When the Covid lockdown happened back in March 2020, it accelerated shifts that were already in progress in the movie industry. Fewer people were seeing films in theaters, and streaming websites such as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu were becoming production powerhouses. These online power players were less interested — except for the prestige of earning Oscars — in having a theatrical platform for a movie’s release. Covid then forced the theaters to close, and movies could only be watched at home.
There were other shifts going on as well: mainstream movies, especially those with big stars, were vanishing, and the far smaller art house market was not filling the gap. Major studios still used theatrical releases to launch mega-productions, such as those based on Marvel or DC comics. But younger adults were losing the theater habit, preferring to watch filmed entertainment on their computers or smartphones.
When the pandemic became less threatening and the world reopened, cinema-going did not fully recover, even to 2019 levels. It remains to be seen how many cinemas, from multiplexes to small-town theaters, will avoid going the way of Sam the Lion’s old-time movie house in Anarene, Texas, the closing of which in the early ’50s gave The Last Picture Show its name.
Not surprisingly, audiences have been fragmenting into niches, and the currency of movies in pop culture — the shared experience of seeing major releases — has thoroughly deflated. The contributions of film critics have been minimized as print media staffs withered, and awards have become more and more inconsequential. When I was growing up in the 1960s, the Oscars were the most highly rated TV event of the year. It was the behemoth that financed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and dominated our national understanding of onscreen glamour and prestige. In recent years, the Oscars have dramatically declined in popularity.
Other awards, such as those from critics’ groups, the Golden Globes, or the talent guilds, have crowded each other out, supplanted to some extent by popularity contests such as the People’s Choice Awards or the MTV Movie & TV Awards.
There have been additional pressures on the Academy as well as on Hollywood itself: ending the nonrecognition and suppression of Black talent and people of color over the years, not to mention women behind the camera. In response, the Academy — an organization of film professionals — has vastly changed the composition of its membership, adding younger and more diverse voters. The Golden Globe Awards, presented by the all-white Hollywood Foreign Press Association, was kicked off the air for a year, forced to reform, and reappeared on Jan. 10, 2023 with a much more diverse lineup.
So, here we are in awards season once again, with the world of theatrical cinema on life support. The Oscar telecast is scheduled for March 12, but the nominations are out, and it’s a fairly conservative list. The Black and Hispanic presence is slight — notably missing are Viola Davis in The Woman King, Danielle Deadwyler in Till, and Jeremy Pope in The Inspection. There are no female directors nominated, and only two women with adapted screenplays (none with originals): Sarah Polley for Women Talking and Lesley Paterson for All Quiet on the Western Front. The Academy has instead gone full-bore Asian, with the most nominated picture set in a Chinese laundry — Everything Everywhere All at Once, featuring acting nominees Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, and Stephanie Hsu. Yeoh and Quan are favored to win, but Hsu is likely to be upstaged by Angela Bassett in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.
When predicting the awards (Oscar handicapping was my wheelhouse when I was an editor at a movie magazine), there used to be a few guidelines, many of which still apply. First of all, one should substitute the word “most” for “best” when analyzing a category — the most acting, the most makeup, the most editing, the most costumes, etc. A “most” picture like Everything Everywhere — packed with big performances and big production values — is a much more likely winner than a quiet, small movie. (Of late, though, exceptions abound among past winners — Moonlight, CODA, Nomadland.)
Uplift is also important. The Academy doesn’t like movies that make you feel bad. Depressing dramas are OK — they’re even a plus at times for being serious — but there must be a ray of hope or sense of redemption at the end. This will hurt Tár, in which a monstrous lesbian genius gets her just deserts, but the morality is murky. B movie genres are also unlikely to be nominated by the Academy, let alone win: westerns, comedies, or action movies. It would be a surprise, for example, if Top Gun: Maverick or Avatar: The Way of Water win anything but technical awards, despite their vast popularity.
The Academy voters are guided by critics, to some extent, as well as box office, yet the real balance is between prestige and popularity. Hollywood aesthetics are largely middlebrow, and the Academy membership, while edgier than it used to be, is still composed of the successful mainstream of the industry. They want Oscar winners to radiate prestige, but they should also be crowd favorites.
Academy awards are technically given for an achievement in one film only, such as actors in a single role. But the voters often make their choices based on a lifetime of great work or an egregious oversight. It’s fairly ludicrous, for example, to expect that Angela Bassett, who didn’t win in 1993 for her passionate performance as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It, has become the supporting actress favorite this year just for her work in Wakanda Forever. It’s a career award, and it happens all the time: John Wayne for True Grit; Paul Newman for The Color of Money. Not their best work, but their only Oscar wins as actors.
This might be the case for Michelle Yeoh, a major star of Hong Kong cinema, who has never received an Oscar nomination despite impressive roles in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the global smash Crazy Rich Asians. Up against her, Cate Blanchett might win in Tár for “most” acting — it’s a big, crafty performance, and she’s in every scene. Blanchett is also a two-time previous winner: for Blue Jasmine in 2013 and The Aviator in 2004. The Academy is funny that way: while giving weight to past snubs, it also judges past winners to be pre-validated.
Reckoning with the past might come into play for the best actor category, too. Colin Farrell, nominated for The Banshees of Inisherin, is an Oscar virgin despite numerous stellar performances. Yet his understated performance in Banshees is not nearly the “most” acting when compared to Brendan Fraser in The Whale, playing a 600-pound suicidal gay widower. That race is too early to call, as is the faceoff between Everything Everywhere and Steven Spielberg’s autobiographical The Fabelmans. The former is a crowd favorite, and The Fabelmans didn’t fare well at the box office. But Spielberg is Hollywood royalty, and his personal nakedness in making that film earned him and it Golden Globes.
Despite a recent trend toward hipper and more indie award picks, the Academy is still hopelessly mainstream, and nothing can truly shore up the Oscars’ sagging ratings or the theatrical movie industry’s shrinkage. Why would Sarah Polley, who’s nominated as a screenwriter for Women Talking, be overlooked as director? How could Jordan Peele’s highly successful and critically praised Nope be completely ignored? It’s impossible to tell when and if things will really change. As wonderful as cable series and streaming entertainment have become, it’s sad to see Hollywood’s major studios shed nearly all of their glamour.