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Are the Oscars Broken?

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It's exceedingly strange how a person like me, who literally lives for movies, can recoil at the most visible, storied event intended to celebrate the very best of them.

I have to ask myself: if I were caught up in the bubble and swirl of the Oscars Campaign in Hollywood, would I actually find it rather thrilling? Or would I want to gag even more?

To be fair, I'm personally averse to hype and dislike watching or attending awards shows in general. Much like police work, it's 90% boredom, 10% excitement- an unacceptable ratio for me.

Still to my jaundiced eye, The Academy Awards telecast has become increasingly bloated in recent years- like a rich, fat uncle, sluggish and a trifle smug. As to design and presentation, I see ever more glitz, ever less glamour. (Audrey Hepburn, we need you!)

Yet beyond my view of the telecast itself, it was Mark Harris's incisive Oscars article in the February 15th issue of New York magazine ("Seducing Oscar") that helped crystallize my feelings on the subject.

First, Harris aptly quoted Evelyn Waugh's own past description of the institution as the film industry's "continuous psalm of self-praise", proving of course that the inward-looking, self-congratulatory flavor of the Oscars is nothing new.

Of course, to a degree this quality is inherent to any industry awards show. However, in the case of the Oscars, what makes this essential truth more off-putting is the sheer commercial garishness of the proceedings.

For instance, the recent story about Sarah Palin and her entourage raiding a pre-Oscars hospitality suite and running off with thousands of dollars worth of free give-aways reflected as badly on the Awards as it did on the madcap Ms. Palin.

Certainly some strategic sponsorships and product placement are to be expected, but when it translates to thousands of dollars' worth of free swag, for people who could otherwise easily afford these items, it becomes undeniably excessive, particularly during a recession.

Then, as Harris portrays in minute detail, there is the astonishing amount of resources, time, and effort which the studios now apply to sway Academy voters to their respective causes. It seems the rampant lobbying we complain about so vocally in Washington also happens in Hollywood, only there they don't even try to hide it.

For months leading up to the Academy Awards, there's a carefully orchestrated series of events, press conferences, and then, of course, all those other smaller awards shows, all of which serve as primaries in the campaign leading up to the Oscar night.

Throughout this intensive, almost continual process, studios with pictures in Oscar contention employ an army of PR types whose existence is focused entirely on advancing the cause of a single film and its creators.

What's objectionable about this?

In an environment with so much static, it must be harder for Academy voters to let the films speak for themselves, which is precisely what should happen. Undoubtedly many members get wooed away from their first, best instincts by seasoned communications strategists adept at spinning just why their film truly deserves the award.

Knowing this, when we hear the winners announced, whom do we congratulate? The film-makers who conceived the work, or the studio flacks who sold it to the Academy constituents?

Going further, was the movie that draws the top prize indeed the best picture of the year, or just the most shrewdly promoted? Did it win for lasting creative merit, or sheer popularity, as evidenced by box office? Were there other industry-related factors involved as well?

We the public never really learn the precise calculus. Perhaps that's part of the whole fascination.

Still, via this murky route, justice is not always done.

Speaking subjectively, I have only agreed with two of the past ten winners for Best Picture: American Beauty (1999) and No Country For Old Men (2007).

Below are listed the actual winners from the other years, along with the film I'd argue was more deserving in terms of enduring impact and quality, which I still take the phrase "Best Picture" to mean:

2000: Winner- Gladiator My pick- Traffic

2001: Winner- A Beautiful Mind My pick- In The Bedroom

2002: Winner- Chicago My pick- The Pianist

2003: Winner- LOTR: The Return Of The King My pick- "In America" (not even nominated!)

2004: Winner- Million Dollar Baby My pick- Sideways

2005: Winner- Crash My pick- Brokeback Mountain

2006: Winner- The Departed My pick- Little Miss Sunshine

2008: Winner- Slumdog Millionaire My pick- Milk.

With all this said, the Academy Awards is still the biggest and best Awards show we've got, and eighty-plus years after its relatively humble beginnings, it still exerts a disproportionate amount of buzz and fascination, both inside and outside the movie business.

So, are the Oscars indeed broken? I guess we'll all have to tune in Sunday night to find out...

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