Sunday, February 25, 2007

Dance to the Music of the Oscarina

The Oscars always remind me of something Bill James wrote about the Baseball Hall of Fame. He wrote something to the effect that because the standards of the Hall of Fame have been so low -- with dozens of players getting in who weren't great players, let alone all-time greats -- the HoF can't truly honor a great player by letting him in; it can only insult him by leaving him out. If a really great player feels honored to be admitted, he wrote, "it can only be because he doesn't understand how many players have been there before him, players who didn't have half of his credentials."

I feel this way about the Academy Awards. You've heard the old line: someone is told not to worry about not winning an Oscar, because Oscars don't mean anything since they gave two of them to Luise Rainer. But it's not just that the Academy has often had bizarre standards; it's that, collectively, the awards over the years present a picture of Hollywood that is much worse, artistically, than Hollywood actually is.

That's what Joe Queenan misses in his article about the difference between the movies that get nominated, and the movies that people actually go to see. That wasn't always a problem. What was always a problem is that the Academy Awards usually go to worthy, middlebrow, thought-provoking dramas. And my biggest problem with that is that that's never been what Hollywood does best. For various reasons ranging from fewer censorship restrictions to fewer commercial pressures, other countries have always beat Hollywood when it comes to message dramas, serious historical drama (as opposed to swashbuckling pseudo-historical stories, which Hollywood is great at) and social problem pictures. Plenty of filmmakers around the world could make a better version of Crash than Crash was.

But there are genres that Hollywood does better, or used to do better, than anybody else, and yet those are the genres that get shafted as not being "serious." You're probably aware that comedies, films noir, Westerns, musicals (particularly musicals that aren't bloated stage adaptations), swashbucklers and much else -- in other words, the best that Hollywood has to offer -- have never gotten much respect from the Academy. Today, the nominations reflect the obvious fact that Academy members are embarrassed about what Hollywood is currently producing: the comic-book blockbusters, the frat-guy comedies. And I'll admit that this is not a great time for Hollywood movies. But it seems to me that the best stuff Hollywood does is still to be found in the genres has always been best at -- adventure stories, comedies, and so on -- and the solution to that is not to turn up one's nose at those genres, but to try and identify and honor the best Hollywood-style movies.

I'm not saying every movie nominated has to be Casino Royale -- which wasn't actually made in Hollywood, but you know what I mean -- or (to go back to a previous year) The 40 Year-Old Virgin. But it would be nice to see one movie like that in there in place of the clunkiest of the five (coughLettersfromIwoJimacough). Because, let's face it, when we look back on the award recipients from this period, we're not going to think that they represent the best American cinema had to offer at this time. It would be like looking back on A Man For All Seasons and concluding that Fred Zinnemann was one of the great directors. Which he was not.

(My apologies to Fred Zinnemann fans out there. I was just in a bad mood after suffering through A Man For All Seasons and then re-visiting the boring hash he made of Oklahoma! It just seems that this guy could always find the maximum boredom in any material he handled. He was, of course, a multiple Oscar nominee and two-time winner.)

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