Back in 2006, arthouse filmmaker David Lynch launched a typically left-field Oscar campaign for Laura Dern, the lead in his new release Inland Empire.  Lynch camped out by the side of a Hollywood intersection with a live cow and a sign bearing the words: ‘WITHOUT CHEESE THERE WOULDN’T BE AN INLAND EMPIRE’. He would later offer an explanation to Time magazine: ‘The Academy members love show business… and this is show business, being out with the cow.’

No such inspiration has graced the run-up to this year’s Oscar ceremony, as the weeks wheel around to the familiar time of bluster and commendation. It is the time of year when people go to see more films – the kind of films they would never bother seeing in July. I’ve heard more people talk about La La Land than any other release in a year. Which is fine; it is a great, crowd-pleasing film which definitely deserved to find the audience it has. The extra publicity of Awards season has surely served a useful purpose. But what of the (many) great films that weren’t so lucky? What if La La Land had been a few shakes less palatable, bolder in its method, crueller in its targets?

There is, inherently, something a bit off about attempting to quantify the merit of a piece of art. Cinema is often a deeply personal experience, even in a room full of people. There is no such thing as the ‘best’ film, or director, or actor of the year. The world of film is too sprawling, too diverse. And while there are objective traits of quality that critics, academics and enthusiasts can identify and, to some extent, quantify, the trouble is Academy voters operate under an entirely different, narrower checklist of merit.

“There is no such thing as the ‘best’ film, or director, or actor of the year”

The Lord of the Rings is one of the most popular film franchises of all time, and the third entry, The Return of the King, was no exception. Winning an involved, ardent following even from people foreign to the Fantasy genre, Peter Jackson’s hit proved as popular with the Oscar voters as with the fans, bagging the coveted Best Picture and Director Oscars in 2004. It beat both Lost in Translation and the brilliant City of God to the awards, the latter of which wasn’t even nominated. Is Return of the King a good film? Arguably. It aims for bombast, and on that level it thrives. A sweeping, evocative soundtrack and leaden, full-throttled sincerity result in a film that many saw as a fitting third act for Tolkein’s great adaptation. It has also been roundly mocked for a jarring deus ex machina and a pastoral epilogue that stretches for half an hour. Remember that interminable half hour at the end of Jaws where Roy Scheider walks around wishing everyone a fond goodbye? Me neither.

But maybe to bemoan a lack of objective or technical greatness is somewhat missing the point. Maybe what Return of the King’s win really brought was vindication. For the legions of Lord of the Rings fans world over, maybe the Oscar win was welcome recognition. Nowhere has this vicarious success been more keenly, and vocally, felt, than in Leonardo DiCaprio’s protracted, anguished wait for ‘his Oscar’. For more than a decade, DiCaprio fans world over would face almost annual disappointment as their boy Leo won nomination after nomination, without ever being deemed prize pig.  When the public’s Awards-lust was finally sated, it was for The Revenant, a sparse, gruelling revenge thriller set in the frozen American Frontier. Leo is certainly game, drooling and spitting and grimacing as the script demands, putting himself and his character through all sorts of physical torment. But who exactly was his character? Ultimately, we are watching merely a drooling, spitting, grimacing image of DiCaprio himself, devoid of all nuanced personality, going through the motions. He got his reward, but years from now, people will still be enjoying his devilish turn as Calvin Candy in Django Unchained, while The Revenant will endure for most as the answer to a question at a pub quiz.

To call a performance, or a whole film, ‘Oscar-bait’ is by no means exclusive to The Revenant. Hidden Figures is this year’s perp, a middling fluff piece which falls foul of the ‘White Saviour’ complex so many bad civil rights movies share. It is not a terrible film by any means, but clumsy in its message and generally lacking in nuance. And yet, it is perhaps the most immediately predictable nominee on the list. It is prestige filmmaking by-the-numbers. Eddie Redmayne winning Best Actor a couple of years ago for Theory of Everything is one of the least surprising outcomes in decades. The film was schlocky, conceited and obvious, his performance one of sickly-sweet simpering. But was anyone surprised when he won?

“there is still a demonstrable race problem at the Academy”

Perhaps the most egregious misstep the Academy so reliably makes is to overlook true greatness. The best films and performances of recent years have been all but entirely overlooked. Inside Llewyn Davis, Inherent Vice and Under the Skin are my biggest personal grievances, but go back a couple of decades and the list of exceptional snubs would dwarf the Academy’s recognised nominees. This year alone The Lobster, Paterson and the brilliant American Honey all have ample reason for complaint, as does Julieta in the Foreign Language  category. The Academy isn’t actually designed to recognise brilliance. Stanley Kubrick, one of the true geniuses of cinema, won his only Oscar in the Visual Effects category, for his work on 2001: A Space Odyssey, never once winning Best Director or Best Picture.

Why exactly, then, are the Oscars so generally deaf to greatness? For all the money poured into the ceremony itself, the actual rules of voting are loose and prone to omission. Many voters don’t even watch all of the Best Picture contenders, judging which films are ‘pertinent’ on the basis of hype alone. There is a large problem with the voting demographics – the committee are overwhelmingly white and mostly male. While many news outlets have been quick to bury the ‘#OscarsSoWhite’ scandal of last year, in which a spectacularly un-diverse set of nominees caused all the wrong headlines, there is still a demonstrable race problem at the Academy. This year is slightly better, although the sudden readmission of Mel Gibson into the bosom of Hollywood affection raises questions about forgiveness. It’s just pretty nice timing that the Industry has decided to leave Gibson’s transgressions behind the instant he releases a good film again.

A huge part of the problem with this year’s ceremony in particular is the inescapable presence of the wider world. America is in a turbulent, troubling place right now, and you can bet there’ll be no shortage of acceptance speeches with a heavily political slant. But as much as Hollywood acts immune to the corruptions and intolerances of the outside alt-right, it remains curiously oblivious to its own hypocrisies. Yes, Donald Trump will be a dirty name for the evening. But will Casey Affleck, the talented alleged misogynist in the running for Best Actor? Will Mel Gibson, the talented misogynist and anti-Semite in the running for Best Director? Nowhere is the fundamental contradiction at the heart of the American film industry more visible than on Oscar night. We have corporate capitalism working hand in hand with creative individualism. But hey. That’s show business. They’re just out with the cow.

Louis Chilton

Image: Toby Canham / Getty

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