter dissertation regarding the SNL 40th anniversary celebration, Norm McDonald argued that at its core, “Celebrity Jeopardy” is about Alex Trebek’s relentless, almost naïve optimism that the next category will be the one to finally end all the insanity and return the show to normal operation. Obviously, Trebek’s hopes were never realized. We become Will Ferrell’s Trebek during awards shows. Despite their flaws, we maintain an unbridled confidence that one day these events will finally honor the most deserving individuals and works. It won’t happen this year; probably not the next, either. Eventually, though, with enough pressure, awards may bend to our will.
If not, well, we’ll always have a comment section ready and waiting.