An Alternative Timeline for the Oscars

The show's decline is inevitable, but the Academy's voters haven't helped.

Maybe you heard: The Academy Awards were terrible, and nobody watched them. This was both a one-off consequence of Covid’s shutdown of the movie business, which limited the potential nominees to obscure and art-house fare that mostly played direct-to-streaming, and an acceleration of a long-term trend, in which the Oscars have slowly transformed from a mass-market extravaganza into “a boutique affair for American liberals that’s sponsored by a globalized superhero content provider,” as one newspaper columnist wrote the year that The Shape of Water (LOL) won Best Picture.

Of course to complain about the evolution of the Oscars is to be met with various rejoinders, some of them usefully wrapped together in this thread from Vox’s Emily VanDerWerff: That the people urging the Academy to “nominate movies people have seen!” would still complain if there had been more nominations for, say, Wonder Woman: 1984 or Birds of Prey; that the Academy does still nominate hit movies, from Dunkirk to Black Panther; and that the demand for a more populist or popular list of nominees is often “masking a baseline conservative sense that movies should seek not to challenge one's view of the world but to validate it.”

Setting aside the question of whether most people who write about the movies for a living are themselves ever “challenged” in their own worldviews by the Oscar nominees they favor, my general take here is that the problem isn’t primarily about politics. The progressivism of Hollywood has indeed loomed somewhat larger at the Oscars as the movie business has changed to become more of a China-and-Netflix, blockbusters-and-boutique-movies industry. But it’s the change in the kind of movies that get made and sold, the decline of a certain kind of high-quality middlebrow entertainment, that really forces the Academy to choose between nominating Wonder Woman: 1984 and nominating the kind of feeling-bad-is-good-for-you movies that make Bill Maher grumpy.

It’s also worth noting that in this year’s unique circumstances, progressive politics didn’t play a particularly obvious role in determining winners. Nomadland (which deserved to win Best Picture, given its competition) survived a mild backlash over how its largely apolitical plot effaced the anti-Amazon-warehouse message in its source material, and some expected wins for minority actors, especially the late Chadwick Boseman, gave way to upset victories for Frances McDormand and Anthony Hopkins. Progressivism in various forms was obviously a theme of the evening, but the show was much more a celebration of small movies than a celebration of woke ones.

However, looking back over Oscar nominees and winners from the pre-Covid decade, I’m wondering if my general take on the show’s decline lets the Academy’s voters off the hook a little bit. Yes, Hollywood is producing fewer of the kind of movies that justify the existence of both the Oscar show itself and the see-it-on-the-big-screen magic that it exists to celebrate and sell. (The appeal of the awards in the 1980s and 1990s relied not just on old-Hollywood genres that have gone into decline, but on diversity within those genres: historical romances as different as The English Patient and Shakespeare in Love and Sense and Sensibility, historical dramas in keys as distinct as Braveheart or Amadeus or Schindler’s List, war movies as different as Platoon and Saving Private Ryan, Westerns as distinct as Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven, and so on.) But if there are fewer of these kinds of movies, they do still exist, they do still sometimes make a lot of money, and VanDerWerff is right that they do still often get nominated for Best Picture.

But they don’t usually win, and what’s more they aren’t expected to win in the coverage that shapes the Oscar race and the attention the show gets. Instead there’s an assumption, generally validated by the results, that the Oscar voters will go for the more pretentious or more political or more precious or artsy or unusual options instead. Maybe the shift to ranked-choice voting accelerated this process; maybe the intensification of progressive piety has something to do with it. But whatever’s happening, it’s more than just the decline of the more mass-market sort of nominee; it’s also a rejection of that kind of option when it’s available among of the nominated films.

To see what I mean let’s go year by year, with the actual winner and then an imagined, arguably-better-for-ratings race between other nominated films:

2019: Actual winner, Parasite. Alternative-timeline contest, Little Women vs. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

2018: Actual winner, Green Book. Alternative winner, A Star in Born vs. Green Book, but really A Star is Born in a clean sweep.

2017: Actual winner, The Shape of Water. Alternative contest, Dunkirk vs. Get Out.

2016: Actual winner, Moonlight. Alternative contest, Arrival vs. La La Land.

2015: Actual winner, Spotlight. Alternative contest, Mad Max: Fury Road vs. The Big Short.

2014: Actual winner, Birdman. Alternative contest, American Sniper vs. Grand Budapest Hotel.

2013: Actual winner, 12 Years a Slave. Alternative contest: Maybe The Wolf of Wall Street vs. Gravity, but the real-world contest of 12 Years a Slave vs. Gravity was a good one.

2012: Actual winner, Argo; alternative contest, Lincoln vs. Silver Linings Playbook or Lincoln vs. Zero Dark Thirty

2011: Actual winner: The Artist. Alternative contest: Look, this was a bad year, but still literally anything else.

2010: Actual winner, The King’s Speech. Alternative contest: The Social Network should have won, but The King’s Speech vs. The Social Network was a decent simulacrum of an old-school-Oscar sort of battle.

So basically in my reading of the recent past, once you get back into the early 2010s the Oscar races and the winners get a little better for the show’s commercial purposes — in 2010 and 2013 especially. (Let us not speak of 2011.) And I’m obviously injecting my own tastes throughout: Grand Budapest Hotel was not a major box office hit, I just think think an Oscar race dominated by a “Wes Anderson against American Sniper” narrative would have been cool.

But in the five years before the coronavirus hit, the Academy as a collective repeatedly passed up chances to reward or elevate some of its more popular nominees. Doing that sometimes is fine: It’s good for the show if small movies like Moonlight can pull off upsets, good for international films like Parasite to have a chance, etc. And I concede that rewarding Mad Max: Fury Road or Get Out would be in its own kind of departure from the traditional Oscar way.

But when you have movies like, say, A Star is Born (as imperfect as it was) and Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood in the running, doing boffo box office and conjuring up old-school glamour and elevating some of the entertainment industry’s biggest stars … well, for the sake of the thing the show is supposed to be doing, selling people on the movies as an experience, you want those kind of movies to be contenders or favorites, so that even if they lose it’s an upset that’s worth watching.

I’m not claiming that you’d have a dramatically different ratings trend with the contests I’m conjuring. But on the margins I suspect a more popular group of winners would make some difference to the show’s cultural currency and ratings trajectory. And at the very least, when I think of the most old-school-Oscar moment in the show’s recent history, I don’t think of any particular victory or nominee acceptance speech. I think of this moment — which, by one means or another, is what the Oscars going forward need: