When conversation turns to the Academy Awards, one of the first comments is invariably something like, "boy, there weren't that many good movies this year." The pickings are somewhat slim this season (we now live in a world where Jonah Hill will forever be referred to as "Academy Award nominee Jonah Hill"), but popular opinion always seems to lament that each year produces worse films than the one preceding it.
The Oscars distill the total effort of the year into the supposed "best" half-dozen or so pictures, and only once in a blue moon is there a populist favorite like "Lord of the Rings" or "Gladiator" that appeases both Academy voters and the movie-going public. Thus, we get Oscar fatigue and complain that their choices are either too inaccessible ("The Tree of Life") or too cloying ("War Horse," "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close") and that our personal taste does not need validation.
So why the opulent ceremony? The time from red carpet to the Best Picture award pushes four hours, most of which is filled with montages, inside jokes, and performances of every last original song nominee. And the entire thing only honors some of the most privileged members of our society.
Yet, the Academy Awards as an institution also serves a higher purpose in the continuation of film history.
In terms of public awareness, the cachet associated with winning a bronze statuette might only be trumped by a Nobel Prize, but the Oscars do more than award the filmmakers of each picture. The winners enter the accepted canon of "good movies" and everything else begins the slow fade into relative obscurity (just try naming the first five movies you can think of from the 1970s then see how many were winners versus how many were nominees).
For film consciousness as a whole, the Academy effectively picks which movies will be remembered and which will be forgotten. This is not to put the cart before the horse, as the winning films are usually of a caliber that would warrant merit regardless of accolades, but that Oscar seal of approval still carries a great deal of weight.
We need the grand public spectacle that is the Oscars (this is a Billy Crystal year, no less) to implant these decisions into the filmic consciousness. Earlier this week, L.A. Times released a demographic breakdown of the Oscar voters, comprised of the nearly 6,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: 94 percent are Caucasian, 77 percent are male, and 86 percent are over the age of 50, which seems to correspond with their often conservative picks. Yes, it is a little hegemonic that a small organization of insiders has a large hand in determining our cinematic heritage, but these people also made the movies in the first place.
If you choose to take part in the 84th iteration of this annual rite on Sunday evening, I encourage you to think back on the history that preceded it as well as the way the films honored will be remembered in the decades to come—and most importantly, who's dressed poorly on the red carpet.
The Bowdoin Film Society will host its annual Oscars party in Smith Auditorium, Sills Hall on Sunday at 8 p.m. Free food will be available and prizes will be awarded for correctly predicting the winners.