The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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Are the Oscars ready to swap their stuffed shirt for a shapely thong?

February 2, 2010 |  1:16 pm

The best thing that you can say about today's Oscar best picture nominations is that, thanks to "Avatar," millions of casual American moviegoers--the kind of folks who load up on popcorn and candy, bring a carload of kids and wouldn't dream of staying to watch the end credits--can actually say that they've seen an Oscar-nominated movie. That's a big step forward from last year's awards, which had three best picture nominees that, even if you added all their U.S. grosses together, didn't make as much money as "Avatar" did in its first week of release. The presence of "Avatar" will do wonders for the academy's March 7 Oscar telecast, at least in terms of ratings, since judging from the numbers the Oscars received the year "Titanic" won best picture, having a Jim Cameron film around on Oscar night almost assuredly delivers tons of TV eyeballs.

The academy made a bold move this year, expanding its best picture nominees from five to 10 pictures, which has clearly accomplished its obvious intent--making room for more commercial pictures. It's pretty clear that if we only had five nominations this year we wouldn't have "The Blind Side" or "District 9," two films that each made more than $100 million at the box office, in the best picture mix. (We probably wouldn't have had "Up"--another blockbuster--in the best picture race either, but it would have still been a high-profile presence on the show, since it's the prohibitive favorite to win best animated feature.)

But it's a little too early for the academy to declare victory. Since Cameron only makes a film every dozen or so years, "Avatar" is a once in a blue moon phenomenon. It won't be around next year or any of the years afterward to goose TV ratings. And if you take "Avatar" out of the mix, the best picture nominees are still heavily weighted toward the kind of serious, high-minded movies the academy, along with the nation's film critic establishment, likes to reward for their artistic ambitions. 

It is a wonder to see "The Blind Side" get a best picture nomination, since it is exactly the kind of well-crafted, heartfelt film that is usually ignored at Oscar time. Ditto for "District 9," which had an intensity and restless energy that is rarely seen in the Oscar precincts. But the academy still couldn't entirely shed its elitist sentiments. Every year, Hollywood makes a home-run comedy--this year it was "The Hangover"--and every year the academy ignores it, foolishly persuaded that comedy is somehow easier to do than drama. The academy also has a tin ear for more adult-oriented comic entertainment (represented this year by "Julie & Julia" or "It's Complicated") that were once regularly nominated by academy voters in the era of Billy Wilder and George Cukor. And the academy wouldn't dream of nominating well-made films that actually lured millions of young moviegoers to the theaters, whether it was "The Hangover," "Twilight" or "Star Trek."

What fascinated me the most about Tuesday's best picture nominations is how different they were from most of the top nominations given out by the Grammys, which had their big show Sunday night, earning an astounding 35% boost in ratings, putting the broadcast into "American Idol" territory. Both organizations are made up of respected industry professionals, presumably eager to reward the best work in their respective fields. Yet the motion picture academy almost always opts for seriousness over comedy, artistic heft over youthful innovation. It's not a coincidence that in most years, the majority of best picture nominees are set in the past, not in the present.

On the other hand, the Recording Academy, officially known as NARAS, has increasingly given itself over to mainstream commercial taste. As my colleague Todd Martens pointed out the other day, the five Grammy nominees for album of the year, the industry's top award, sold more than 13 million albums. Taylor Swift's "Fearless," the eventual winner, was the year's top-selling album, moving 4.6 million copies.

The most striking thing about those awards was the gap between pure talent and Grammy glory. Even though Swift was the big winner Sunday night, she has largely been derided by critics and is viewed as a youthful enthusiasm, not a serious artist. (If you watched the show, you may have noticed that while she has lovely hair, she can barely sing.) Yet the much-vaunted Recording Academy showered her with honors. It would be the equivalent of the Oscars giving Michael Bay the best director statuette for "Transformers" or presenting the best actor award to Kevin James for "Paul Blart: Mall Cop." The Grammys also nominated the wonderfully outrageous Lady Gaga for a slew of awards, which would sort of be like the Oscars giving multiple nominations to Kristin Stewart for her work in "Twilight."

How is it possible that the two most prestigious academies can have such radically different attitudes toward awards? My theory is that the Recording Academy, whose industry has already been devastated by a disastrous, decade-long economic tailspin, has been forced to shed any lofty ambitions and reach out for its core fan base. In a sense, the music business has finally embraced the future. If you watched the Grammys on Sunday night, you saw a show making a naked grab for TV ratings, even borrowing from "American Idol" by having viewers vote on a song that would be performed by Bon Jovi toward the end of the broadcast. It worked beyond the recording academy's wildest dreams--and of course puts the pressure on the Oscars to deliver a similar kind of ratings bounce.

It hardly matters whether the Grammys' producers decided to go for the gold or had a CBS shotgun at their heads. It was an awards show in survival mode. The broadcast was transformed into a completely populist variety show, full of eye-popping carnival acts, from Lady Gaga's surreal show-opening musical number with Elton John to Pink's amazing Cirque du Soleil-style high-wire number. The show barely gave a nod to the best-reviewed artists of the year--not a minute was wasted showing off the Animal Collective or Neko Case or the Dirty Projectors. The broadcast embraced the industry's top-selling acts, showcasing Beyonce, Swift, GaGa, the Black Eyed Peas and the Dave Matthews Band.

It was instructive to notice what didn't get airtime. The Oscars, maddeningly, still insist on giving out every minor award on air, encouraging millions to tune out while the winners of best sound editing or best documentary short are onstage. The Grammys only gave out nine awards in a 3 1/2-hour broadcast--everything else was pure entertainment. The industry's legends got short shrift too. Michael Jackson had a lengthy tribute, but one enlivened by performances by commercially viable stars. When it came to honorary tributes, if you blinked, you missed 'em. Leonard Cohen got all of 14 seconds of face time for winning one of the night's lifetime achievement awards.

So what can the motion picture academy learn from this? I'm not saying the Oscars have to stoop to conquer, although it would be pretty funny to have viewers vote--Bon Jovi-style--on having Robert De Niro and Robert Downey Jr. come out and perform the viewers' favorite scene from a big 2009 hit, like "Taken" or "The Hangover." (OK, OK, just kidding). But the Grammy telecast was a glimpse of the future, not just for the Oscars, but for all awards shows.

The era where you could simply deliver a TV audience by having a decorous evening honoring an industry's highest artistic achievements is going, going, gone. If the motion picture academy wants the Oscars to retain their stature as show business' top award show, it's going to have to give props to a wider range of movies than it ever has before. Today's nominations were a small step in the right direction, but the Oscars still have a lot of remodeling and reinvention to do before they can say that they've made the leap into the new world.