The biggest Oscar snub this year is purely self-inflicted.
How boneheaded is this decision? Let us count the ways. In his announcement, academy president David Rubin noted that the action was taken in part “to provide more time and opportunity for audience entertainment and engagement through comedy, musical numbers, film clip packages and movie tributes” — the very things viewers have historically hated about bloated, painfully unfunny, blithely self-owning Oscar shows.
Rubin added that the aim was to bring the show in at a tight three hours, which directly contradicts the addition of more annoying padding: This year’s Oscars will get more audience engagement all right, most likely in howls of disapproval at tacky production numbers or overlong monologues and montages.
The academy’s betrayal of its members also flies in the face of the theme of the 94th Oscars: “Movie Lovers Unite.” As all true movie lovers know, craft areas such as editing, production design, composing and sound are fundamental to cinematic art. At their best, the Oscars have been a vehicle for film literacy, widening the audience’s understanding of how their most seamless and immersive experiences at the movies are created. The person who works in editing, production design, music and sound and hair and makeup is as much a storyteller as the screenwriter, director and actor. In dishonoring the artists and craftspeople who build the worlds that uncannily reflect our own, or provide the escape we crave, academy leaders are leaving a crucial part of their own story on the cutting room floor.
Even more puzzling, the academy’s decision dismantles years of the organization’s own work in diversity and inclusion, spurred by April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign in 2015. In the ensuing years, the organization has invited hundreds of people to join, focusing on women, filmmakers of color and prospective members from around the world. The results are beginning to show, with films such as “Roma,” “Parasite” and “Nomadland” receiving recognition. Some of the most galvanizing moments of recent Oscar ceremonies were breakthroughs in the very categories the academy is now marginalizing: Who wasn’t moved by production designer Hannah Beachler’s historic win for her work on “Black Panther”? Or last year’s giddily triumphant speech delivered by hairstylists Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson, who won for their outstanding contributions to “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”?
These moments weren’t just welcome high points in otherwise ho-hum proceedings. They represented much-needed, if incremental, progress in diversifying the movie industry not just in high-profile positions like acting and directing, but in leading “below the line” crafts as department heads.
These jobs may not be as visible to general audiences, but they’re crucial, well-paying and high-status within the movie industry. And in many cases they’ve been even more intractably controlled by old (White) boys’ clubs than the marquee specialties. When people like Beachler, Neal and Wilson — or “Joker” composer Hildur Guonadottir, or “Sound of Metal” rerecording mixer Michelle Couttolenc or “Mad Max: Fury Road” editor Margaret Sixel — hold their gold statues aloft from the podium, it sends the powerful message: This is what the world looks like, and this is what our dominant narrative art form can and should look like, too.
Which brings us to perhaps the most insulting diss the academy delivered this week: short-subject narratives, animated features and documentaries. There’s already talk that the other five categories might be reinstated at the expense of the shorts as a form of compromise. But reducing them to such expendable bargaining chips would be a mistake completely disproportionate to their brief running times.
For one thing, sidelining the shorts sends yet another contradictory message, especially as the annual Oscar Shorts program opens in theaters around the country. The program has become a favorite among the very movie lovers the academy purports to unite, exemplifying the art of filmmaking at its purest, and most ingeniously concentrated.
Perhaps most important, if the academy turns its back on short films, it will be sending a devastating message about belief in its own medium. Whether it was Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe accepting the Oscar last year for their live-action short “Two Distant Strangers,” or co-director Matthew A. Cherry winning for “Hair Love,” his and Karen Rupert Toliver’s sublime animated short about a father’s love for his daughter, the people who garner awards in these categories are often either emerging artists or veterans on the most forward-looking, innovative and philosophically sophisticated edge.
In cutting these visions and voices out of their most important public-facing event of the year, academy leaders aren’t just insulting the people who stand to benefit the most from such encouragement. They’re literally leaving the future of film in the dark. For an event supposedly dedicated to proving Hollywood’s mastery of substance and optics, this is a massive failure in both.