Oscar the Grouch

Can the Academy Awards get its groove back?

As counterintuitive as it may seem, turning the Academy Awards into an ersatz version of the Tony Awards -- hosted by recent Tonys emcee Hugh Jackman; filled with big song-and-dance routines; quasi-performed drawn-out nomination presentations -- was partially successful. Viewership was up somewhat from last year’s show, which was the lowest rated Oscars telecast in history.

But even so, it was a galaxy away from the Awards’ high point a dozen years ago, when 55 million people tuned into see Titanic nearly sweep everything. Where have producers gone wrong? What’s happened since then? It’s not just because people have other entertainment options. After all, unlike the music industry, people are still buying the product.

Call it the case of Oscar the Narcissistic Grouch.

Today, Hollywood has become so full of itself that it has forgotten how to balance art, message and commerce. The telecast is now only about the first two -- and hardly anything about the latter. Slumdog Millionaire and Milk may have been fine films, but they are promoted movies. By producing more and more awards shows and praising movies that make overt statements (in the case of these two, about globalization and political movements) Hollywood forces its own preferences to become "popular."

A dozen years ago, Oscar figured it out: In the middle of a decade where peace and prosperity ruled, Titanic became the biggest movie of all time. The Academy recognized that and gave the relatively conventional love story (combined with a special-effects generated historical sense of wonder) bushels of golden statues. Even so, Oscar managed to give major props to L.A. Confidential -- a superbly well-acted period piece set in 1950s Los Angeles -- and Good Will Hunting, written by up-and-comers Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.

No wonder, the telecast produced ratings magic.

By contrast, this year the three biggest box-office movies -- The Dark Knight, Iron Man and Wall-E -- were basically overlooked (Wall-E, of course, was a cinch to win Best Animated Film). Indeed, it’s an open question as to whether Heath Ledger would have even been nominated had he not, sadly, performed the ultimate career move.

Still, each of these films spoke either directly or allegorically to the times: The Dark Knight invited actual thoughts about how a hero deals with an urban terrorist; Iron Man’s alter-ego is a narcissistic businessman/weapons dealer whose life changes after an encounter with a terrorist cell in Afghanistan; Wall-E makes a statement about man and the environment in a much more subtle manner than, say, Milk does about man, sexuality and politics.

Once upon a time, Hollywood accepted the fact that the public could actually get it right on occasion. Movies could be directed at a mass audience -- and also be creative masterpieces. Not surprisingly, America would tune in when the Academy Awards came around. People actually like to see the balance between commercial enterprise and popularity. Hey, even the Tonys managed to pull off that balance. The biggest Broadway musical of all time -- The Producers, also won a record 12 Tonys -- and produced a big ratings telecast as well.

Maybe if Hollywood starts paying a bit more attention to the popular marketplace when award season swings by, the popular marketplace might start paying a bit more attention to the award shows themselves.

Robert A. George is a New York writer. He blogs at Ragged Thots.

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