Fiona Mountford

The Oscars championed the average over the excellent

The Oscars championed the average over the excellent
Jessica Chastain wins best actress (Getty)
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For a number of years now, as the streaming revolution ramps up and our watching habits become ever more fragmented, the Oscars have been locked in a desperate struggle against plummeting viewing figures and waning public interest. This is obviously a situation that Will Smith wanted to try and remedy – and not simply by winning the Best Actor award for his work in a classic all-American story of triumph over adversity. His fierce portrayal of Venus and Serena Williams’ maniacally driven father in King Richard was deservedly popular yet incredibly, less than half an hour prior to picking up this gong, Smith had climbed impromptu onto the stage at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angles to sock presenter Chris Rock squarely in the face.

‘Keep my wife’s name out of your f*king mouth’, he said, twice, after Rock made a rather off-colour joke referencing Jada Pinkett Smith’s alopecia. The clip of this will be watched by millions more viewers than the Oscars themselves and the debates around it will rumble on endlessly. Yet strip away the Smith shenanigans and what is left is an Oscars that celebrated the average over the excellent.

The finest artistic decision of the night was the awarding of Best Director to Jane Campion for her austerely beautiful revisionist Western The Power of the Dog. Smith-gate will ensure that few column inches are dedicated to the fact that, for the first time in Oscar history, women have triumphed in this category in consecutive years (Chloe Zhao won last year for Nomadland). Despite Campion’s victory, The Power of the Dog lost out in the Best Picture category to Coda, a crowd-pleasing tale of the struggles of the sole hearing member of a deaf family. Coda is certainly agreeable enough, in a snuggle-up-on-the-sofa-on-a-Sunday-afternoon sort of way, but the notion that is the finest film of the year is ludicrous. It is comforting, largely unchallenging fare and it brings back uncomfortable memories of the victory of the mediocre Green Book in this section three years ago. If this gold standard award keeps selecting so strangely, the cachet of the Oscars will continue to slip away fast.

It's worryingly easy to overlook the fact that ten films were in the running for Best Picture this year. Most of them didn’t stand a chance – anything not in the English language faced a particular uphill battle – and were barely even mentioned as credible contenders. There was love for Steven Spielberg’s stylish reboot of West Side Story, but the classiest piece of cinema by some way was The Power of the Dog. Hereby hangs a problem: this complex film (complete with its knotty ending) was beloved by critics and cinephiles but was by no means a popular hit. The Oscars purportedly celebrate excellence, but they also want people to tune in and pay prime-time attention and the niche-ness of The Power of the Dog is not the recipe for that. It’s also worth noting that neither The Power of the Dog (Netflix) nor Coda (Apple TV+) were films that could be consumed in the time-honoured fashion of a Saturday night trip to the movies. The demise of the traditional cinema experience is another head-scratcher for the Oscars to fret about in years to come.

Elsewhere, the shallow triumphed over the profound. Kenneth Branagh picked up Best Original Screenplay for Belfast, his go-easy look at the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Incredibly, Jessica Chastain won Best Actress for her work as the eponymous American televangelist in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a performance that majored on flamboyance rather than interior depth in a film that sank without trace upon its release in this country. Kristen Stewart, with her impeccable portrayal of a troubled Diana, Princess of Wales in Spencer and Olivia Colman, all simmering maternal conflict in The Lost Daughter, deserve credit for not going and doing a Will Smith on Chastain. The Lost Daughter, sensitively directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal, was notably under-served all round. The brute truth is that, with this set of decisions, the Oscars managed to land a sucker-punch upon themselves, without need of any outside help from Will Smith.