The Oscars, They Are A Changin’… My Thoughts on All That’s Happened So Far

The Oscars are less than three weeks away. It’s been quite a tumultuous Oscar season (and it’s not over yet), but, even with all the drama, I’ve found myself uninspired to write about it. Until now. There is a rumor going around about a change the Academy is making to the telecast that finally is enough to get my blood boiling—but more about that later. First, let’s sum up what’s happened this season so far:

First, back in August, the Academy, out of the blue, tweeted an extraordinary declaration which sent the Film Twitter world on fire: “New award category — We will create a new category for outstanding achievement in popular film. Eligibility requirements and other key details will be forthcoming.” While there WERE no more details forthcoming, everyone assumed two things: 1) this addition was done as a pre-emptive maneuver to save face IN CASE Black Panther didn’t get a Best Picture nomination (it did), and 2) it was done to try to improve ratings (the 2018 Oscar telecast was the worst-rated in history). Backlash was swift and fierce—so swift and fierce, in fact, that the Academy then reversed itself and said the Popular Movie Oscar was on hold—for now. But the damage had been done. It was the first shot across the bow for all of us who love the Oscars and sometimes forget that it’s still a television show and that means ratings rule all. And, just as pink slips usually follow a terrible earnings report for a company, the worst ratings ever were destined to prompt some major changes in the telecast—and traditions—we have come to love. While we were able to get the Academy to withdraw from their first bad ratings-driven decision, there is only so much the little guy can do when the winds and waves of change are this powerful. The Oscars are a business. It has never been as apparent as this year.

Then came the host debacle. When the Academy announced that Kevin Hart would be hosting the Oscars, they seemed to forget what year they were in, meaning the year of “what you have said on Twitter in the past may serve to haunt you in the present.” For Kevin Hart, his history of tweeting and telling homophobic jokes came back to more than haunt him: they cost him a job. Instead of apologizing, Hart pulled out from hosting and the Oscars were left with no host and with egg on their face. Their only solution, it seemed, was to have no host at all, for the first time in 30 years. And, for the record, that last time without a host? 1989—the year of Rob Lowe and Snow White. Yeah—-that’s what we could be in for.

You’d think the Academy might have had enough of controversy, but no—just when you thought it couldn’t get worse, it did. Right after the nominations were announced last month, two rumors surfaced that not only set people’s hair on fire, it finally made it sink in that the Oscars may have officially changed—and not for the better—and that 2018 may have been the last time we would experience the Oscars the way we have known and loved them.

The first rumor? That the Oscar telecast would only feature two of the five nominated songs with a live performance. Now I will say this is a tricky one, and I don’t envy the Academy on this. Performing five songs eats up a lot of time for a show that already is famous for running long. And even I will admit that there have been years where some songs that I found boring or uninteresting led even me to get up and go to the kitchen or the bathroom. Let’s be real: most of the nominated songs are obscure and extremely contextual, so performing a quiet duet from a little-seen or heard-of Irish film on the world’s biggest stage with billions of people watching does seem a little dangerous when all you care about (if you’re ABC) is keeping eyeballs glued. But, on the flip side, almost every year features at least one song nominated that is either by a huge star (Bruce Springsteen, Adele) or is a huge hit (“Happy,” “Shallow”), so the Academy would be shooting themselves in the foot by eliminating their one chance to get an audience to tune in who might not be interested at all in the movies but want to see their favorite singer or song performed. So the Academy has had to make a decision, and a long time ago they decided they would feature all five songs every year. They haven’t always kept to this, to be honest, but it’s always a big controversy whenever they don’t. So, this year, when it was rumored that only 2 of the 5 would be performed (the ones featuring two huge stars from the world of music, Lady Gaga and Kendrick Lamar, go figure), it was a revelation that we should have seen coming but still was upsetting to a great many people. And, much like the announcement of a Best Popular Movie Oscar, it looks like the social media backlash was successful, as the Academy has now officially announced that all five songs WILL be performed in some way live on the telecast.
So the power of social media protest can work, right? We managed to get rid of or delay the Best Popular Movie Oscar, remove Kevin Hart AND restore all five songs to the show. We are in control, right? Anything we don’t like, the Academy will change, right?

Oh, we are so naïve.

Right after the rumor hit (and was quashed) that the songs wouldn’t be performed, it was then rumored that some of the 24 categories would not be presented live on the air. For as long as I can remember, the Oscars telecast has always made little changes here and there, for the sake of ratings and brevity. They added a Best Animated Feature category and took away the Lifetime Achievement Oscar from the show. They’ve tinkered with all kinds of things, but nobody ever thought they’d actually take away categories. And what separates the Oscars from every other telecast is that is DOESN’T pander to the big name stars and big name movies. It always has stayed true to the celebration of film as a medium, as an art form, as a form of entertainment, as a CRAFT. To this end, the Oscars are the only awards show that recognizes all the elements that go into the making of a movie (except stunts—so far). A movie is more than actors, directors and music. And when I’ve really loved the Oscars is when they took the time during a telecast to really bring that home—to give little lessons on what a sound mixer does or how important the right costumes are, for example. And so they always made sure that the artists who are truly behind the scenes, but who are integral to the creation of a film, get their moment in the sun, since the Oscars truly are a celebration of the art form—the entire art form.

Well, it seems that is all changing now. With the relegation of some categories, including, if you believe the rumors, cinematography, to the commercial break, it is the end of not only an era, but the end of what the Oscars have been and should be about. Movies are a visual medium and they want to move cinematographers to the side. I would be laughing if I weren’t crying.

And then, just this week, the final nail in the coffin: the rumor that the longstanding tradition of having the previous year’s acting winners presenting the award to their opposite sex counterparts is now at an end, in favor of having bigger names do the presenting instead. So this is where my blood finally reached its boiling point. Perhaps my favorite part of every Oscar night is when the previous year’s Best Actor comes out to present Best Actress, or last year’s Best Supporting Actress present Supporting Actor, and so on. It serves not only as a continuity, but a recognition and a symbol of the community that film is. It’s a handing off to a new member of the team, a passing of the torch, so to speak, a “welcome to the club.” It’s a wonderful tradition and it is always fun when the combinations provide some sort of spark or intrigue (“oooh, they used to be married!” or “weren’t they in so-and-so together?”). But the bottom line is, when you have the previous winner hand it off to a current winner, there is an incalculable bond there, one that is not forced by publicists or producers or manufactured for ratings…it is the purest thing on the Oscars. So, of course, they are getting rid of it. And many people, including me, are NOT happy about it. Including, apparently, last year’s winners. Now we won’t get Frances McDormand to even come. And Frances McDormand makes EVERYTHING better. Way to go, Oscars. ***UPDATE (2/7/19)*** The Academy has halfway reversed itself by announcing that all four acting winners from last year WILL present at this year’s show, but they will not be presenting any acting awards. So, one step forward, still two steps back. NOT good.

So yes, there has been a lot of controversy this year around the Oscars—and we still have three weeks to go. Who knows, they may still find a way to make some sort of reality competition out of the Oscars in a ratings grab. Keep an eye out for Jeff Probst anywhere near the Dolby Theatre.

And all this controversy isn’t even touching on the all the controversies surrounding some individual movies that are nominated, including Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody, both nominated for Best Picture.

But at least one thing is for sure, the Oscars should be interesting to watch this year—whether it turns out to be a train wreck or a delightful treat is yet to be seen. And, no matter how much I try, I still seem to care and I will still be watching. Because it’s still the Oscars. And they haven’t totally broken them—yet.

The Oscars will be telecast on Sunday, February 24 at 5pm/8pm on ABC.