While political junkies focus on the new year’s upcoming midterm elections, the first weeks of 2022 bring another spate of high-profile balloting to shape the direction of pop culture. By February 8, nearly 10,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will have cast votes to choose nominees for this year’s Oscar ceremony, scheduled for Sunday, March 27. The 10 top vote-getters will qualify as finalists for this year’s Best Picture, in the process sending a message about the projects deemed most worthy of honor, acclaim, and imitation.
The first priority for the industry in 2022 is to avoid a repeat of last year’s universally derided “train wreck at the train station.” To prevent a super-spreader event in the middle of a raging pandemic, the Oscar officials strictly limited the size of the live audience and moved the proceedings from Hollywood Boulevard to the freshly restored art deco Union Station in downtown L.A. Despite the new venue’s heritage, its producers—among them the Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh—couldn’t get the trains to run on time, as participants traded a deadly virus for deadly boredom. The broadcast on ABC TV drew an audience that shattered every available figure for feebleness, with an average of 10.4 million viewers—down 56 percent (!) from the previous year’s numbers. This constituted the lowest viewership for an Oscar telecast since the Academy began compiling such numbers 47 years earlier.
The problem went far deeper than clumsy gag lines or the absence of glitzy musical numbers; it centered on the nature of those films that the industry has recently decorated. Nomadland, last year’s big winner (for picture, director, and Frances McDormand as best actress) told a bleak story of a lonely widow who leaves her Nevada town after a corporate closure and hits the road in her battered RV. She camps alongside other van dwellers in the haunting high desert, insisting, in the film’s most notable line: “No, I’m not homeless. Just houseless.”
The previous year, the top honor went to Parasite, a subtitled Korean-language film described as a “black comedy thriller” about “class conflict, social inequality, and wealth disparity” in modern Seoul. Its gruesome climax depicts bloody revenge against the wealthy family that’s been exploiting a less fortunate clan of impostor servants as drivers, housekeepers, cooks, and tutors.
No one can deny the skill and artistry displayed in both of these productions, but they also highlight a profound shift in emphasis away from what Hollywood has traditionally sought to celebrate. Going back to the beginning of the Academy Awards in 1928, the entertainment industry has leaned toward epic, grandiose qualities—exalting pictures that advanced the medium’s ambitions as a serious art form with its own collection of widely recognized classics. Winners included such classic films as All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Gone with the Wind (1940), Casablanca (1944), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1958), Ben Hur (1960), Lawrence of Arabia (1963),The Godfather (1973) and The Godfather, Part II (1975), and Titanic (1998).
It’s no coincidence that Titanic, the last traditional epic blockbuster to sweep the Oscars some 24 years ago, also earned record-breaking response from the television audience. The 1998 ceremony during which it cruised to an astonishing 11 Oscars also won an average of 57.3 million television viewers for the length of the broadcast—more than five times the audience for the Nomadland Oscars. The Nielsen ratings showed 35 percent of all households tuning in to Tinseltown’s big show, while last year the percentage had plummeted to 5.9 percent.
Critics may deride the old-fashioned, heart-tugging cinematic spectacles that used to dominate the yearly Oscar contests—and apologists may claim that the decline in television-watching in general is the culprit, as well as the proliferation of awards shows that have stolen some of the thunder. Still, the current ratings reveal a decline in Prestige Hollywood’s ability to connect with the public in any realm outside of the superhero genre. If you consider the 10 Best Picture winners to precede Parasite and Nomadland, none achieved notable success at the box office, none drew strong ratings to the Oscar ceremony, and none seems destined for the status of timeless classic. Going back all the way to the rousing, fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King in 2004, it appears that the industry has either forgotten, or at least forsaken, the old formula for Oscar-bait success. Which of the more recent winners will be cherished or honored for decades in the future?
- Green Book (2019)
- The Shape of Water (2018)
- Moonlight (2017)
- Spotlight (2016)
- Birdman (2015)
- 12 Years a Slave (2014)
- Argo (2013)
- The Artist (2012)
- The King’s Speech (2011)
- The Hurt Locker (2010)
- Slumdog Millionaire (2009)
- No Country for Old Men (2008)
- The Departed (2007)
- Crash (2006)
- Million Dollar Baby (2005)
You can spot some marvelous films on this list. I’m especially fond of The Artist, which won 2012’s award—an eccentric victor in that it was a whimsical French black-and-white silent about Hollywood before the advent of sound. But one can hardly suspect that a successful sequel or remake would someday spring from this singular triumph, as the glorious Best Picture from 1962 has now inspired a reverent and electrifying new version that’s already emerged as a front-runner for this year’s awards.
The original West Side Story followed the well-worn path to Oscar glory, utilizing a Broadway smash as its basis and combining overwhelming commercial success with soaring artistic ambition. The new edition, directed superbly by Steven Spielberg, not only improves on the casting (with authentically young and authentically Latino actors in all the appropriate roles) but captures its own spectacular and exhilarating choreography with even better camera work and editing. Box-office performance has been disappointing so far, but it may have enough staying power on theater screens to earn back most or all of its prodigious cost, particularly if the film secures the multiple Academy Award nominations that everyone expects.
In fact, West Side Story is only the most obvious expression of an unofficial “Back to the ’60s” theme that has become a subtle but significant aspect of this year’s Best Picture race. Five of the favorites for multiple awards nominations either depict that bygone era on screen, or make use of source material that originated more than 60 years ago. Dune, the eye-popping and star-studded sci-fi spectacular, dramatizes the first half of Frank Herbert’s landmark 1965 novel. The Power of the Dog is about a Montana Ranch in 1925, but the novel that provides the basis for the film first appeared in 1967. Kenneth Branagh lovingly re-creates the memories of his childhood in Belfast, which opens with the August 1969 riot that began “The Troubles” that plagued Northern Ireland for three decades. Licorice Pizza displays similar affection for the time of America’s troubles (and tastelessness) in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley in 1973, with a plucky teenager trying to make the most of water beds, gas lines, and the “new politics” of the period.
This unmistakable yearning for good-bad-old-days may help lead the Academy to establish a more coherent connection this year between the best of Hollywood’s present work and the still resonant echoes of its glorious past. If the 2022 ceremony also encourages a return to the time-honored pattern of celebrating crowd-pleasing, mass-audience, uplifting, and timeless Oscar epics, that could brighten the atmosphere for both the entertainment industry and the nation at large.
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