I’ve been watching the Oscars since I was 11. This required getting permission from my parents to stay up late on a school night, but they knew how much movies meant to me. It was the only night of the year when one could see the biggest stars in Hollywood on the small screen. Audrey Hepburn, Sidney Poitier and Elizabeth Taylor didn’t appear on talk shows in those days.
Memories like mine have been shared by a number of excited Oscar winners, who have said how unreal it seems to be standing at that podium, which they never dreamed of when watching the awards show as children.
I doubt the critics questioning the Oscars’ relevance today could recall anyone making a similar speech at the Golden Globes or any of the newly minted award shows that have permeated the pop culture landscape. That’s because these shows don’t have the history, tradition or worldwide impact that sets the Academy Awards apart from the crowd. And while some of these ceremonies have better reputations than others, they all exist in the shadow of the Oscars – the locomotive that drives a massive and increasingly complex Hollywood machine known as awards season.
Nothing else much matters once autumn arrives in Tinseltown. The rest of the world may have other things on its mind, but in Los Angeles the buildup begins on Labor Day weekend, when the first award-worthy pictures are unveiled at the Venice, Toronto and Telluride (Colorado) film festivals. That’s where movies like The Artist and Slumdog Millionaire were launched. A few months later at the Oscars, filmmakers get to bask in the glow of success, while those who finance and release the movies get to see a concrete return at the box office. All this hype inspires people to see those movies – in theaters, on video or online. How many Americans would have sought out a black-and-white silent movie from France or a subtitled Indian movie with no movie stars without the ballyhoo that concluded on the Academy Awards stage?
The man or woman on the street may complain that the Oscars don’t reflect popular taste, but that was never their purpose. The Oscars are meant to maintain a standard of excellence that is often at odds with box-office returns. If millions of people didn’t rush to see Winter’s Bone or The Hurt Locker, it’s their loss and not the Academy’s fault.