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Oscar Rant – Building a Better Mousetrap

Most of the votes are in for this year, but consider this quote:

“When we talk about Oscars, it’s almost as a symbol of excellence, and the American public and the worldwide public accept that symbol.” – Harvey Weinstein

How’s that for a starter pistol?

Excellence is a quality judgment assigned to a specific effort. It’s unchangeable and cannot be diminished by others or by time. Winning is the result of a contest where power trumps all. Poor old Harvey always did confuse the power of winning with excellence. When he wasn’t forcing his ugly mug on starlets he was perfecting category fraud and negative campaigning in pursuit of Oscar. That’s not excellence, it’s bully power, pure and simple. And Harvey is not a sole perpetrator, he’s just one of a thousand parasites who have found the perfect host.

The Oscars, as we know and love them, aren’t about excellence, they are about our obsession for winning. Excellence does not need a political campaign – it is either recognized as such, or it is not. It might not be recognized now, but decades from now when the wheat has been separated from the chaff. Oscar is a snapshot in time, a prom queen, the MVP of a game. It’s borderline idol worship by those in pursuit of “winning”, a validation that our tastes are in sync for some, a betting competition for many, and a glammed-up sideshow of camp for the rest of us.

Film excellence rarely survives the run of the gamut from campaign to red carpet to the presentation stage, a game dominated by public relations and promotional strategies. Oscar purports to honor the “best”, trumpeting their intentions around the world but rarely hitting the mark because they have been playing the game of “catch up” for 90 years.

Perhaps a “mousetrap” is not the best analogy – how about fixing the wheel? The idea here is not to reinvent the wheel, just to round off the square corners to allow it to move with ease and reach that goal of recognizing excellence. A few suggestions:

Honoring Trades

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The list of accepted categories bows down to some trades while dismissing others, and the structure needs some tweaking. For example, we all know that a good wig can draw more ticket sales than stunts, right? Oh, they don’t? I wonder why hairdressers are worthy of a statue while those who risk life and limb to generate ticket sales are relegated to the home audience. Fuck the bonus prize for wigs and make-up – it’s all part of the character’s costume. You can’t say that about stunts. And while we are on the subject – STOP with the drag routine of dressing male stunt actors as women. Women can perform stunts just as well as any man. If the stunt is that difficult or dangerous, call in the CGI people and toss your “for your consideration” hat into the FX category.

Music Awards

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OK, ditch the damnably lifeless best song category. When was the last time you hummed the best song (and weren’t a six yr. old moppet exiting Frozen for the tenth time)? “Best” songs, if they aren’t played in full over the opening titles, a practice which seems to be disappearing, or over the end titles – while I get crushed by people in my row trying to make a quick escape – are played in snippets within the film. Rarely do the songs propel the story unless they are performed in full by one of the characters. Songs are for Grammies.

The use of music can be a key element to evoking time and place, but why are only original compositions rewarded? Keep the original score category, bring back the “adapted” score honors and don’t limit it to musicals. Open up the criteria to include music selected specifically because it helps evoke what the director is trying to do. Examples of memorable scores that were adapted from other sources: most of Kubrick and Malick’s scores, Scorsese’s Raging Bull, everything from Tarantino’s B Movie fusions, and period pieces aiming for a specific time and place such as the song scores from American Graffiti to Inside Llewyn Davis. For example, would the film have been as successful if the song score for Saturday Night Fever had been a dud? It was the score that sold it.

Acting Honors

First and foremost, eliminate the category fraud that occurs every single year. Studios plop lead performers into supporting categories to ensure a nomination and, hopefully, a win. Being a glutton at searching out “excellence” at any cost, good old Harvey was a master at this, but he wasn’t the only manipulator on the field – this practice goes all the way back to The Miracle Worker and beyond and is practiced by every single studio in the game. It’s thought to eliminate vote splitting when there is more than one outstanding performance and /or ensures better odds for a lead who may not be able to match up to other powerhouses also in the running. So basically, it’s just another a cheat. Supporting performances should be no longer than 20 minutes total screen time, and lead performances no fewer than the same.

