Is it time to scrap the Oscars?

The Academy Awards are blighted by racism and bad decisions. So what would a world without them look like?

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The most striking scene in the new Oscar-nominated film Trumbo shows two screenwriters facing one another with an Academy Award gleaming on the table between them. One of the men, Dalton Trumbo (played by Bryan Cranston), is responsible for Roman Holiday, the screenplay that has won the prize. But because he is a self-confessed communist and it’s 1954, his name hasn’t appeared on the title page. Ian McLellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk), who sits facing him, is the proxy. Both men stare at the prize as though it were radioactive.

“I don’t want it,” says Trumbo. “I don’t want it,” says Hunter.

Everyone wants an Oscar. However, something has changed. Some of the same wariness in that scene from Trumbo now surrounds the Oscars. The outcry over a clean spread of all-white nominations has spawned a debate over what this might say about America, cinema and race in general. If even the liberal, pinko Hollywood crowd are going to behave like Republicans, what hope is there for the rest of society? Anyone would think that the Best Picture Oscar given in 2006 to the race-relations drama Crash didn’t solve worldwide inequality like it was meant to.

The Academy Awards have been a laughing stock before. That is part of their bleary charm. Most years the prizes go to the wrong films. Richard Attenborough didn’t think Gandhi should have won Best Picture and Paul Haggis confessed that he wouldn’t have voted for Crash – and they directed those pictures.

This year, the Oscars look not just doddery, but insensitive. Although it’s the second consecutive year in which there have been no non-white actors nominated, the imbalance in voting seems to have shifted towards outright snubs. The black British actor Idris Elba was widely expected to get a Best Supporting Actor nomination for playing a warlord in Beasts of No Nation. Michael B Jordan, the African-American star of Creed, was overlooked but his white co-star, Sylvester Stallone, was not.

It’s well-known that the prize was called the Academy Award of Merit until Margaret Herrick, the Academy’s librarian and later its executive director, happened to remark that the statuette resembled her Uncle Oscar. (The O-word stuck in 1939.) But if these awards really are handed out for merit, the results can only be interpreted one way: the 40 finest performances committed to film in the past two years have been given exclusively by white actors.

I don’t envy anyone accepting an Oscar this year. There’s no way to do it without appearing to re-enact the recent Saturday Night Live sketch in which the Best Actor nominees included Unseen White Voice on Phone. (The prize was a five-way tie between “all the white guys”.) Oh, the dilemmas. Should you acknowledge the diversity issue in an acceptance speech? What if no one else does? What if everyone mentions it? There could be no quicker way to look insincere. What you really need is Kanye West leaping on to the stage: “Yo, Sly, I’m really happy for you – imma let you finish, but this one belongs to Idris . . .”

The best bet might be to leave the inequality question to the host for the evening, Chris Rock. Ricky Gervais recently offered him some advice on Twitter: “I want @chrisrock to walk out at the start of The Oscars in a KKK hood, then whip it off & say, ‘Sorry, It’s the only way I could get in’.”

A recent New York Times article estimated that the acting branch of the Academy is roughly 87 per cent white and 58 per cent male. Three of the 25 actors invited to join last year were black (seven were women). The Academy’s president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, said changes were in place to ensure the voters “represent more of the working community, and also . . . become closer to the audience in general”. Those changes include what the Academy calls “an ambitious, global campaign to identify and recruit qualified new members who represent greater diversity”. The paper calculated that each year over the next five years the Academy would need to “add about 14 black actors and at least nine actors who were either Asian or Hispanic to double the number of acting branch members in those . . . groups”.

It could happen. Or we could just kill off the Oscars altogether. Would that be so bad?

***

David Kosse, director of Film4, the production company, is standing in front of hundreds of partygoers at Hix, a bar and restaurant in central London. Mobiles designed by Damien Hirst, some with dead fish suspended in tiny rectangular glass boxes, dangle from the ceiling; the place is so full, you find yourself envying the space those little blighters have all to themselves.

The bash is to celebrate the firm’s unprecedented tally of award nominations this year (22 Baftas, 15 Oscars) for an eclectic and unconventional slate that includes 45 Years, Room, Carol, Ex Machina, Second Coming, The Lobster and the documentary Amy. (As a result, Film4’s funding for next year has been increased by £10m, to £25m.)

