March 3, 2016

BERKOWITZ | Objectivity at the Oscars

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Leo won, Lady Gaga lost and Michael B. Jordan wasn’t nominated. Is that an accurate summary of the Academy Awards? It’s certainly subjective and not all-inclusive … sound familiar?

In the coming years, the changes announced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to “[double] the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020” will hopefully make a meaningful impact on the diversity debate that reached a tipping point this year. But is it too much to hope that bringing a more diverse set of views will also reduce so-called “Oscar snubs” in general and improve the academy’s ability to give credit where credit is due?

Historically, the Academy has a very so-so track record of awarding movies and individuals who have been remembered as classics. Take Alfred Hitchcock for example, whose works such as Psycho, North by Northwest and Vertigo, have influenced fellow directors Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan. Hitchcock never won an Oscar. Take Tom Cruise, who was one of the biggest movie stars since the 1980s, with roles in Jerry Maguire, Rain Man, Top Gun, just to name a few.  Cruise has never won either.  Lastly look at It’s A Wonderful Life, the perennial Christmas-time favorite about a suicidal man who needs an angel to help him recognize that his life has meaning. While the American Film Institute considers this film as the most inspiring film of all time, the Frank Capra-directed fantasy drama won zero Academy Awards.

To be fair, it’s a lot easier to look back on movies and specific roles from decades ago to declare who ‘should have’ been the winner (and who shouldn’t have been, Cruise), but snubs have become commonplace in recent years as well. Let’s consider Leonardo DiCaprio, who was perhaps the biggest winner of Sunday night with his Best Actor nod for The Revenant. Having already fallen short of winning after being nominated four times in the past 20 years, Leo’s prolonged quest for an Oscar became so comical that a computer game, “Leo’s Red Carpet Rampage,” was created in honor of his quest. In fact, many critics have spoken of his win as ‘long overdue,’ rather than ‘finally deserving.’

All of these snubs raise the broader question: how is the winner decided? Unfortunately, a lot of specific information about the nominating process isn’t made available. The voting page on the Oscars website is very nondescript about the process. In summary, one can ascertain that any voting members can choose a Best Picture nominee and that the voting process begins in late December. Digging a little deeper into the website, you can find the “Rules & Eligibility” Page. Rule Two of the awards, eligibility, lists specific criteria for film eligibility, but not voters. In the Balloting and Nominations section of the Academy’s complete rulebook, most of the rules guide nominations and procedures. Interestingly enough, there is no explicit rule mandating the viewing of the final nominations. While the Academy has a provision to provide screenings to “insure a full and fair consideration of the merits of all eligible achievements,” this only goes so far as helping voters who ‘desire’ a specific screening, without requiring all voters who haven’t seen a particular nomination to do so.

In light of no explicit rule mandating viewings, one would hope that perhaps there has been an unwritten rule. Last year, The Hollywood Reporter published a piece based on a poll it conducted amongst Academy members voting for the awards in 2015. Their results found that almost six percent of Academy voters didn’t view all the best picture nominees. Even worse, the movie Selma, which many viewed to be snubbed in light of its disappointing takeaway at the awards, went unseen by ten percent of the Academy’s voters, which was eight percent higher than the 2015 winner, Birdman. How is it that voters can be expected to objectively vote for the unsurpassed, greatest film of the year when they haven’t seen each nominated film?

Declaring a winner for an Academy Award is different than determining who a marathon. Unlike in a marathon, in which the winner can be clearly identified as the individual who crosses the finish line first, the Oscars have no purely objective standard to determine its winners. Like with most competitions in the filmmaking, there is inevitably going to be a degree of subjectivity, and deciding who should win is always going to be based at least somewhat on factors beyond the performances and productions themselves. For many people involved in this industry, even just getting an Oscar nomination is nearly as much of an honor and a career goal as actually winning the award. The changes announced this year to increase diversity was a meaningful and symbolic step towards capturing a broader view on what individuals and films are worthy of these nominations. However, the Academy can and should do more to strive towards a more fair and objective voting scheme that most objectively identifies the best of the best, or else its credibility for recognizing the best of the best will continue to diminish.

Ethan Berkowitz is a senior in the College of Industrial and Labor Relations. Views From the 14853 appears alternate Fridays this semester.

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