I watch the Oscars every year, beginning to end. I love the things that bore many to tears: the dresses, the film clips, the self-deprecating humor (when it works), and sometimes even the montages. And yet last night, even though I was tremendously pleased with Slumdog Millionaire’s eight wins, the ceremony felt duller and more narcissistic than usual. Is it the economy?

The Academy definitely let its ratings-desperation show. In an acknowledgment that most normal people (i.e., people who do not blog about entertainment) have seen exactly none of the films nominated for Best Picture, the show producers decided to throw the plebeians a bone by including montages of popular 2008 movies, grouped according to theme: romance, comedy, action, etc. Seriously, how condescending is that? Do they really think that Joe the Plumber is going to tune in for four hours of Oscars telecast because they included a three-second snippet from Hancock?

Instead, the Academy seems to have given up all hope of familiarizing the TV-viewer with the nominated films. Back in the old days before the Internet existed (okay, it existed, but there wasn’t much on it, nor did I have access to it), I used the Oscars to figure out what movies I was interested in seeing. See a snippet of Jodie Foster playing a woman taught to speak by a stroke victim, and you might decide to give Nell a chance. (Or not—the acting snippets could also help me determine what I didn’t want to see.)

With the 81st Academy Awards, gone are the acting clips. Instead, five past winners in each category came out to speak to the nominees individually and tell them how wonderful their performances were. I’m sorry, but I have no interest in hearing what Shirley MacLaine thinks of Anne Hathaway. This is the woman who talks to aliens, after all. With the new format, instead of being given the opportunity to judge for ourselves, we’re forced to the position of outsiders, watching Hollywood clap itself on its collective back.

The telecast did include clips from the Best Picture nominees, but they were clumped together at the end rather than spread out through the ceremony, and they were spliced with footage from other, similarly themed historic films. In other words, they told us even less about the nominated films than usual.

Are things just too far gone for us to hope that the Oscars could actually help average moviegoers to make informed decisions? Am I too much of a populist in dreaming that the Oscars could actually make quality films appealing on a wider basis?

The irony in this whole scenario is that, since Slumdog Millionaire has been sweeping away awards left and right, it has become fashionable among the cinemarati to deride the movie as “crowd-pleasing” and “popular.” I can count on one hand the number of real-life (as in, “encountered in the flesh and not on the Internet”) acquaintances who have seen Slumdog Millionaire. I can count on two hands the number of acquaintances who know anything about it beyond the title. Yet, as my “feelm”-hating, Slumdog-liking husband points out, it’s a movie that actually would have a chance with audiences who know little about cinema. And the Oscars are not helping to introduce it to them.

I know the Oscars are basically the equivalent of a high school popularity contest, only with obscene amounts of money spent on publicity campaigns. This fact does not faze me. I still think they have the potential to familiarize viewers with films that might not have come under their radar previously. Oscars producers just need their heads pulled out of their navels long enough to figure this out. Surely there’s a balance to be found between “high church” and “seeker-sensitive” in the effort to tell viewers the good news about movies.


  1. I did enjoy the singing-and-dancing Hugh, though I thought his opening number could have used some funnier lyrics.

    The ratings came out yesterday: Oscars viewership was up 13% from last year’s all-time low . . . making it the third least-watched Oscars in Nielsen history. The Washington Post points out some of the hedging that goes on with these figures:


    Interestingly, apparently some viewers loved the past winners talking to present nominees. It just goes to show that, yep, people do have different tastes–which is why it’s hard to come up with a list of nominated films that everyone will agree with. I have little sympathy with the argument that, if the Academy nominated more popular films, viewership would go up. Sure, the Academy’s choices are often strange and politically motivated, but there’s no way they can please everyone. I’m just asking that the ceremony itself show us enough of the nominated films to be able to judge whether or not we want to see them.

  2. Carissa,

    I agreed with your write up in general….though i really enjoyed Hugh Jackman’s funny and talented hosting performance (the writing for the hosts was generally pretty ordinary though – what was Ben Stiller doing?) – and that’s not just because he is a fellow countryman.

    This was admittedly the first time i had ever seen the live broadcast of the Oscars (and did so in a perfect atmosphere with dressed up friends!) and so maybe that affects my perception, but I also was disappointed by the lack of acting clips – i also used to use them in the same way (when i saw a much delayed telecast…), to judge whether or not to see certain films.

    I was especially disappointed not to see clips of the documentaries or foreign language films about which i knew very little. The actors talking to actors thing had some touching moment – Anne Hathaway and Kate Winslett looked genuinely moved, but having this instead of the clips made it all a little too lovefest for the average viewer (which is to say i agree with you on that point.

    Here’s to the little gold man, may we remember that he really is an industry award and not a judge of aesthetic quality whatever the Academy says…

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