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Since gender parity and diversity are an academy goal, let’s plan to drop the gender separation between actor/actress. (yeh, yeh, audible gasp). Make it all one unisex category – best film performance of the year, lead and supporting. Some critics and bloggers have already started doing it. Yes, there will always be those Neanderthals and crusaders who vote according to their anatomical assignment or personal issues, but I’ll wager ten times the thought will go into voting in the acting categories if they were combined. Have 10 nominations each for lead and supporting, if you must, then let voters do their worst.

If parity is the goal, you can’t get more equal than putting actors of equal caliber together and may the best chops win. If, for some reason, you feel that this would be unfair, that one gender would not be able to capably compete with the other, maybe tell that to Frances McDormand. She could cream both sides of the competition this year, even a latex-laden, blustering impersonation of Churchill. Meryl Streep’s Sophie would have snatched Gandhi’s diaper faster than ET could phone home. And what a showdown it would have been is DDL’s Daniel Plainview and Marion Cotillard’s Edith Piaf met in the same ring. If it’s excitement and anticipation you seek with the Oscars, it doesn’t get more intense than that.

Add a category to acknowledge screen capture and voiceover. It may be too late for Robin Williams (Aladdin) or Peter O’Toole (Ratatouille), but Andy Serkis is still selling tickets by the truckload. It’s acting just as much as performing behind mask and make-up. There is also an entire bank of exclusive voiceover actors who excel at performances that will never get near any kind of recognition, despite their brilliance.

And please add a category for ensemble. Call it “best casting” if you want to differentiate from SAG, but recognize a successful combo that works. A great performance or two in a film is expected; when all the parts are in sync and performed at the highest level by a cast, it’s magic.

Foreign Language Films

I hate the discrimination leveled at foreign language films, i.e. anything non-English. I understand the origins of the award were for promoting a national industry, but that is not the language used in today’s Oscar promotion. It’s “the best in film”, not “the best stuff put out in the States and Britain.” Now a non-English speaking country is allowed to submit a single film to represent their entire film community. Submissions should be unlimited and handled by nominating committee made up of industry professionals and established film critics.

Eligibility

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Eligible films can come from any medium whether first shown in theatres, on a streaming service, or on the back wall of Uncle George’s barn, just as long as it can be shown uninterrupted by sponsors and can be provided by screener or screening service to voting members. Who cares who purchased the property for distribution? The actual crafts that come together to create the vision are the same, regardless of where the final product lands.

And one final note – if you want to vote, you must have seen the film. From Oscar voters all the way down to the million or so Oscar prognosticating specialists, there are people promoting and/or voting for (or against, in some cases) films they have not even seen. This is not an election where you are voting on promises or ideology, it is a bake-off. You can’t vote for the pie unless you’ve tasted the goods. The Academy can easily find a way, be it by app or hand-stamp, to ensure a voter has viewed whatever they are about to pass judgment on. How about a personal rating entered each time a film is viewed? Have a centralized database to collect the results throughout the entire eligibility period. Skip the campaigning, the manipulation and bad-mouthing — simply announce the winner for Best Picture the night of.

Storytelling has been key to humankind since the first ancestor held his hand against the cave wall and blew colored dust to create an image. We define ourselves and our civilizations through the records we keep of the stories we tell. For us to announce that these are our the best stories and these, our best storytellers, we need to take measures to ensure the standards of judgment are fair and inclusive, and not impeded by old inequities and defunct methodology.

Finally, here is the list of suggested categories, but I’m not holding my breath:

Best Picture

Best Director

Best Lead Performance

Best Supporting Performance

Best Acting Ensemble

Best Screen Capture/Voice Performance

Best Original Screenplay

Best Adapted Screenplay

Best Cinematography

Best Film Editing

Best Sound

Best Visual Effects

Best Sound Effects

Best Adapted Score or uses of music from another medium

Best Original Score

Best Animated Short

Best Animated Feature

Best Documentary Feature

Best Documentary Short

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