Several months ago, shortly before the 90th annual Academy Awards, my Times film colleagues and I were polled about our all-time favorite best picture Oscar winners. One of us said “Amadeus,” two picked “Casablanca,” two flipped for “Titanic,” and two chose “Moonlight.” One gave it up for “The Godfather,” to which I provided the bookend with “The Godfather: Part II.”
With the exception of the comparatively little-seen “Moonlight,” you would not hesitate to describe every one of those Oscar-winning best pictures as a popular movie. Any reasonable best picture pantheon would also include the mass-appeal hits “All About Eve,” “It Happened One Night,” “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Silence of the Lambs” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.”
Popular films, in other words, have been winning the best picture Oscar for eons. My thoughts returned to this earth-shattering discovery on Wednesday, not long after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced a series of horrifically misguided, and apparently entirely ratings-minded, changes to its annual awards ceremony. These include plans to reduce the telecast to three hours and not televisewins in certain below-the-line technical categories, changes that disrespect the art and craft of cinema for no other reason than to bolster the show’s consistently flagging ratings (if 26.5 million viewers is considered flagging, which I suppose it is).
By far the worst of these was the addition of a category to honor the year’s “outstanding achievement in popular film.” It’s dispiriting to think that had the academy implemented this breathtakingly cynical, pandering initiative years ago, some of our finest best picture winners might have found themselves relegated to second-class cinematic status — an “A” for effort (and earnings), a participation trophy.
We don’t know exactly how a best popular film category will play out, given the academy’s vaguely, even sheepishly worded intentions on the subject, but we can safely assume that it will depend on some combination of box-office supremacy and zeitgeist appeal.
I imagine that in certain years, many people might well have preferred the outcome of a two-tiered system, to have seen “Titanic” kissed off with a popular film Oscar, especially if it meant that “L.A. Confidential” could have taken best picture. Maybe you get “Mystic River” for best picture while “The Return of the King” gets the blockbuster consolation prize instead
Dare we rewrite Hollywood’s greatest year by granting “The Wizard of Oz” best picture (something I’ve always felt it flat-out deserved) and relegating “Gone With the Wind” to the “popular film” pile? “The Hurt Locker” can still be best picture and “Avatar” doesn’t wind up looking like such a loser. “Annie Hall” still wins big, but now so does “Star Wars.” “The Godfather,” which was both the best American film of 1972 and the highest-grossing, could double up. Does that sound so bad?
It does. It sounds utterly atrocious, for reasons that film critics, Oscar pundits and other denizens of the cinephile-social-media complex have already laid out. But let us quickly sum up::
(1) The highly malleable definition of “popular,” a term that can describe anything from a cinematic genre (musicals, comedies, westerns) to a billion-dollar box-office bracket.
(2) The notion that critically acclaimed hits and recent best picture winners like “The Shape of Water” and “Spotlight” are somehow niche achievements.
(3) The canard that box-office performance is a pure, unadulterated measure of an audience’s love for a movie.
(4) The contradiction of trying to shorten the telecast by adding an award, at the likely expense of a technical category that actually deserves the airtime.
(5) The delusion that moviegoers who don’t care about the Oscars are suddenly going to tune in to see if “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” can pull off a stunning upset over “Avengers: Infinity War.”
(6) The unmistakable sense that the academy is pre-emptively panicking over the possibility that “Black Panther,” the zeitgeist movie of 2018, is going to get shut out of the best picture race.
You can understand their panic on that last score, perhaps, given the unstoppable cultural, commercial and critical phenomenon that “Black Panther” has become, as well as the academy’s much-publicized efforts to diversify its membership and permanently banish the foul specter of #OscarsSoWhite. And you can also see how eager the academy is to bolster its legacy by tying it to the last sure thing left in this increasingly unstable business: superhero movies.
After all, the last time they overreacted this drastically was when “The Dark Knight” — the last superhero picture to impact the culture as forcefully as “Black Panther” — famously missed out on an Oscar nomination for best picture a decade ago, spurring industry outrage and directly precipitating the academy’s decision to expand the number of nominees in that category. Ironically, the expansion ended up benefiting smaller, independent pictures like “A Serious Man” and “Winter’s Bone” rather than superhero-themed juggernauts like “Wonder Woman” and “Deadpool.”
Many have noted that the academy’s individual Oscar categories for foreign-language film, documentary feature and animated feature have had the same ghettoizing effect on those movies, effectively removing all but a very select handful of them from best picture consideration. (Indeed, if the academy really wanted to infuse its choices with a more democratic, egalitarian sensibility, it would find a way to correct this sorry state of affairs)
But those three categories, flawed as their methodologies may be, serve a useful and honorable purpose: to honor excellent films, and types of films, that would otherwise go overlooked. No foreign-language film, documentary or animated feature has ever won the best picture Oscar. Numerous popular films have won the best picture Oscar, and will surely do so again.
Not too long ago, in a piece addressing the lack of diversity in film criticism, I wrote about the folly of subjecting movies to such easy, conventional labels or prescribing who their target audiences might be. It’s dismaying to have to reiterate that argument, to point out that movies like “The Return of the King,” “The Dark Knight” and “Black Panther” all entered the Oscar conversation not because they are popular movies, but because they are excellent movies — because they infuse the readily accessible language of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking with a rare dynamism, artistry, visionary grandeur and emotional depth, emphasis on the “rare.”
It now falls to the academy to clarify its bewildering new initiatives, whether that means mitigating the situation, digging a deeper hole for itself or (let us hope) chucking the whole rotten idea altogether. I remain foolishly optimistic. The pleasure of still following these awards obsessively year after year — a pleasure that goes hand-in-hand with endless agony, frustration, tedium and exhaustion — has always been that the academy will, on rare occasion and usually by accident, find a way to do the right thing.
And if it doesn’t, well, we’ll always have “Casablanca.”