I admit to being a sucker for awards shows like the Emmys, the Tonys, the Golden Globes and The Oscars. I once would have included the Grammys, but I no longer have a clue who any of the nominees are or what many of the categories mean.
I concede there’s something wrong with all of these shows — how the nominees are selected, the categories in which they’re lumped, the conflict between promoting an industry and rewarding excellence.
But still, in a world of bashing and dissing and backstabbing and snark, it is a pleasure to watch people who have talent and have worked hard to make something being noticed for it and expressing their delight at being noticed. So, two cheers for praise and appreciation.
The winner of the acceptance speech this year goes to Viola Davis’s for being both heartfelt and thought out. No stammering, gushing or improvising. A consummate professional, it seemed obvious she knew actors need a script even when accepting awards and wrote herself one.
Other lessons were obvious. The foul up with the envelope for Best Picture is a forceful reminder at tax season to make sure you have a competent accountant. Especially if those who are going to be victimized by an error are octogenarians who may not be as quick to spot errors as they once were.
The hosting of Jimmy Kimmel was clever and he worked hard to involve the audience in the theater and at home, but isn’t the variety show aspect of the program beginning to overwhelm the actual task of handing out awards? When a running gag about Kimmel’s fake feud with Matt Damon eats up ten minutes or more while recipients who have waited a lifetime for recognition are cut off after 30 seconds something is out of kilter. Even the biggest movie buff in history doesn’t want a 190-minute awards show.
Most interesting is how this year highlighted an ongoing trend — the bifurcation of the movie business. Like everything else lately, we are looking at a big sort, a continuing disruption. In America, it’s Trump or anti-Trump, urban or rural, knowledge workers or manual laborers, haves and have nots, ad infinitum.
For several generations, Hollywood was a handful of mega-studios like MGM and 20th Century and a few B-Movie poverty row outfits. All churned out bread and butter genre fare like gangster movies, musicals, westerns, romances, melodramas, comedies. But a few quality pictures were always slated to burnish the studio’s reputation.Often, the genre pictures rose to classic status — “Shane,” “Casablanca,” “An American in Paris,” “The Godfather.”
More and more, however, the studios — now run by business people rather than movie people and often by multinational corporations — seek to maximize profits leading to endless dreary franchises by rote, like Fast and Furious XVII, Marvel comics, and so on. Adults have increasingly stayed home where TV offers unexpected depth and have left the multiplexes to teens who want to see vulgar romcoms or slacker pictures, explosions, fist fights, bug-eyed monsters and slashers.
The grown up fare that is still produced tends increasingly to come from Indie outfits like Regency, Plan B, A24, Annapurna and even Amazon, elbowing into yet another business. Without them it would be tough to find a film for a person who finished high school to like.
The result is movies made for a big budget seeking a big gross. They are designed to sell worldwide, which places a premium on action, noise and spectacle rather than on character, conflict and complexity — the stuff of drama since Euripides and Aristophanes. Thus, sci-fi, martial arts, comic books, cartoons.
The top grossers of 2016, with earnings rounded to the nearest million, included “Suicide Squad” ($745), “Rogue One” ($675), “Deadpool” ($783), “Batman vs. Superman” ($873), and “The Jingle Book”, “Zootopia” and “Finding Dory” — all $1 billion or more.And, except for in the categories of special effects and cartoons, nothing worth an Oscar as far as the eye can see. Also, in every case, half or more of the money came from overseas.
At the other extreme are all the Best Picture nominees. Almost all were made by tiny Indie outfits on a shoestring budget. They concerned adult subject mater and featured intelligent, well-crafted scripts, emotional situations and subtle dialogue requiring actual acting by the participants. This sort of thing often doesn’t export well and doesn’t attract huge crowds, alas. A poll showed that over half of the public had seen none of the Best Picture nominees. And the grosses prove it.
“Hidden Figures” cleared $100 million, “La La Land” $150, “Arrival” $140, “Fences” $56, “Manchester by the Sea” $47, “Lion” $42, “Hell and High Water” $27 and Best Picture winner “Moonlight” $22 million, the second lowest ever. Many of these movies were probably not available in large parts of the country. Only recently did several show up where I live, and only then because of the presence of a single theater that shoehorns a few such films into their rotation of superheroes Seth Rogan films.
This is a far cry from the days when the big studios put big stars in big pictures that could both draw a crowd and address the heart and mind. From the late 40s through the 80s Best Picture winner included “The Lost Weekend,” “Gentleman’s Agreement,” “All the King’s Men,” From Here to Eternity,” “On the Waterfront,” “Bridge over the River Kwai,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Apartment,” “A Man for all Seasons,” “The French Connection,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Terms of Endearment,” “Out of Africa.” And often the winers weren’t even the best picture in conention.
Thanks to globalism, greed, media fragmentation, the big studios have made a corporate choice for commerce over art and now churn out “product” aimed at the lowest common denominator. That leaves us with little production companies forced to paint miniatures rather than on big canvas. Norma Desmond had it right, it’s the pictures that got small. But not necessarily because that’s all people want, but what the studios seek — braindead blockbusters rather than solidly profitable art. As the president would say, “Sad.”