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Rip it up and start again

The Academy Awards are a broken institution, characterised by lunatic delusions of prestige and a co

I hate the Oscars. But even more than that, I hate that I still give a hoot who wins. If you didn't care about cinema, it would almost be funny to witness how the Academy members systematically disparage the creativity and alchemy of film-making with pretty much every ballot they cast. All that can possibly be said in favour of this superannuated parade of fools is that at least it isn't the Baftas.

The institution of the Academy Awards is characterised by persistent wrong-headedness, lunatic delusions of prestige and a compulsion to dish out prizes to pictures that make cinema look like it has not progressed for 50 years. There is no need to bore you with examples of all the times Academy members have made the stupidest choices imaginable, but consider this: in the past 30 years of the Oscars, only two Best Picture winners have come close to deserving that accolade - The Silence of the Lambs in 1991 and Unforgiven in 1992. You'd have to go back to the 1970s (Annie Hall, the first two Godfather films) or the early 1960s (Lawrence of Arabia, The Apartment) to find any overlap between genius, longevity and a Best Picture winner.

This much we know: Oscars go to the wrong films. This year's Best Picture nominees already prove the point. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is an indulgent folly with a vague carpe diem tenor. Frost/Nixon is built like a sitcom (every joke has its pay-off in the following shot) and never rises above the anecdotal. The Reader is a softcore fantasy that cannot own up to its own tawdry impulses. Slumdog Millionaire has been machine-tooled to get reviewers bandying around that pitiful phrase, "feel-good", but it still leaves a bad taste. Milk is the only picture from the crop that deserves to win, though even that film pales beside WALL-E or Waltz With Bashir, neither of which made the grade.

But, in the spirit of positivity, I would like to suggest that the Oscars are not beyond saving. Let's face it: if Mickey Rourke can emerge from the straight-to-video void to nab a Best Actor nomination, there is no reason why the similarly addled, dilapidated institution that is the Oscars cannot effect its own comeback. The sooner we accept that the approbation of the Academy means less than nothing to cinema as an art form, the better placed we will be to dismantle it and start over. As the first step on the road to recovery, I humbly offer the Academy the following suggestions for making the Oscars matter.

Bring in the Monopolies Commission

After the Coen brothers' Barton Fink dominated the prize-giving at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, a rule was introduced stipulating that only under exceptional circumstances could any picture receive more than one award. And although even the most extreme makeover is not going to transform the Academy Awards into Cannes, we should heed that advice. Let's have an end to the days where one title can scoop 11 awards, the record held jointly by Ben-Hur, Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: the Return of the King. And even though it will be Schadenfreude-tastic fun when Benjamin Button has nothing to show for its 13 nominations at the end of the ceremony, let's insist on a limit. A ceiling of five nominations per film sounds sane to me, and nicely in keeping with our straitened times.

No More "Best Film Not in the English Language"

That's right - scrap the only award specially designed to allow a sliver of glory to fall on cinema from other cultures. Why? Well, it's patronising, for a start. Not quite as bad as the Best British Film Bafta, I'll grant you, but still only a hair away from being termed The Special Needs Award For Hopeless Cases. It's nothing short of insulting to see Laurent Cantet's The Class and Ari Folman's Waltz With Bashir consigned to this subsidiary category when there is more accomplishment in one frame of those films than in the entirety of most of this year's Best Picture contenders. An awards system that does not consider The Class good enough to compete with Frost/Nixon or Slumdog Millionaire deserves to be a laughing stock. So how will foreign-language films get a look-in? Call it positive discrimination or affirmative action, but from now on, the total number of Best Picture nominees should be raised to six, of which two must come from non-English-speaking countries. There is simply no other way to redress the balance than to force Academy voters to consider films that are not being screened at the local mall. Let's put The Reader up against Waltz With Bashir and then we'll see some real tears from Kate Winslet.

No Best Director Nominations Ever Again for Ron Howard

This may sound harsh. Should anyone actually be excluded from consideration for an Oscar? Apart from Meryl Streep, that is? (And I say this as a big fan of Streep when she is on form. But if you are going to nominate her for the pantomime performance she gives as a raving mad nun in Doubt, as the Academy voters have done, then why not hand out Olivier Awards to the cast of Dick Whittington at the Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch?)

