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February 18, 2009

Film: Do the Oscars matter?

How the Academy's Holocaust obsession hurts indie films

The Oscars are worse than predictable. They’re self-parody.

Example? Look at Kate Winslet. Nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role back in 2005, she parodied the entire process in an episode of the HBO show “Extras.”

Winslet, playing herself on the set of a Holocaust movie, explains why she took the role: “I don’t think we need another movie about the Holocaust, do we? We get it: It was grim, move on. I’m doing it because I’ve noticed that if you do a film about the Holocaust: guaranteed Oscar.”

Obviously, it’s mostly a send-up of the shallowness and fake concern of Hollywood stars. But it’s also a comment on the predictability of the Academy. Need proof? Winslet was nominated this year for her work in the WWII-era movie “The Reader,” not what she did in the artistically superior “Revolutionary Road.”

Talk about life imitating art.

Yes, Hollywood is obsessed with the Holocaust, sometimes to the detriment of artistically superior films or equally deserving subjects. For Hollywood, the Holocaust has become shorthand for “important” or “concerned,” regardless if it’s the best movie out there. Admittedly, sometimes it is (“The Pianist”), and sometimes it is not (“Life is Beautiful”).

The Oscars made so much more sense in the Golden Age of Hollywood. It was never about the quality of the movies so much as the glamour of the stars. Before TV, the Oscars fed content into hugely popular fan magazines. After TV, the show was, for a while, even more glamorous. The first televised ceremony, in 1953, had a Best Actor category that included Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Montgomery Clift, William Holden and Burt Lancaster. Since this was before E!, seeing them live really meant something.

The problem is that with DVD and VHS, the Oscars became a crucial part of the economic life of smaller films. An Oscar could turn an unprofitable movie into a huge success after home rentals. So while the rest of the world is still tuning in just to see who is wearing what, the Academy is wringing its hands about the importance of its nominations.

The weight placed on Oscar recognition is never as pronounced as it is for foreign films and documentaries. Some of these movies aren’t even shown outside New York and L.A. until awards season is over because they’ll never get a reasonable audience without the coveted recognition.

However, the Oscars repeatedly snub truly great films for ones that are more watchable. Last year, there was outrage when “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” that Romanian abortion movie, failed to get a nomination even though it was widely considered the best movie out there (the Holocaust-themed “The Counterfeiters” won). Pedro Almodovar hasn’t been nominated since 1999, despite three excellent, high-profile films with stars like Penelope Cruz and Gael García Bernal. People suspect he’s reached an unofficial cap on Oscars.

It could be worse: The entire country of France hasn’t won since 1992, despite movies like “Cache,” “Persepolis” and “Lady Chatterley,” and works by art house icons Chabrol, Goddard and Varda.

Documentaries don’t fare much better. One of the highest-grossing and most lauded documentaries of all time, 1994’s “Hoop Dreams,” was ineligible on a technicality (it was first shown on television before it went into theaters). This year has two huge holes: iconic filmmaker Errol Morris’s “Standard Operating Procedure” and newcomer Yung Chang’s “Up the Yangtze.” Both were among the best-reviewed movies of the year.

As is usually the case, both of those movies will still be watched in 10 years, while whoever wins (probably “Man on Wire”) will be forgotten.