I still love watching the Oscars. That may seem like an innocuous opinion, but in a world where Green Book won Best Picture, some Oscar-haters seem to take it as outright heresy. I didn’t think Green Book was a good or prudent movie, and I was frustrated when it won. And like so many Oscar viewers, I’ve become intimately acquainted with this feeling of disappointment in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ judgment, over years and across many awards categories. I’m prepping for a similar situation during the 2020 Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday, though I won’t say what movie I’m actually rooting for in the Best Picture slot, in case I end up jinxing things. But the question remains: Why would I love watching a ceremony that, for the most part, gives me so much grief?
Every year, in the months leading up to February, everyone who cares about movies works themselves into a tizzy over who will or won’t win at the Oscars. As a child, my impression of the Oscars was simply that it was a few hours of watching glamorous famous people cavort with each other. As I’ve gotten older, and more opinionated about what is and isn’t nominated, the awards have become a flashpoint of frustration.
It’s not just that my opinions differ from those of the Academy voters. It’s that drama over who’s hosting, displeasure with the jokes and skits that pop up throughout the night, and the general awkwardness of the whole ceremony colors the experience and dominates the conversation. Add to that the months of campaigning for the awards — potentially turning what should be a choice made based on artistic merit into a question of who has the most money to batter awards voters into submission — and those three to four hours of hemming and hawing during the ceremony can become a slog.
But none of that frustration outweighs the simple joy of watching a great movie win.
No matter what wins an Oscar, truly great movies will still be remembered as the years go by. Mediocre-to-bad movies simply disappear into the ether. (Truly bad movies, the ones that reach cult status and attain their own kind of immortality, are exceptions to the rule — that level of bad is never nominated for anything, except maybe a Razzie.) The distribution of little gold statues won’t change that calculus. It mostly just determines which titles go into the long lists of annual Oscars record-keeping.
That’s big picture, though, not Best Picture, which is what we actually feel while watching the Academy Awards ceremony. The ceremony experience is more akin to Uncut Gems (to name one of this year’s big snubs), where it feels like every bet you’ve made — every movie you’re rooting for — might be a life-or-death gamble. But just as Uncut Gems protagonist Howie Ratner feels a life-giving thrill when one of his gambles pays off, the high of a deserving movie or artist taking home a prize is unbeatable. It’s the equivalent of seeing good things happen to a friend. Not every friend will experience a windfall of good luck at the same time, but when one does, it’s a lovely feeling of shared joy, of having personal stakes in a positive moment.
I’m thinking of Moonlight’s last-minute Best Picture win, when it swept the award from under La La Land’s nose, or the Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King 11-award sweep in 2004. Both of these movies were incredible, but their Academy triumphs still seem inconceivable. Moonlight is a tiny independent film with an all-black cast, focused on vignettes from the life of a gay man. The Return of the King is a fantasy epic full of magic creatures and quests. Neither of them seem like typical hits for the Oscar voting crowd, which loves grim prestige dramas about self-important historical topics, and self-indulgent films about the wonders of Hollywood. And yet…
I still look up pictures of those winners — Peter Jackson and the entire Return of the King cast holding their Oscars aloft, the Moonlight cast and crew looking shocked as they take the stage — whenever I need a pick-me-up. There are even some great moments from hosts and presenters, despite how tedious the non-awards parts can be. Like Hugh Jackman’s breaking during his opening number, as he confesses he hasn’t seen The Reader. That the Oscars seem to be on a hostless track now doesn’t change that; some of the best bits of past ceremonies have had nothing to do with the hosts. There’s Jack Black and Will Ferrell complaining that they’ll never win an Academy Award, or even Joe Pesci’s five-word Best Supporting Actor acceptance speech.
It’s a joy to see great movies celebrated, which hopefully is the ultimate purpose of the Oscars. The Academy isn’t a perfect institution, as one glance at this year’s nominees proves — whence The Farewell? — and there’s still a long way to go when it comes to recognizing diverse and non-Western talent. But miracles do happen, and it’s worth tuning in with the hopes of seeing them occur. In the same way that great movies outlast the bad ones, the Oscars’ joyful moments outweigh the frustrations. For me, anyway.