Do you care about the Oscars? I know I sure don't. It's not because I don't care about movies -- a matter of fact, I care a great deal -- or because I believe that taste is wholly subjective and ranking favorites absurd. I don't care because the Oscars have become (or arguably always were) irrelevant in every way: as a gauge of public taste, as a means to recognizing great art and, perhaps most importantly, as entertainment.
While nearly 40 million Americans tuned in last Sunday, the show failed to attract its desired audience. According to a New York Times article published February 28th, well over half of Oscar watchers were outside of the target 18-49 demographic -- so basically it's an older crowd keeping viewership strong. Last year the Academy Awards attempted to inject a dose of youthful vigor into the formula with co-hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway. This ploy to attract a younger audience proved an utter failure as last year's ratings will attest, and it also demonstrated the general cluelessness of the show's producers. Young people are not interested in the preferences of an esteemed body of experts any more than a high school kid wants to spend the weekend toiling through Moby Dick -- and basically for the same reason. When a work of art is preceded with a sanctimonious descriptor like 'masterpiece' or 'great' or 'classic' or 'best', it ceases to be engaging because it ceases to be controversial. I'm not referring to controversy in terms of a violent rape scene or an overwrought anti-war message, but rather the general perception of its validity as a work of art. Thus a 'best' picture becomes a 'boring' picture.
The Oscars celebrate an antiquated bourgeois notion of a 'good' film left over from a time when folks believed in their civic responsibility to vote and stamp collecting was a crackerjack hobby. 'Good' simply isn't, well... good enough. With the thousand microcosms of taste, there is something for everyone and almost nothing that summons a universal audience. In many ways, film as an art form becomes increasingly obscure -- mediocre films generate the bulk of 'good' acclaim while more difficult (but also more interesting) films find an audience at a local festival, through DVD distribution or an internet download. Studios rarely if ever feel compelled to risk the loss of promoting an edgy film. Will we ever have another director like Stanley Kubrick for instance, who sold out theaters, redefined film and saw Oscar recognition (at least in the form of a nomination)? I doubt it. Though, as a notable exception, I am pleased that the Academy recognized Terrence Malick's Tree of Life, which was artistically ambitious and divisive (but I must point out that it didn't win any of the awards it was nominated for). This year's Best Picture winner, The Artist, much like last year's (The King's Speech), is a prime example of the sort of film that Oscar loves: charming, well-done, and completely forgettable.
Even if the Academy's picks leave you cold, the show should still be a fun watch... right? This year, Billy Crystal hosted the event once again, bringing all the freshness of an exhumed tomb. The ungodly degree to which the producers are out of touch is exemplified in an exchange between Mr. Crystal and teen dream Justin Bieber in the show's intro video: Justin delivers the all-too-honest line "I'm here to get you the 18 to 24 demographic" and, after awkwardly standing around for a few seconds, leaves to hang out with 'Sammy' (Billy Crystal in blackface as Sammy Davis Jr.). I really don't think I need to say any more. At this point, the only remaining reason to watch is to ogle the parade of haute-couture'd stars -- but it seems the stuffy atmosphere transforms even the most outrageous into demure, self-important creatures who use phrases like 'my craft'. Today's public prefers their celebrities to shock and awe; to elicit both infatuation and gleeful contempt. The last thing anyone wants is to see these idols guarded and redolent with self-congratulation.
Is there hope for the Oscars? Honestly, I don't know. Still 40 million viewers strong, the event may see minimal benefits to a drastic overhaul. However, there will come a time in the not-too-distant future when the ratings will drop dramatically unless they can entice new viewers. To accomplish this, I believe, they will need to entirely redefine what the Academy Awards represent.