Like many cinephiles out there, the Academy Awards were, as a kid, a big draw for me. I never missed watching it on TV. From start to finish. I hung on every word, every sound, every clip. As I got older, started working at film festivals, moved to Hollywood, started working in the industry itself, sold screenplays, directed two features, wrote for the studios, worked over 2 decades in casting, and have been represented by UTA, ICM and Gersh, my outlook on both this town, this business and the Academy Awards changed quite dramatically. Peeling back that curtain can be a scary thing. Like when one of my friends told me “Be careful of meeting your heroes. There’s a good chance you’ll be disappointed.” Of course, this is not always true. But I think the idea he was trying to get across was that, oftentimes, people, places and ideas exist in our mind in a somewhat more “perfect” or fanciful way than they may in actuality.
So I suppose it’s fair to say that part of my dislike of the Oscars is sour grapes. My time here in Los Angeles has shown me many ugly things, many ugly people. It has all but destroyed my conception of Hollywood as anything other than a lowest-common-denominator factory full of cruel and debilitating dysfunction. Of course, I realize the occasional good film gets made here and not all films need strive to be masterpieces. And there are good people, honest people with integrity scattered throughout this town. Unfortunately, my experiences have placed me (or I’ve placed myself) in the path of some of the worst Hollywood has to offer. So I do carry a bitterness with me that is sometimes quite difficult to contain.
The other side of the story is that I genuinely love cinema. As much now as ever. Maybe even more so as it’s a love that seems to grow deeper with age. I was born in 1963, so the films that came from Hollywood in my youth were the films of the late 60’s and throughout the 70’s. An era many consider a second Golden Age. It was an era of risk, of daring, of auteurs, of both bravery and communication via film. And yes, there was a lot of crap mixed in there as well. But overall, the general public seemed to rise to the occasion and many of the films that were widely celebrated are films that Hollywood would never go near today. In fact, even a large portion of American Independent cinema won’t or can’t go there today.
As I’ve watched popular films become more spectacle than art, more effects than character, more ease than challenge, my heart has sunk. From where I stand, I have seen great films get tossed aside as confusing garbage while many films that play it safe and offer audiences more of what is familiar and comfortable get celebrated for their supposed greatness and daring. So much flash, so little substance. And that is one of the reasons the Academy Awards simply does not go down as easily for me anymore. Like something caught in the throat that the body forcefully wants to remove.
The sheer size and spectacle of the awards show, always trying to one-up itself, top-heavy and perilously off-balance, feels desperate and irresponsible. Without realizing that film itself should be a worthy enough art form to celebrate, the Oscars frantically waves shiny objects at the audience via song and dance, scripted jokes that try to be edgy, but are always transparent and a bit apologetic. The entire ceremony is horribly forced with only rare moments of sincerity that pull at the edges and threaten to topple the whole illusion. Surgically distorted faces and dancing Legos do not represent cinema for me and, in my opinion, belittles the art form and does so on a global scale! It’s as if Hollywood has no concept that cinema can be (and is in many other parts of the world) more than a self-absorbed vanity project.
With all this said, I have to admit to being both surprised and happy to see that BIRDMAN walked away with the Best Picture Award. It’s a hopeful sign. Or, at least, a hopeful moment. The irony for me is that BIRDMAN was largely about how definitions of success are dramatically perverted and oftentimes end up as a crushing sense of emptiness amidst the clamor of congratulations and envy, while the attempts and desires that offer us the best chance of personal success and genuine creative self-expression, are often mocked, ridiculed or seen as ego-trips or desperate attempts at becoming “legitimate.” This is both a reflection of the “industries” that peddle “entertainment,” as well as the larger picture of the potentially dangerous pitfalls of a Capitalist society that loses sight of the personal journey of the individual, of those things that we already have inside us that connect us, that nourish us as human beings.
Is it too cynical, then, for me to wonder if the success of BIRDMAN at the Oscars has more to do with the film’s star-power and with its “gimmick” of a single take? Or the fact that the film’s about the entertainment industry and therefore feeds the Academy Members’ narcissistic desires? Or maybe it’s the Super-PAC-like campaign funding behind the film by mammoth distributer, 20th Century Fox? Like today’s political elections, the outcome may be more dependent on how forcefully it is sold to voters than on the actual content therein. Is this simply an award for sale much like the presidency of the United States? I know, it’s a dark outlook. But I’m certainly not the first or last to raise the question. After all, the full title of BIRDMAN is BIRDMAN: OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE). Makes me long for the Oscars of my youth…
As for the film itself, I truly dug BIRDMAN. I’m genuinely happy to see it win and find it to be deserving of such praise. And yet, I can’t let it in completely. I remain suspicious while still celebrating the film’s recognition. Perhaps that’s my loss and something I need to continue to work on. It just might say more about me than the Oscars themselves.
And yet, I still cringe uncontrollably whenever I see the nominations. I avoid watching the show because it has, for many, many years now, left me with the same form of emptiness deep inside that Michael Keaton’s character struggles with in BIRDMAN. The Academy Awards mislabels its oftentimes trite entertainment as emotional honesty, as moving celebration. And sometimes those moments, as stated above, bleed in. But more often, it is a process by which those who do not want to look too deeply, who do not want to push boundaries or explore the unknown can pretend they do all of the above and receive validation for doing so. All the while, filmmakers who are actually engaging in true exploration through film, those who are trying to reflect the human condition back to us, to shine a light on who and what we are inside, have little-to-no place in the celebration.
This isn’t to say that all film should strive for this. Sometimes film can be nothing more than simple entertainment. That holds an important place as well. And oftentimes film can provide a measure of both. But what, then, are we offering our Oscar statuettes for exactly? Perhaps my problem is I no longer know the answer to that. For me, the Awards celebration stymies creative daring by keeping the bar for such awards relatively low. I actually believe artistic expression and the sharing of such art has a true power and it is important to try and recognize such things. The Academy certainly loves film, but it has limited itself in its definition and bears, in part, the responsibility for a public that has largely forgotten what cinema has to offer at its best. For me, that means it has forgotten what people have to offer at their best. I realize that is a lot of responsibility to put on a single Awards show. Perhaps it’s an unfair desire on my part. And yet… there it is. I live in a town that comes to a complete stand-still for the Oscars. It is more potent for many than the birth of Jesus Christ and offers a chance to rake in just as much money in its name, if not more.
At this point in my life, I find it simply too difficult, too painful to partake in the celebration. For all the films out there that didn’t get distribution. For all the films out there that couldn’t afford to send screeners to the voting membership. For all the films that could not afford TV ads or PR backing. For all the filmmakers who are true visionaries, who expose their inner strengths and frailties every time they pick up a camera or step in front of one. For all those who know the power of film and will never be recognized by the Academy. For all those who HAD all of the above and were largely ignored anyway.
The Oscars have limited themselves to a microcosm of what is out there, a tiny corner of something so much bigger than any dance number or pyrotechnic display could ever speak to, could ever touch on. For me, the Oscars help keep the art form down while fooling themselves and others into believing they are celebrating it. And the sheer number of viewers worldwide that tune in each year make sure that message is reached in almost every corner of the globe. The sheer spectacle, silliness and cost of the ceremony is not only offensive, but it unveils its own lack of faith in itself, in the very art form it claims to embrace.
It has been suggested to me that I might feel better if I would just lower my expectations to something a bit more “realistic.” Less fanciful notion or pipe dream. But would I really be doing justice to the art form or to myself by reducing expectation? By hoping for and striving for less? It’s tempting. But I’ll pass.