The Academy Awards are Dying From Self-Inflicted Wounds

For the past few months, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been slowly killing its Oscar telecast. It’s been death by a thousand cuts: a host controversy has plagued the entire season; the inclusion of milquetoast crowdpleasers as legitimate contenders also seem particularly egregious in a year where there has been wonderful diversity in storytelling. And then, there was the bizarre choice to not invite last year’s acting winners out to announce the winners in this year’s race.

That nonsensical decision was met with enough pushback that the Academy acquiesced and said “lol kidding, all four actors will be there to announce the winners.” If that mild annoyance drew enough public ire to make the Academy change their mind, perhaps their latest embarrassment won’t last long, because the outrage is now over legitimately baffling and gross decisions.

In order to shorten the program, allegedly, the telecast will not be airing the winner of the following four categories: cinematography, editing, makeup/hairstyling, live-action short. Let’s consider for a moment that the Academy did this to try and shorten the telecast, which is a stupid waste of time that anyone who actually cares about the program and the history of the Oscars have never complained about. They’re chasing a crowd who doesn’t care about their product, but let’s just assume, for this first rant, that this is the real reason these specific four categories were removed from the telecast.

Makeup and hairstyling are crucial to the art of moviemaking, the art that president John Bailey claims to want to celebrate in the telecast, despite removing categories. Not airing the live-action short winner is especially cynical, given the fact that whomever wins in this category may never return to the Oscars the rest of their life. It’s their moment, and now it will be handled during commercial breaks.

Removing cinematography and editing from the telecast, however, is unforgivable. It’s the final pair of nails in the coffin of this year’s show, which has been a complete trash fire for months. When I first read this news, I couldn’t quite put my finger on the reason why removing these two specific categories was so disgusting and idiotic. Then I read this, and it clicked:

This explains it clearly and succinctly, so there’s no reason to explain it further. Cinematography and editing are movies, so clearly this telecast is no longer about celebrating the craft of cinema, it’s about selling advertising and hitting a time window and, oh yeah, it’s about Disney’s control over ABC.

If these four categories seem like a weird collection of categories to take off the air, don’t worry, there is a totally cynical and even more disgusting reason they’re being axed: there’s not one Disney movie nominated in any of these four categories. Disney owns ABC. Again, the dots aren’t that difficult to connect, and those dots put together an ugly picture that is enough for me to turn my back on the entire process.

I first started watching The Oscars closely in the spring of 1991, having just turned ten. Obviously I hadn’t watched Goodfellas, but I had seen and loved Dances With Wolves (and still do) and I wanted to see how it did. From that year on, I was by the television every spring, for good movies or bad, and I stuck with it through thick and thin and four-and-a-half hour unwieldy behemoths with awkward moments and controversy and upsets and excitement. I learned about the history of the movies and the craft of the movies, I can name any Best Picture winner from 1968 to the present, and for years I explained to curious friends the difference between cinematography and art direction. If there is any person in this country who could claim a long-standing love and admiration for everything the Oscars stood for, it was yours truly.

Now that I’ve spent enough time needlessly qualifying myself, let me just say I don’t care to see this disastrous debacle unfold. It’s disheartening. There are plenty of ways to shorten the telecast that don’t involve turning the program into a three-hour Disney advertisement , but why the hell do you have to change it at all? It’s one night, it’s celebrating an entire year of movies and a slate of films that’s expanding faster than cells can duplicate, and it should be a party where all the bits and pieces that put together these beautiful works are universally celebrated. Let it go five hours. Who gives a shit? This feels cynical and tacky and gross, and John Bailey and the Academy should be truly embarrassed today.

Its’ unlikely that they’re embarrassed, however, because they don’t really care in the end. I didn’t really care if Kevin Hart was there – and I’m glad he isn’t because he isn’t funny and we all need to acknowledge this. Having no host seems like the product of a time when just about anyone can be labeled “problematic” enough to cause a stir. It’s an odd feeling to not have a host, but it’s manageable enough to get around with a few surprise appearances during the broadcast.

The nominees themselves, well, they need some work, but there is a logical reason why they would want to include popular box-office hits in the mix. Not inviting last year’s acting winners back felt like a shot in the dark that was quickly reversed, but who knows if this latest, most damning mistake, will get corrected. But now, despite my newfound resistance to being emotionally attached to such frivolous things, this latest news felt honestly, personally, hurtful. It’s an attack on a medium to which I have dedicated years upon years of my life; it’s a firm, uncaring slap in the face.

Stop tinkering with a product that has a niche audience, because you’re losing that niche audience and the “mainstream” crowd you’re trying to lure in won’t backfill those spaces. Perhaps terrible ratings will allow a true regime change in the Academy, not this window-dressing diversity quota we got a few years ago. The only thing fans of the Oscars can hope for is that this telecast is not only a disaster but, more importantly, a big money loser for ABC and Disney, so much so that they sell off the rights, or get someone to run the place who appreciates what the Academy Awards stand for.

Play to your fans and you will find the success you so desire, but it feels too late to learn that lesson.

 

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WIDOWS is a Rare, Engaging Thriller for Adults

Widows is the rarest of major studio films, a strictly adult-oriented thriller with very little in the way of pomp and circumstance, directed by Steve McQueen with attention to performance over plot. It’s a showcase for an incredible, and incredibly deep, roster of acting greatness. While it may not carry that intensity all the way through to the flat conclusion, the means to which we reach this end are worth the time.

Based on a British miniseries from the mid ’80s, Widows begins with a heist gone horribly awry on the streets of Chicago. The four thieves – led by Liam Neeson’s Harry – are killed in a fiery shootout, and the money they stole disintegrates right along with them. The missing money belongs to a wannabe city councilman Jamal Manning (Atlanta‘s Brian Tyree Henry) and his murderous brother, Jatemme, played by Daniel Kaluuya with brilliant, eerie menace. The Manning’s need the money, and have transferred the debt over to the wives of the dead thieves, namely Veronica, Harry’s widow.

Viola Davis plays Veronica, and flashes every ounce of that recognizable Viola Davis intensity in moments big and small. Veronica has no friends, she owns nothing in the home she shared with Harry, and tragedy has followed her lately. She is shut off from the rest of the world, but she kicks into gear when her life is threatened. This means bringing in two of the other widows to help her steal five million dollars: the aloof Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and the world-weary Linda (Michelle Rodriguez).

The machinations of the heist the women need to plan takes a backseat to some tremendous character building through the meat of the picture. Aside from the situation these women find themselves in, a subplot involving a smarmy politician (and Jamal Manning’s competition) named Jack Mulligan – played by Colin Farrell, who can so easily slip into this role – and his racist father, played by Robert Duvall, expands the breadth of McQueen’s film. While the tension of the necessary heist builds, and Kaluuya’s murderous Jatemme closes in, McQueen takes the time to show us the corruption of city politics. In one extended, unbroken shot, he gives us a glimpse in the disparity between city officials and the constituents for which they claim to work, simply by mounting a camera on the hood of a car.

Despite the sprawl of McQueen’s story – which clearly feels at times like an abbreviated mini series – Widows never loses focus, and the actors are all fully engaged to a point where their dedication to the story is palpable. Viola Davis does her thing, but there are great performances big and small all over the screen.

There are twists and turns along the way, but the ending fizzles when it should pop. That isn’t as detrimental to the overall experience, however, as McQueen crafts an endlessly engaging and compelling story surrounding characters we care about in a film where characters are so often thrown into heist films to move the plot forward. Widows is unique these days as a thriller aimed strictly at adults; for that alone, it should be praised.