Oscars 2019 | Does Award Show Populism Even Make Sense?

Award shows are funny things. On the face of it an award show’s sole function is to honour the year’s best and most important work, whether it be in film, music, or some other creative form. It’s at once a simple and complex task, inherently divisive and yet arguably completely unimportant. But award shows, maybe most significantly the Oscars in particular, are media events unto themselves, big televised events that have the very commercial goal of attracting as many eyeballs as possible very much in mind. Their purpose is to entertain as much as it is to celebrate the year’s best and award shows typically fail to do both in some way. No one watches, everyone hears about it, no one is satisfied. They’re built to fail.

This is of course all preamble to discussing an already notably chaotic film award season, one whose absurdity and controversy perhaps a perfect reflection of the current socio-political state of the world today. The Oscars don’t have a host since Kevin Hart seemingly joined forces with many other controversial celebs on the great ‘We Apologised But Won’t Apologise Tour’ of 2018/2019, Green Book won’t stop winning despite a firestorm of negativity that not even Dr. Octavius could sink into the ocean and then there was the Golden Globes which reminded us again that the Golden Globes is the Fredo of awards shows. It’s at once exciting and underwhelming, the openness of this award season undone by the firm conviction that once it all shakes out it will still disappoint.

Outside of a film’s quality (which we can somewhat ignore really) there are really two motivating forces behind award season success: Star Power and Messaging. Award shows like famous people because famous people mean viewers, simple as. Celebrity is no guaranteer of success but Oscar campaigns have been built on far less. Yet maybe more important than celebrity to awards season success is campaigning, the behind the scenes charm offensive designed to court voters to rally behind your movie. Nothing is more important than the campaign and nothing is more important to the campaign than a slogan. The message is everything.

Perhaps it’s a fools errand to pick apart any award show and try to find any real prevailing logic to the whole thing. That’s a reasonable point but not a wholly satisfying one. When a film like Bohemian Rhapsody wins the top honour at the Golden Globes, a film that even many of its own defenders would concede is not an objectively good film, it’s almost impossible to believe that it won on pure perceived merit. What did it then? Was it the narrative that the film celebrates outsiders even while marginalising the outsider at the centre of the movie? Or is it as simple as honouring Queen, a band that almost everyone likes to some degree? It’s likely a bit of both. But mainly it’s misguided populism. Success begets success.


This statement requires two footnotes: (1) Small movies like Moonlight can still win if what they lack in monetary success is made up by cultural status and (2) the Grammys and Oscars love a hit movie. But this love so far has not extended to true popcorn movies like The Dark Knight or Black Panther.

Predicting awards shows is still a difficult thing to do and any conventional wisdom is proven wrong once in a while. This awards season has proven that more thoroughly than any other in recent memory. The conventional narratives have so far failed to materialise and maybe they won’t at all. Or maybe everything will reset once the Oscars come around and everything we thought will happen will happen. A month away from the night itself it still is the most open awards show in several years.

For some time it was a generally agreed consensus that the two big contenders in this dogfight were A Star Is Born and Roma. These two films were seen as perfectly poised to define the irresistible narrative of big against small, worthy against unworthy, 2019’s answer to 2017’s Moonlight v La La Land and 2018’s The Shape of Water v Get Out rivalries. It was, truthfully, still a reductive binary but one with more interesting dimensions than years past.

If A Star Is Born was to inherit the role of clear industry frontrunner, a plant that denied a more interesting film the opportunity of success, it was at least a genuinely good to great movie, something much more deserving than the typical Hollywood movie. In terms of critical reception, A Star Is Born and Roma are really not that far apart which distorts the image of Roma as the “Critic’s Choice.” A further distortion is Roma’s distribution by Netflix, a company doing more than any other to upend the current business model of the movie industry which has made the career of Academy voters. Can a film be both an underdog and in close partnership with one of the most powerful forces in the entertainment industry today? And can that film still be the film of cinema purists when it’s very method of release challenges the vitality of cinemas themselves? These were the questions we were expecting to grabble with. It seemed certain.

You don’t need to be M. Night Shyamalan to see the twist. This did not happen. It still could! At this point anything could still happen, for better or for worse. Both films will still be big contenders at this year’s Oscars even if they aren’t the clear frontrunners we thought they were. The success of Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book at the Globes upended all these assumptions. Roma’s had a strong award season but so far A Star Is Born has underwhelmed, shocking considering the film’s reputation, star power, and commercial success. It has all the ingredients that should mean conventional Oscar success. That success might come. It might not. It’s almost impossible to know anymore.

The often unspoken question to any discussion of an award show is this: Does any of this actually matter? The answer is always a qualified no. But it doesn’t have to be. Like it or not the Oscars is something we do care about, regardless of actual value. Every year we hope in some small way that these awards might go differently and almost every year we leave disappointed. The films that we are usually most passionate about don’t win because typically those films don’t have the commercial success required to be seriously considered by the Oscars and Globes.

Bohemian Rhapsody can win because enough people saw it. That’s it. It would appear the unexpected Best Picture win for Moonlight which caused such a sensation was as anomalous as we feared. Last year The Shape of Water won, a film that almost no one has thought about post-ceremony. While that was underwhelming it was not disastrous. This year very much could be.

The Oscar’s don’t have a host. They don’t have any clear favourites either. More importantly they don’t seem to have any any idea of their own self-identity. What does the Academy Awards want to celebrate in 2019? Do they want to go the populist route and sink their own reputation in doing so? Do they want to celebrate what a particular film might represent in a divisive time? Or do they just want to acknowledge actual craft?

The Academy would appear to be in a paradoxical situation. They want relevance but they don’t want to marginalise the mainstream movie goer by giving too much time to something like The Favourite. Last year the Academy tried to go down the middle of the road to the satisfaction of no one. This year presents an opportunity to reset, to present a clearer vision of where the Academy might go in the future.

Let’s hope they take it. The only certainty we have is that when the dust settles what did or did not win will be the least of what we’re talking about.

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