An Oscar 'panderocracy'

In seven weeks, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will be hosting its biggest Oscar ceremony in nearly 70 years -- at least as measured by the number of best picture nominees. When Sid Ganis, then-president of the academy, announced the decision to double the best picture field from five to 10, he said deserving films had been "squeezed" out of the race and, besides, back in the 1930s and 1940s, having 10 best picture nominees was the norm. (This was somewhat disingenuous: Studios released a movie a week then and barely one a month now, so the universe of films used to be much, much larger.)

Ganis could have cited recent cultural trends instead. By letting more films compete for the top trophy, the academy is merely following where others have led. Call it "cultural inflation": a growing number of opportunities for the less deserving to get a taste of ultimate victory, as part of a growing aversion to disappointing anyone.

For children, this manifests itself in giving every member of the soccer team a trophy regardless of how well he or she or the team performs. And just as some have concluded that such an exercise in building self- esteem may teach an unrealistic lesson about real-world winners and losers, so may cultural inflation mislead us about what is good or bad, and even change the standard.

Let's be honest. The academy's decision probably wasn't about excellence being ignored. The likely motive was that ratings for the Oscar broadcast had been tumbling because, it has been speculated, audiences didn't have a real rooting interest in the smallish, independent movies that had been dominating Oscar races recently. The most popular films -- blockbusters such as "The Dark Knight," to use last year's example -- seldom made it to the finals. The remedy? Enlarge the field in the hope that these favorites would be included, and rooting interest (and ratings) would be restored. In short, the ratings of the Oscar broadcast would now drive the awards themselves.

It wouldn't be the first time that the pursuit of money trumped the pursuit of quality, even in a contest purportedly designed expressly to reward quality. Indeed, one of the defects of capitalism is that it has only one standard of worth: monetary value. Money and excellence are certainly not mutually exclusive, but neither do they necessarily travel hand in hand. When excellence isn't profitable, it usually is usurped by something that is.

Under these circumstances, holding on to quality is a difficult proposition, and cultural inflation -- a byproduct of capitalism -- doesn't help. It promotes the appearance of excellence in the service of profit. Suddenly, we have five more films worthy of the highest honor than we had last year -- five more films to attract viewers to the Oscar telecast, and five more films that can advertise themselves as best picture nominees to lure moviegoers into theaters.

Yet cultural inflation is not only a function of money. It is equally a function of modern democracy. Put simply, people in a democratic society such as ours don't understand why they can't always get what they want. The culture obliges by pandering, which is what the Oscars are doing by expanding the field. It is a form of cultural demagoguery that doesn't dare disappoint people -- the adult equivalent of those children's soccer trophies. In effect, we live in a "panderocracy."

The most blatant example of cultural inflation and panderocracy has been, once again, in sports, but on more exalted playing fields than the corner park. Once upon a time, college basketball teams actually had to win their conference over the course of the season to qualify for the championship tournament; major league baseball teams had to win their league championship over the course of a long season to qualify for the World Series; college football teams had to win conference championships to play in bowl games (a handful back then); and professional football teams had to win their division. But that meant disappointing the fans of every team that didn't win -- even antagonizing them to the point at which they might stop watching altogether.

So the entire system was rejiggered to keep teams in the hunt long after they should have been eliminated. We got conference tournaments that gave every team a second chance at qualifying for the NCAA championship, even those in last place; we got wild cards; and we got bowl games for teams with 6-6 records. And everybody was happy because practically everybody's team more or less won. It was self-indulgence on a grand scale.

But there is a hitch. Just as printing more money depreciates its actual worth, cultural inflation depreciates the value of the honor, in the case of the Oscars, or the victory, in the case of sports. In effect, the NCAA and professional leagues have cheapened the championships by expanding the field, though they are savvy enough to realize that so long as the fans are satisfied, no one really cares. Similarly, the motion picture academy may risk tarnishing the Oscar, especially if votes are split and an outlier wins. That's the trouble with cultural inflation. As W.C. Fields once quipped when told that the saloons were closed on election day, it takes democracy too far.

What cultural inflation fails to appreciate is that excellence is a moral quality. It isn't, in the end, subject to popularity or money or a sense of personal entitlement. Rather, it is endangered by all three. It is entirely possible that a great film will win the Oscar this year, just as it is entirely possible that the best team will win the Super Bowl, but cultural inflation lengthens the odds, just as it lengthens the odds of our recognizing which is best.

And if the best film or the best team doesn't win, we have no one but ourselves and our desperate need for gratification to blame, should anyone still care enough to assess blame.

Neal Gabler is at work on a biography of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

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