Britain now takes the Oscars seriously. That’s a crying shame
There was a time when the British took a great deal of pleasure — and not a little bit of pride — in laughing at the self-adoring parade that is the Academy Awards ceremony. The Oscars were regarded as the film equivalent of the Eurovision Song Contest: a fun event that brought out the British talent for mockery. It was nothing more than a chance to check out the fashions and watch Hollywood’s A-list make fools of themselves with overlong and overwrought speeches. Ah, those were the days.
It has all changed now that Britain’s The King’s Speech is up for 12 Academy Awards, including Colin Firth for best actor. Last year the national mood was very different when Firth received a nomination for best actor for his role in the gay drama A Single Man. Hopes were high among film and Firth fans, but there was no sign of all this Andy Murray-like, will-he-won’t-he win anxiety.
But then this time Firth is playing a British king — George VI — in a truly British film. Irony and irreverence have given way to an earnest interest in the outcome. Yesterday we poked fun. Today we fly the flag.
When the Oscar nominations were first announced in January, I thought: who really cares? Even Americans had grown weary of them, if the dip in viewing figures for the big event was anything to go by. Now I know the answer to my question: everyone. Even intelligent film critics have succumbed to Oscar mania. I overheard a bunch of them at a screening the other week discussing the nominations with such solemnity you’d think they were discussing the national deficit or the future of democracy in Egypt.
These were critics who usually dismiss any American blockbuster as ‘Hollywood hype’. But what are the Oscars if not the great blockbuster of film awards — the ultimate triumph of hype over merit? As the director William Friedkin once said, the Oscars are ‘the greatest promotion scheme that any industry ever created for itself’.
I feel as if I’m being unpatriotic (and even a bit of a party pooper) for not taking part in this year’s Oscar fever. If people want to treat the Oscar spectacle as a bit of fun — like the Grand National — then fine. Enjoy. What bothers me is the way we have come to accept the great Hollywood myth that the Oscars aren’t just about glitz, but really are the mark of cinematic excellence. Oscar talk has infected the way we discuss and think about films. Nowadays when any actor gives a great performance critics will call it ‘an Oscar-winning performance’.
And it has become an unwritten rule of journalism that when you mention an actor you must give his or her Oscar tally. Even if someone hasn’t won an Oscar, it’s now customary to refer to the fact that they have been nominated for one. Thus the Australian director Peter Weir is referred to as ‘six-times Oscar nominee Peter Weir’ — which really means he is a six-time Oscar loser. ‘Oscar nominee Colin Firth’, should he win this Sunday, will always be referred to thereafter as ‘Oscar winner Colin Firth’. The assumption is that, without the imprimatur of the Oscar, we poor members of the public wouldn’t see his talent.
We seem to have forgotten that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — the body that gives out the Oscars — is infamous for failing to recognise talent. Here are some of the directors that it has failed to give an Oscar to: Robert Altman, Tim Burton, Orson Wells and Terrence Malick. And what about the actresses who were denied? There’s Garbo, Catherine Deneuve, Glenn Close and Debra Winger. Then think about the great performances of Richard Burton, Robert Mitchum and Cary Grant — they never won an Oscar either.
There were once dissenting voices. The great George C. Scott (Patton) refused to turn up to the Oscars on the grounds that ‘The whole thing is a goddamn meat parade!’ Now, however, dissent has given way to conformity — nobody bites the hand of Hollywood. Even the British anarcho-graffiti artist Banksy — whose Exit through the Gift Shop has been nominated for best documentary — has not ruled out making an appearance. ‘I don’t agree with the concept of awards ceremonies but I’m prepared to make an exception for the ones I’m nominated for,’ he said recently.
The outburst of patriotic pride focused on The King’s Speech is in fact a sad reflection on the nation’s self-esteem. In the absence of great sporting triumphs or inspiring public figures, do we really have to turn to Tinseltown to make us feel good about ourselves? Couldn’t we just have a good laugh at it, like we used to do?