The Nothingburger Awards Season is upon us.
The HFPA’s choice to assume a low profile was the result of self-inflicted wounds, including dubious business practices, a woefully insular and overwhelmingly White membership, and a swag-happy work ethic that could most charitably be described as “star-struck.”
But the muted vibe of this year’s Globes — which might have been called anticlimactic had anyone felt a sense of anticipation in the first place — aptly encapsulated the moment, when audiences are exhausted by illness, shutdowns, closures and economic anxiety, and looking askance at institutions, including self-appointed experts who deign to tell them what’s good. The HPFA might stand out for its lack of diversity and credibility, but its rapid decline in relevance reflects a widening gap between audiences and gatekeepers.
Oddly enough, the HFPA’s acknowledgment of its waning relevance resulted in the Globes looking like what the Oscars used to be, and might benefit from becoming again, at least for the time being.
In 1929, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held the first Academy Awards, the honors were bestowed at a private dinner, the ceremony itself taking only 15 minutes (the ethereal World War I drama “Wings” won best picture). The Oscars were broadcast over radio a year later, then televised in the 1950s. As movies took on broader meaning — coinciding with the rise of the boomers who began making and studying and talking about them — the annual show became must-see TV, a pageant of glitz and self-congratulation, but also a larger cultural conversation that everyone could share, understand and argue about.
Virtually since their inception, the Oscars have been a marketing vehicle for the movie industry, especially as a way for studios to wrap themselves in the mantle of art, political seriousness and moral uplift. Those values were weaponized in the 1990s and 2000s by Harvey Weinstein, who became infamous in 1999 for orchestrating an upset of historic proportions — spending lavishly on ads and parties, and tiptoeing to the line of academy campaign rules — when his “Shakespeare in Love” won best picture over Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.” Since then, the divide has only grown between what movies are deemed worthy of awards, and what movies the general public has actually seen.
Of course, the whole point of the Academy Awards — and the season leading up to them — was to turn movies no one had seen into box-office juggernauts: Witness such Oscar-made hits as “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The King’s Speech” and “The Imitation Game.” This year, “the little movies that could” include the Netflix movies “The Power of the Dog” and “The Lost Daughter,” “Belfast” and Spielberg’s own “West Side Story.”
That last movie embodies the topsy-turvy film culture of the 2020s. There was a time when a lavish, entertaining remake of a cherished American classic, directed by one of our most revered cinematic storytellers, would have been a slam-dunk, with audiences and award-givers alike. Instead, “West Side Story” languished when it was first released, its core audience of older filmgoers still chary of venturing into theaters. When it won the Golden Globe for best comedy or musical, the news barely made a ripple.
Would a quiet, tasteful dinner do more to lift its fortunes? Probably not. But it’s that kind of year. The academy could do worse than return to its Golden Age roots, especially at time when movies feel more sidelined than ever by bingeable streaming series and pandemic viewing habits, and are simply not the center of the cultural conversation, at least for now.
As pilloried as last year’s Oscars telecast was for its clunky combination of in-person and remote staging, the largely obscure movies that dominated its slate of nominees and its notoriously underwhelming ending, the show’s producers did some things right. The pre-party before the ceremony, held in a courtyard outside Los Angeles’s retro-elegant Union Station, felt like a relaxed, genuinely spontaneous alternative to the red carpet, giving viewers a peek into a glamorous, exclusive party. Once Regina King made her triumphant strut into the station to kick off the awards, however, the proceedings easily could have been kept private, with winners’ speeches being beamed over social media, their reactions captured immediately afterward, and everyone spared the indignity of Glenn Close dancing to “Da Butt.”
As welcome as an even more pared-down ceremony would be this year, it seems that the Oscars will be returning to form: The academy announced that the March 27 show will have again a host (to be named later), a tradition that’s been eschewed in recent years, making the event feel rudderless and haphazard. Will the audience tune in? Possibly, if “Spider-Man: No Way Home” — a massive theatrical hit even in the midst of the pandemic pause — manages to be nominated for best picture. If it doesn’t make the cut, the trio of actors at its center could easily swing into hosting duties. They might have a chance at succeeding where the Oscars have failed, by dint of evolving viewing habits, institutional inertia and the movies themselves: They might be able to make us care again.