Just as Radio 1 wiped the slate clean in the 1990s by shooting half the staff and banning Status Quo from the playlist, so certain prohibitive measures will have to be introduced if the Oscars are going to be in any way relevant - no more nods for Howard who, after a promising start (Night Shift, Splash), has become mediocrity personified. And let's keep a close eye, too, on those theatre directors (Stephen Daldry, Sam Mendes) who get feted before they have grasped that film is a different language.

Make the ceremony swing

Something has to wrest the proceedings away from the tyranny of the existing routine - the envelope-opening, the hysterical winners, the streams of speeches that make each award seem more undeserved by the minute. I'm just throwing out ideas here, but what if the losers in every category had to troop onstage along with the winners to present the statuette, while the world revelled in their discomfort? This year's Best Actress would need to be hardy indeed to waffle on thanking her drama coach and obstetrician as the hard-as-nails Melissa Leo from Frozen River (who won't win, but should do) glared at her from stage right. Failing that, let's have a zero-tolerance approach to speeches, and confiscate the Oscar from anyone who exceeds a dignified "Thank you" without being demonstrably witty or entertaining.

The Academy apologises

Any progress must be informed by lessons learned from the past, so, along with the annual let's-see-who-died-this-year montage - which always provides a morbid highlight for viewers - recompense might be arrived at by a showreel highlighting those cinematic visionaries who were never properly rewarded with an Oscar. Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Jean Renoir, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut are only five names at the top of a list of great film-makers snubbed by the Academy, which serves as a bracing reminder that this body gets it right only occasionally, and then inadvertently.

Think of it as a government sorely in need of a bloodless coup.

The Oscars will be presented on 22 February

Top Oscar Howlers

Directing Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas was apparently not a significant enough cinematic contribution to merit an Oscar for Martin Scorsese. Originally nominated in the Best Director category for Raging Bull in 1980, he was passed over in favour of Robert Redford, who had made a forgettable directorial debut with Ordinary People. Twenty-seven years later, Scorsese finally won his first trophy - for the less-than-classic The Departed.

Citizen Kane has topped almost every "best movie ever" list since its release in 1941, and sure enough that year it picked up nine Oscar nominations. Bafflingly, however, Orson Welles walked away with only the Best Screenplay trophy, losing out in four categories to the sentimental Welsh working-class drama How Green Was My Valley.

The Brokeback Mountain star Heath Ledger won cinema-goers' hearts with his sensitive portrayal of the repressed gay cowboy Ennis. He failed to win over the Oscar panel, however, which named Philip Seymour Hoffman Best Actor in 2006. Having missed the chance to honour Ledger during his lifetime, the Academy looks likely to set things straight posthumously: this year he is up for his dark turn as the Joker (above) in The Dark Knight.

Other contenders for worst ever Oscar decision: both Stanley Kubrick's 2001: a Space Odyssey and Gillo Pontecorvo's classic The Battle of Algiers losing out in 1969 to an uninspired Oliver!, directed by Carol Reed; Apocalypse Now being trampled in the Best Director, Best Picture and Best Writing awards by the mediocre divorce drama Kramer v Kramer in 1980. Yet these pale into insignificance when you consider that Scorsese and Goodfellas were beaten to Best Director and Best Picture by . . . Kevin Costner and Dances With Wolves. Enough said.

John Ridpath

The 81st Academy Awards: the top nominations

Leading Actor

Richard Jenkins, The Visitor

Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon

Sean Penn, Milk

Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

Supporting Actor

Josh Brolin, Milk

Robert Downey Jr, Tropic Thunder

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt

Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road

Leading Actress

Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married

Angelina Jolie, Changeling

Melissa Leo, Frozen River

Meryl Streep, Doubt

Kate Winslet, The Reader

Supporting Actress

Amy Adams, Doubt

Penélope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Viola Davis, Doubt

Taraji P Henson, Benjamin Button

Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler

Best Foreign-Language Film

The Baader Meinhof Complex

The Class



Waltz With Bashir

Best Motion Picture

Benjamin Button



The Reader

Slumdog Millionaire

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 first appeared in the 16 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The New Depression