Message to the Academy

Oh Please, Forget the Envelope

By James English
Sunday, March 5, 2006

Our cultural landscape is littered with prizes, but none looms larger than the Oscar. The Academy Awards show is the biggest event on America's cultural calendar, the object of massive media attention and the occasion for parties from Beverly Hills to Bangor, Maine. But let's face it, aside from our curiosity about wardrobes or our desire to see how Jon Stewart handles the pressure of hosting, there's not much at the Oscars these days to get our adrenaline going.

The awards themselves -- as judgments of value -- seem to get more boring, more anticlimactic every year. All the hype and hoopla can't cover the fact that, when those envelopes are opened tonight, there'll be almost nothing in the way of real suspense. But it wouldn't have to be that way, if only we could persuade Hollywood to bring back the drama.

We like to think of artistic value as something inherent in certain works or performances, just waiting to be recognized by discerning critics or consumers. But in reality, the value of art has to be created, produced through struggle and negotiation. It's never a pure or simple process: Politics, money, social connections and more are always one way or another involved. And there have to be losers as well as winners.

We're fascinated by prizes because they lay bare this messy social reality beneath the rhetoric of genius or greatness. They draw us into the fight, into the fierce competitive game. They often outrage us by deviating from our own tastes and preferences, leading us to suspect that they've been hijacked by commercial forces or deformed by insider politics. But that's part of their appeal; right or wrong, they provide our liveliest staging grounds for the neverending struggle over artistic value.

The trouble with the Oscars these days is that they lack the element of surprise and uncertainty that makes for a vibrant slugfest of this kind. A quick look at the bookmakers and betting-advice Web sites shows just how thoroughly predictable the awards have become. In most categories, the favorite is so heavily odds-on that there's really no money to be made. Bet a dollar on "Brokeback Mountain" to win Best Picture, and a generous bookmaker might pay out $1.12. A dollar on Philip Seymour Hoffman for Best Actor could win you 15 cents; on Ang Lee for Best Director, just 6 cents. The money doesn't lie; these awards are already as good as decided.

Of course, you don't need to consult the bookies to know that Lee is going to pick up the Best Director award. All you have to do is read the papers or watch TV, which have been feeding us an awards-heavy diet since the latter weeks of 2005. Lee has already won more than 20 "major" awards this season, including the Directors Guild of America Award -- which has only differed with the Academy's selection six times in the last half century. As soon as Lee received the DGA award on Jan. 28, the other contenders practically dropped off the bookies' charts; Steven Spielberg ("Munich"), who had been closest at 7-to-1, collapsed over the next few days to worse than 20-to-1.

It's the same to some degree in all the other categories. As the season unfolds, one awards show following on the heels of another, the various Oscar contenders fall away until, on "Hollywood's biggest night," there's nothing left but a parade of foregone conclusions. This is partly because, unlike in sports or other real-time events, the Academy Awards have literally been decided a week before the ceremony (and often a good deal sooner, depending on when members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decide to cast their ballots). At that moment, all votes are in, and the people who have an especially strong incentive to know the results (such as bookmakers) have become very good at conducting what amount to exit polls.

The anti-climax is also a function of the Oscars' culminating place on the movie awards calendar. Long considered an advantage, the Oscars' position as the concluding ceremony at the end of the major movie award season has begun to seem a serious drawback. As the number of similar awards programs keeps rising, and more and more are televised (this year you can watch nearly a hundred entertainment awards shows without straying beyond basic cable), the Oscars appear less a grand culmination than a colossal redundancy.

Responding to this problem, the Academy decided in 2003 to move the traditional late-March ceremony forward a few weeks. But after the other awards programs adjusted their own timetables accordingly, the effect was simply one of more compressed and thus intensified repetitiveness.

The real problem, to my mind, is that the Academy Awards are decided by vote of the Academy's more than 5,000-strong membership. A rule of thumb with respect to cultural prizes in general is that the larger the jury, the less chance of a surprising or controversial outcome. When an award institution is embarrassed by a scandalously maverick selection, the administrators' response is often to increase the size of the jury -- as the National Book Foundation did (enlarging the fiction jury from three judges to five) after Toni Morrison's novel "Beloved" lost out to Larry Heinmann's "Paco's Story" in 1986.

Some of the most far-sighted prize judging -- controversial or even outrageous at the time, but impressive in retrospect -- has been done by lone judges, such as W. H. Auden during his troubled tenure as judge of the Yale Younger Poets competition. Auden scandalized the sponsors, administrators and competitors themselves, flouting the rules of eligibility and nomination, ignoring official lists of finalists, and twice refusing to make any award at all. Yet it is on the strength of the major careers of his chosen winners -- among them Adrienne Rich, W.S. Merwin, James Wright and others -- that the Yale prize enjoys such an advantage today over many similar first-book poetry prizes.

Most of the televised movie awards are decided by large memberships with fairly similar cinematic tastes and preferences. They differ from the general public enough to keep the award winners distinct from the big box office winners. But even so, they suffer from a kind of people's-choice syndrome, in that their distinctions lack distinctiveness. The problem gets worse every year, as the number of prizes increases and the individual memberships and voting constituencies grow larger.

The Oscars could achieve real distinctiveness overnight with a new system of judging. Instead of voting for the films and artists each year, the Academy membership could vote for judges -- ideally, no more than three or four of them. These judges, representing the membership not directly but through the exercise of their own personal preferences, would have absolute power to confer the awards, including the power to choose a winner from outside the slate of nominees in any category, or even to withhold an award entirely. And they would make their selections behind closed doors just an hour or two before the ceremony.

This will likely never happen, of course -- not in our lifetimes. However diluted their votes have become, the Academy's members are not about to give up their own personal right to judge.

But think how much more interesting things would be tonight if a small handful of individuals had been entrusted with all the tremendous symbolic power of the Oscars. The tepid atmosphere of consensus could break down at any moment into scandal, outrage, denunciation or insult. All the keen passion and uncertainty of cultural judgment would be back in play. Sure, Ang Lee might win anyway, but the payoff would be a whole lot bigger.

James English is a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of "The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value" (Harvard University Press).

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