Kosse is clear about the value of awards for the sorts of films he helps get made. “It’s a real currency for the film-makers and actors, the writers and all the craftspeople involved,” he tells me. “If you get an Oscar or Bafta nomination, then suddenly you’re getting your work seen by a lot more people in the industry. If you’re an acquisitions or development executive, you have to have seen all those films – you have to be familiar with that particular costume designer for the next time you’re looking for one for your projects.
It elevates the profile of those individuals.”

If one were to remove the Oscars, another awards ceremony would merely spring up in their place, like a decapitated Hydra sprouting another head. So, how about a film industry without any baubles at all? Kosse sounds rather saddened by this idea, as though I’ve asked him to imagine a world devoid of jelly and ice cream. “It’s important for every industry to acknowledge excellence; even if it’s, say, kite manufacturers. And it would be much more difficult for films that aren’t genre-based and aren’t based on pre-existing properties, or which don’t feature big stars, to find an audience. The Oscars and awards season in general draws attention to films that might not have been able to afford to buy that attention.”

Charles Gant, who writes the Guardian’s weekly box-office column, acknowledges the silliness of awards season. “It has become a pervasive part of the culture, from the Venice and Toronto film festivals in September through to the Oscars ceremony in February. Even before that, at Sundance in January and Berlin in February, people are already talking about the next year’s Oscars. This is patently absurd.” But he insists the benefits justify the lunacy. “The fact that awards exist and have become such a big event in our culture means there is a platform to make and release these kinds of movies. It means people like Fox Searchlight and the Weinstein Company and other boutique studio divisions have a reason to make prestige dramas or films for minority audiences, because they know if the planets are aligned they could easily get approved by critics and awards voters, and that will give them a platform from which to release those movies. Without the awards, we would have to come up with some other means of throwing the spotlight on those sorts of films.”

Curzon Artificial Eye is one of the independent distributors that has benefited most from awards nominations, including Still Alice in 2015 and now 45 Years. “To be honest, I find it almost impossible to imagine a world without awards, given how much of our thinking revolves around the impact of the awards season,” says Jon Rushton, the company’s head of theatrical distribution. “You could argue that the same films would get made, and just be released in a less congested manner. But on the flipside, there’s a risk that the US market for quality cinema might reduce in size due to such a big marketing opportunity being removed. And the consequence for that would be some great films never getting made. Even hypothetically, I’d say it’s better the devil you know when it comes to the awards.”

There would be other repercussions if awards season vanished from the calendar. Imagine the malaise among actors and directors, whose worth would be measurable in money and (for the lucky ones) fulfilment only, with no prospect of the approbation of their peers. “The only measure would then be box-office appeal,” Gant agrees. “Frankly, we already have that. I think it needs balancing with something different.”

Every so often, awards attention can even have a positive social effect. Making the Aids drama Philadelphia in 1993, the director Jonathan Demme was trying to “come up with a movie that would help push for a cure and save lives. We didn’t want to make a film that would appeal to an audience of people like us, who already had a predisposition for caring about people with Aids. We wanted to reach the people who couldn’t care less about people with Aids. That was our target audience.” When Philadelphia garnered Oscar nominations, and Tom Hanks won Best Actor for his part in the picture, it brought the subject into the public conversation in a way that might not have happened so quickly without it.

Gant believes something similar is occurring now with the debate over race. “It is not news at all that minorities get overlooked,” he says. “And not just at awards. Actors of colour are only being considered for roles of colour most of the time. The fact of what has happened at the Oscars made it front-page news. Only because the Oscars exist did the subject come more sharply into focus. The people who make decisions about what’s interesting don’t think this topic is attractive to their audiences until they add something else to the mix – in this case, the Oscars – which gives it traction.”

Getting rid of the Oscars wouldn’t remove the problem of inequality in Holly­wood – on the contrary, it would rob us of one of the means by which we measure it. Of course the Academy screws up. (Just look at this year’s Best Actor nominations.) But this is an institution important enough to argue with and influential enough to merit a painstaking overhaul. It is valuable as much for what its choices, especially the poor ones, tell us about ourselves as for how it shapes the movies sent out into the world.

The 88th Academy Awards ceremony is on 28 February

Now listen to Helen Lewis and Stephen Bush discuss their Oscar highs and lows with the SRSLY Podcast's Anna Leszkiewicz...

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 18 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A storm is coming