And so we are once again at Oscar time. On Sunday, March 7th the awards are handed out. Expect Kathryn Bigelow to win Best Director for the excellent The Hurt Locker and Avatar to win Best Picture. Avatar should win Best Picture because it has the momentum, and has had it for months. Makes no nevermind to me since I'm no fan of that film anyway and will probably nod off somewhere around the fourth musical performance of the night. Still, my indifference to each year's specific Oscars never seems to diminish a misplaced affection I have for the award in general, for reasons I cannot entirely put into words, but will try anyway.
I still credit the Oscars in many ways for pushing my early cinephilia along. You see, I was one of those kids that read encyclopedias religiously. The "Motion Picture" section was my favorite and I read through it again and again and again. At the end of the section was the Oscars listing, going all the way up to the publication date of the encyclopedias, 1968. Yes, 1968. Anyway, I used the Oscars as my first ever guide as to what movies to see. Since there were no video stores, cable tv, Netflix, Amazon or i-tunes it meant I had to get lucky and have one of them air on PBS or network late-night tv but nevertheless, it provided me with a basic list of movies to see.
It didn't take long once I started seeing movies from around the world, movies listed on the Sight and Sound poll and movies from directors with whole books devoted to them to discover that the Academy didn't hold the art of cinema to a very high standard. So many of the movies honored over the years haven't been the Best Picture, haven't had the Best Performances, haven't had the Best Screenplays or haven't had the Best Cinematography that it became a kind of pastime to poke fun at some of the Oscar picks while still, somehow, holding them in a certain esteem. I think it was Pauline Kael who once remarked that the Oscars are extraordinary in that one can use them interchangeably as examples of either the highest standard or the lowest standard of cinema and people will understand the difference. In other words, someone can dismiss a performance by saying its the kind of performance that wins Oscars, meaning sentimental, overdone and filled to the brim with noble posturing. In the next breath someone can extol the virtues of a great performance by declaring it to be "Oscar worthy!" We all understand "the kind of performance that wins Oscars" means "not very good" while an "Oscar worthy performance" means "excellent." We all know what the Academy members do award, but we also know what they should award and therein lies the difference.
Still, with each passing year I find myself mellowing to Oscar's past transgressions as the thought of anything important being associated with them becomes more and more humorous. There was a time when Cimarron or The Greatest Show on Earth or The Sound of Music winning Best Picture would have really bugged me but now, despite not thinking highly of any of them, I actually get nostalgic to see them again. So they won Best Picture, who cares? Are Morocco and The Front Page from 1931, Singin' in the Rain from 1952 or Repulsion from 1965, all from the respective years of those three winners, forgotten now because they didn't get the Oscar? No, of course not. And you know what? How Green Was My Valley is a damn fine movie! I like Chariots of Fire too. And The Sting won Best Picture in the year when Cries and Whispers, The Exorcist, American Graffiti, The Long Goodbye and Spirit of the Beehive were all eligible but I don't begrudge it that. Quite frankly, if many of these lesser films hadn't won Best Picture I might never have seen them and many of them are a lot of fun even if they're not the most shining examples of the cinematic art form.
So this Sunday watch the Oscars or ignore them completely but whether you're a casual movie fan or a true dyed-in-the-wool cinephile try not to get too upset at the outcome. While the ideal of the award may still be the highest achievement in the art of cinema we all know the real award doesn't mean a thing. And if a movie's greatness, like that of a Citizen Kane or a La Règle du Jeu, can sustain it in perpetuity without any Oscars for Best Picture, why not let the lesser works go ahead and win it. In many cases, it's the only chance they have of being remembered at all.