When Sidney Poitier passed away in January, a clip from the 2002 Academy Awards went viral. The stirring moment featured Denzel Washington raising his Best Actor statuette in salute to Poitier, who had received a lifetime achievement Oscar earlier in the ceremony. He said, “40 years I’ve been chasing Sidney. They finally give it to me, and they give it to him the same night. I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney. I’ll always be following in your footsteps. There’s nothing I would rather do, sir,” at which point Poitier stood up in the balcony holding his own award aloft. It was a beautiful passing of the torch between generations, a celebration of great artists honoring one another’s accomplishments and exactly the kind of unscripted magic that people tune in to the Oscars to see.
It couldn’t happen today. In 2009, the lifetime achievement awards were shunted off the air into a separate, untelevised ceremony earlier in the weekend, presumably to free up screen time for brilliant comedy bits like Ellen taking a selfie. So if you’re interested in seeing living legends Liv Ullmann, Elaine May and Samuel L. Jackson receive some long-delayed recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for their formidable bodies of work, don't bother watching on Sunday night. (May is only one of the single funniest human beings ever to draw breath. If she’s going to give a speech why would anybody want to put it on television?) Additionally, this year, eight of the 23 competitive Oscar categories have been banished to an hour before airtime, to be distributed during red carpet festivities, with selected highlights from acceptance speeches edited into the broadcast later in the evening.
Every year I assume the Oscar ceremony can’t possibly get any worse and every year they manage to surprise me.
This decision has been widely and wisely condemned. Steven Spielberg said: “I feel that at the Academy Awards there is no above the line, there is no below the line. All of us are on the same line bringing the best of us to tell the best stories we possibly can. And that means, for me, we should all have a seat at the supper table together live at five.” Best Actress nominee Jessica Chastain has announced she will not participate in the red carpet proceedings to support her makeup crew from “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” (A nice gesture, even if whoever did her makeup for that movie belongs in jail.) Oscar-winning sound mixer Tom Fleischman — a favorite of Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee who has amassed nearly 200 credits over a 50-year career — resigned from the Academy in response to his department’s exclusion from the live broadcast. Meanwhile, A.M.P.A.S. governor Ava DuVernay toed the company line, saying, “I think it’s important to call things by their right name so as not to minimize the meaning of true exclusion in these spaces.”
Every year I assume the Oscar ceremony can’t possibly get any worse and every year they manage to surprise me. The contempt for craft categories is nothing new — a particularly rancid routine a couple of years ago had Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell pretending not to know what cinematographers do — and the asinine idea of demoting “lesser” awards to the pre-show was proposed back in 2019, but walked back after outcry from the Academy membership and in the press. (I cringe to recall one ceremony years ago during which winners for less sexy categories like documentaries and short subjects were forced to accept from a makeshift podium in the auditorium aisle, prompting host Chris Rock to kid that next year anyone who isn’t famous enough will have to pick up their award in the parking lot.)
The prevailing wisdom within the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seems to be that regular folks don’t care about these categories — because I guess boring stuff like editing, production design, original score and sound aren’t important aspects of the cinematic experience — and audiences will instead be indulged this year with new awards sourced on Twitter, of all godforsaken places, for #OscarsFanFavorite and #OscarsCheerMoment. (Fans can vote up to 20 times a day for their favorites, which given the sometimes sinister and subversive ways in which the internet works makes me really wish “Cats” had come out last year.) Instead of turning the Oscars into the People’s Choice Awards, maybe the Academy could try explaining to us civilians why we should care about craft categories and all the skilled labor that goes into making movies? At least that’s what they used to do.
See, I grew up watching the Oscars, loving all the gaudy pageantry, production numbers and a show that some nights seemed like it was never going to end. But more importantly, it provided me with a sense of who these people were making the pictures I went to see and an understanding of what they did behind the scenes. The Academy Awards were a tantalizing glimpse behind the curtain for a movie-mad kid, and all the clips and montages — and yes, especially those lifetime achievement awards — gave me an understanding that art exists in a continuity, building upon and paying tribute to what has come before. The telecast was the industry’s advertisement for itself, an almost four-hour product reel arguing for why movies mattered.
The Academy doesn’t seem to feel like making much of a case for that anymore. Last year’s desultory distribution of statuettes didn’t even bother showing clips from the nominated films. It was one of the most joyless spectacles I’ve ever seen on TV, a tasteless gathering during those pre-vaccine days, for which the producers kicked all the homeless people out of LA’s Union Station to give an award to a Disney movie about homelessness made by a billionaire Marvel director. Everyone appeared uncomfortable and vaguely ashamed to be there, and what has traditionally been one of the highest rated television events plunged 60% from the previous year’s all-time low, not even cracking the annual top 100.
There’s a perception that the Academy is out of touch with what appeals to mass audiences but I think it's more a matter of terrible priorities.
Such ratings woes are no doubt what’s driving dumb decisions like marginalizing the craft awards and dopey Twitter polls, with ABC (owned by Disney) demanding a trim, three-hour running time, as if anybody who wasn’t interested in watching the Oscars will suddenly change their mind because they heard it’s gonna be a half-hour shorter than usual, or that “Spider-Man” might win a fake online award. There’s a perception that the Academy is out of touch with what appeals to mass audiences but I think it's more a matter of terrible priorities. After all, here we have a universally beloved performer whose films have collectively grossed more at the box office than any other actor, yet for some insane reason Samuel L. Jackson will be accepting his award off the air? (It’s the kind of programming decision that makes one want to say the kind of words you usually hear Samuel L. Jackson saying.)
It’s sad because this year’s Best Picture lineup really is a smorgasbord of something for everybody, including a blockbuster space adventure (“Dune”), two glossy, big-budget remakes (“West Side Story” and “Nightmare Alley”), a freaky-deaky western (“The Power of the Dog”), an old-fashioned star vehicle (“King Richard”), mawkish family melodramas (“Belfast” and “CODA”), an instant arthouse classic (“Drive My Car”), some smug political posturing (“Don’t Look Up”) and a sunny teen comedy that was my favorite film of the whole year (“Licorice Pizza”). We can argue about the individual merits of some of these movies, but one must admit the wide variety of textures and tones would be welcoming to just about any hypothetical viewer, were the Academy interested in trying to actually sell anybody on it.
Instead, co-host Amy Schumer has been complaining that producers nixed her pitch to try and get Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to appear on the telecast via satellite, because obviously he’s got nothing better to do right now. I’ve been watching the Oscars my whole life but I really don’t think I can do it anymore. I’ve decided this year I’m going to treat the telecast the way the Academy is treating its members in the editing, production design, sound, music, makeup and short film departments, and just watch clips on YouTube Monday morning. If A.M.P.A.S. thinks it’s okay in some categories to catch up with edited highlights after the awards have been handed out, I don’t see why that approach shouldn’t apply to their entire show.