Why Hollywood Loves Itself
By kent woodyard
January 16, 2012
With the exception of 2000 (when I was grounded from television for the month of March), I have watched every Academy Awards broadcast since Titanic. I’ve watched most of the Golden Globe broadcasts during that same period, including last night’s. There may even have been a few SAG Awards that snuck in over the years. I’ll admit it: I’m a sucker for Awards Season.
Every year, it's the same thing: sitting with friends (possibly bymyself), watching the ceremony, eating five different types of dip,tracking my performance in the various wagering pools I have entered and laughing at whatever Madonna is wearing. And then, when it’s all said and done, I’ll ask myself the same question I ask every year: “Who cares?”
And yet, after 15 years of clapping, crying and cleavage, I still can’t quite figure out why.
Taste validationWhy these ceremonies exist is not especially hard to see. There’s nothing Hollywood loves quite as much as the sound of its own applause. If the public will not provide them with the positive affirmation they crave, they’ll find some way to give it to themselves. What is curious is why the rest of us get such a kick out of watching them pat each other on the back.
The answer to this question probably depends on several things: your gender, your engagement with recent theatrical releases, your affinity for sparkly things, etc. Maybe you want to know what everyone’s talking about on Monday morning. Maybe you’ll watch pretty much anything involving Ricky Gervais. Maybe you just like seeing pretty people wearing pretty things. Or, maybe you’re looking for confirmation that Moneyball was, in fact, a really, truly, objectively great movie.
These are all fine reasons, but I’m most interested in that last one. For whatever else they may try to be, awards shows are presented—first and foremost—as the arbitrators of high culture. As such, they are the only ones who can validate our cultural tastes. And that is what we’re really watching for. We look to awards shows to provide us with a working definition of what constitutes authentic, meaningful, transcendent, artistically commendable cinema. We want someone to tell us we’re cultured. We want someone to verify that the movies we enjoyed last year were not just entertaining, not just two hours of empty amusement, but that they were, you know, good.
This is why it’s always funny when people rail against awards shows for being elitist and unconcerned with the preferences of the huddled, movie-going masses. Elitism is exactly what we want! We don’t care what movies our mailman liked last year. We want to know what movies the bespectacled, tweed-clad “members of the Academy” liked last year. We want to go see those movies. And then, when we happen to really enjoy one of them, we go home feeling better about ourselves—confident that we are able to appreciate artistry on the big screen.
We can rant and rave all we want about how out of touch Hollywood is with mainstream American values, but at the end of the day we still don’t trust ourselves to tell Hollywood what movies were good and what movies were garbage. The failure of viewer-driven shows like The People’s Choice Awards or The MTV Movie Awards to achieve the credibility of The Oscars or The Golden Globes is evidence of this reality.
On the one hand, it might be wise for us to defer judgment to the Hollywood insiders. Let’s not forget that it was us who turned Transformers: Dark of the Moon into the fourth highest grossing movie of all time. From boy bands to Bieber Fever to Breaking Dawn, us common folk haven’t exactly distinguished ourselves as connoisseurs of high culture. Perhaps questions of art and artifice are best left to the pros.
But this whole notion of ascribing objective value to creative expression is kind of silly. What does it mean when Roger Ebert gives a movie four stars or when Robert DeNiro hands a statue to a cinematographer? It means that through a largely subjective and ever-evolving scale of personal preferences and so-called “industry standards” a bunch of people we’ve never met have given some bit of culture their stamp of approval. Which is to say, it means very little.
The value of art
The whole point—and the whole beauty—of art is that it can be all things to all people. Every song, every painting, every movie, you come across will mean something different to you than it does to me. Our tastes may overlap in some areas, but they don’t have to and, if they don’t, that doesn’t necessarily say anything about either one of us. My tastes are mine and mine alone. Same with yours. Same with Roger Ebert’s. Same with the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Some films, bands, books and TV shows are absolutely better than others. Yes, watching all of this year’s Oscar nominees would almost certainly be a better use of your time than watching, for example, Adam Sandler’s last five movies. But, at the same time, if Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows was your favorite movie of 2011, it doesn’t mean your tastes are lacking in comparison to those of your friends who really loved The Help.
The best comedy of 2011 was the one that made you laugh the loudest. The best drama was the one that made you cry the hardest. Roger Ebert, Bob DeNiro and the Hollywood Foreign Press have nothing to do with it. I had to remind myself of this last night when I was getting worked up about Parks and Recreation’s Golden Globes snub, and I’ll have to remind myself of this again on Feb. 26 during the Academy Awards when I’m trying to comprehend why I seem to be the only one who didn't enjoy The Tree of Life.
I’ll just say what I say every year: Who cares?
Kent Woodyard is a freelance writer living in Southern California. He is a founding editor of TheTalkingMirror.com.