Oscar Bravo? Sam Leith would like to thank his parents, and his agent, and his wife, and all the people of the world who made this column happen. Those who make the Academy Awards happen, however…
Sam Leith would like to thank his parents, and his agent, and his wife, and all the people of the world who made this column happen. Those who make the Academy Awards happen, however…
YOU KNOW WHAT’S happening, don’t you? You thought you’d got away with it, at first: waking up in your own bed the day after they’d pencilled in the end of civilisation. Science: one; primitive Mayan prophecy: nil. What the Mayans — and, until the memory of it sneaked up on you, you — didn’t realise, of course, is that history is cyclical. Civilisation comes to an end once a year, round about February, in an orgy of primitive idolatry.
A priestly caste, dripping with gold, parades shiny baubles in front of a moaning, awestruck populace. The youngest and most beautiful of the tribe are welcomed into the temple, decked in precious garments. Rituals are performed, and obscene amounts of gold and silver offered up, to propitiate obscure gods in the hopes of bringing prosperity for the coming year.
It’s Awards Season, in other words. The Baftas and Oscars have been playing their annual joke on the movies by recasting a great popular art-form as a (rigged) competitive sport, celebrating vulgar clothes and frivolous opulence, and giving us all a reason to — in the words of South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone — hate actors.
That these awards take place is, of course, a simple emanation of the order of things, as natural and blameless as the growth of a verruca. They’re industry awards, plain and simple, and every industry throws these self-congratulatory boondoggles for senior management. The difference between these and awards for pan-scourers or wood-pulp processors — and it’s where the wickedness, alas, enters in — is that we civilians have been bamboozled into taking an interest in them.
That, too, is probably natural: the professional speciality of actors — though it’s usually more indirectly exercised — is making their regard for themselves contagious. A large part of the industry of Hollywood, one way and another, is directed to amplifying that skill: marketers, publicists, touch-up artists, buzz-builders… all are dedicated to emphasising the actor-as-star.
But that huge sector of the industry is dedicated to getting films seen, not to their appreciation. Artistic merit is neither here nor there. For studios vying for box-office share, art is a competitive sport: it’s the necessary philistinism of the industry. The Baftas and Oscars — with their glitz, materialism and star-worship — are just another part of the hype machine.
The idea that you should make them the arena for judging artistic success (no snobbery: to me, in movies, there are few greater artistic satisfactions than watching giant robots beat seven bells out of each-other in a Michael Bay sequel) is preposterous.
AS A CONSUMER of cinema, these awards have nothing to tell you. Indeed, in my experience they can actively damage your pleasure in watching a film. They draw attention to just those unattractive ‘artistic’ aspects that seem to impress the juries: cinematographic portentousness; effortful acting; tediously ‘searching’ treatments of slavery (bad), genocide (bad), poverty (interesting) or mental illness (interesting).
A film you might have thought was quite good, once it gets attention in this context, starts looking distinctly cheesy. Once noticed — ‘He didn’t go full mentally disabled! He’s after a Bafta!’ — these aspects can’t be unnoticed. It has much the same killing effect as noticing that Bane in The Dark Knight Rises talks like Ted Heath.
When a film featuring Daniel Day-Lewis or Meryl Streep comes out, it’s harder to lose yourself in the narrative because all you can see — as you watch him gurning or her doing one of her accents — is not the character doing whatever the character’s doing: it’s Daniel or Meryl heading for an Oscar.
The ceremonies themselves — and here I return to my Mayan theme — have just that quality of being irrational behaviours handed down from previous generations (in this case, the days of the Hollywood star system) and repeated unthinkingly, automatically, as a prophylactic against the inevitable apocalypse.
The forms of words are as elaborate and empty as any primitive incantation: ‘Just a great friend and an incredible human being… with me on this journey… my family…’ The excitements — someone will ‘dare’ to say something political; Spike Lee will take exception to Quentin Tarantino’s film; Sacha Baron Cohen will do something outrageous — might as well be choreographed. The coverage is near-on identical year in year out.
So here’s my counsel for healthy and happy awards seasons. Don’t read the speculation. Don’t take an interest in the ‘strategies’ that Harvey Weinstein might or might not adopt to maximise his annual haul. Don’t stir yourself to give a damn whether The Brits Are Coming. Don’t stay up to waste moments of your one and only life trying to decide whether Anne Hathaway’s dress won the red carpet. Don’t get sucked into feeling touched by those acceptance speeches. Don’t do any of that. It only encourages the bastards.
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