The 84th Academy Awards really looked their age on Sunday night. The painfully cobwebby spectacle included a cringe-inducing blackface joke, a tribute to an elderly seat filler and endless self-absorbed claptrap about the magic of movies. After a dreary 6-month-long awards season largely revolving around movies about movies, why did Oscar organizers feel the need to hammer away at the idea that they love — I mean really love — their movies?
Probably because there's growing evidence that the rest of us don't really love the same movies they do. With one exception, “The Help,” the academy's nine best picture nominees didn't make much of an impression in Middle America. “The Artist” won best picture but hasn't hit box-office pay dirt outside of the urban chattering classes. Having struggled to make $32 million, “The Artist” is on track to be the second-lowest grossing best picture winner in the past 35 years.
The worst performing best picture winner in that period was 2009's “The Hurt Locker.” In other words, the two lowest-grossing best picture winners have come in the past three years, not an especially encouraging sign in terms of Oscar relevance to the broader culture.
The retro feel of Sunday's show didn't do anything to connect the Oscars with a younger audience. Overall viewership was up 4% over last year but ratings were flat with adults ages 18 to 49. As one viewer put it on Twitter: “I think my dad is texting all these jokes to Billy Crystal during commercials.”
Although the academy and ABC have tried all sorts of hip new ways to engage the masses — they've got Twitter, a Facebook page with more than 394,000 “Likes” and whatnot — the Academy Awards remain a 1960s-style variety show, simply one devoted to promoting movies.
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Before the show began, ABC's Jess Cagle accompanied Tom Hanks down the Oscar winners' backstage walkway to the then-largely empty press room, with Hanks attempting to describe the madcap atmosphere the press corral would have later in the evening. But amazingly, especially for an industry where you are taught on the first day of film school to “show, not tell,” the broadcast never returned to the press room to give us a glimpse of the colorful interplay that ensues when an Oscar winner arrives in a room packed to the gills with unruly reporters.
The Oscar team clearly realized its top films didn’t have much juice with mainstream America. Which begs the question: If the Academy really wanted to connect with a broader audience, why didn’t it organize a “Harry Potter” tribute, spotlighting the beloved actors who helped make the series such an immensely popular box-office mainstay?
In the long run, the show isn't even the academy's biggest problem. In recent years, the organization has lost a sense of focus about what kind of institution it wants to be. For years, we've suspected that the academy's aging membership was about as connected to today's turbulent pop culture as the Council on Foreign Relations. This month, The Times published a study that found that the academy's voting membership is nearly 94% white and 77% male. Oscar voters have a median age of 62, with just 14% of voting members being under 50.
With this new mirror held up to its visage, academy members have been of different minds as to whether a face-lift is needed. Denzel Washington, an Oscar winner for his role in “Training Day,” said that if the “country is 12% black, make the academy 12% black.” But Frank Pierson, a former academy president who won an Oscar for writing “Dog Day Afternoon,” said, “I don't see any reason why the academy should represent the entire American population,” he said. “That's what the People's Choice Awards are for.”
This difference of opinion seems to parallel the internal debate the academy has over the show itself — should the Oscars remain a stodgy but classy way of honoring the year's most artistic films? Or should it open its doors to more populist fare in the hopes of reflecting more mainstream tastes (and of course higher TV ratings)?
The truth is, the show could be more populist but still classy. And the academy could diversify itself without diminishing its status as a meritocracy. To insist otherwise is simply a failure of imagination.
The academy says part of the reason it hasn't been easy to make itself younger or more diverse is because its memberships are for life and rules allow the organization to bring in only 30 new voters each year beyond the number of spots created by deaths or retirements.
The academy could easily decide to put its oldest voters on retired status after a certain point — a step that is now strictly voluntary. For example, if you haven't had a credit in 25 years, you'd become an emeritus member, which would entitle you to all the perks the academy offers, minus the voting.
Currently, approximately 5% of the voting membership is over age 85. If they were put on emeritus status, that would presumably open up the membership rolls to a younger, more vital constituency.
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Lorenzo Semple Jr., who wrote such classic films as “Three Days of the Condor” and “The Parallax View,” is 88 but an avid participant in social networking. So I asked what he thought of the idea. It turns out that in the 1970s, after he'd become a member of the board of governors, he proposed a similar idea.
“People hated it — they thought it would be a terrible blow to older members,” he recalls. “Now that I'm older, I believe in the value of wisdom that comes with age. And it would be ridiculous for the academy to exactly reflect society as a whole. But we should consider the idea of having older members go on retired status, so the academy would be represented by more active members.”
The academy's lack of diversity is reflective of Hollywood as a whole. Executive suites are almost entirely bereft of people of color, and the majority of movie crews have very few minorities in their midst. The academy can't force the studios to hire more minorities. But it does have the economic resources to develop even more minority outreach programs than it currently funds. And it has the clout to send a clear message to studios that it expects to see a movie community with fewer barriers of entry for minority aspirants.
If our country's finest academic institutions feel an obligation to promote diversity by finding qualified students, it is long overdue for the industry that creates our kids' pop culture fantasies to do the same. Even though Billy Crystal is taking tons of heat for joking, apropos of “The Help,” that there are no black women in Beverly Hills, he would've been on perfectly safe ground noting that there aren't any black women greenlighting movies anywhere in Hollywood.
It is an industry-wide embarrassment. And because the academy represents Hollywood's highest order of artistic aspirations, it should make itself a visible leader, starting with an Oscar show that doesn't feel like a stale trip down memory lane.
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— Patrick Goldstein
Photo: Billy Crystal performing his opening number at the Oscars on Sunday night in Hollywood. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times.