Oscar Night is this Sunday, and host Neil Patrick Harris can be counted on to make it fun for the swells at the Dolby Theatre and perhaps even for those 40-plus million watching at home. That will be a challenge for a show whose 24 awards mostly go to invisible craftsmen — what’s the diff between Sound Editing and Sound Mixing, and why should any TV viewer care? — and to categories, like Best Documentary Short, that simply don’t exist in the movie marketplace. If you’re an average to avid filmgoer, you probably care about Best Picture, the four actors’ awards and maybe Best Director. The rest is the presentation of gold watches to anonymous artisans.
Like Fox News commentators poking at the excesses and failures of Barack Obama, critics of the Oscar show have floated all manner of remedies. Some have proposed a separate afternoon ceremony for the technical categories and the short films, thus allowing the evening to be a showcase of star actors, possibly with longer clips from their films. That’s what the Grammy show has become: an all-star concert, with only a few of the record industry’s 100-plus awards presented on the prime-time show. Or Oscar could go the full American Idol route, with the nominated thespians in an “act-off” of big movie scenes, and the viewing audience, not the Academy’s senior citizens, choosing the winner.
A simpler remedy: nominate movies the viewers have seen and liked — the action films and fantasies that Hollywood makes better than anyone. History tells us that the Oscar ceremony has registered its biggest jumps in viewership in years when an extraordinarily popular movie was eligible in many categories. 1983: 53.2 million viewers (up by 7 million from the previous year) for E.T. 1998: 55.2 million (up by 15 million) for Titanic. 2004: 43.5 million (up by 10 million) for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. And 2010: 41.7 million (up by 5 million) for Avatar. Last year’s broadcast got 43.7 million (up 3 million from 2013) for Gravity. The blockbusters don’t have to win Best Picture — Titanic and King did, E.T., Avatar and Gravity didn’t — but they have to be in the race, as a Best Picture finalist with lots of subsidiary nominations.
The Academy recognized the power of big movies in 2009, the year after the box-office smash (and critical favorite) The Dark Knight got aced out of the final five Best Picture shortlist. The Academy’s solution: add more slots for the top award. It became known as the Christopher Nolan award. That worked splendidly for 2010, when the looming presence of Avatar, plus the duel between James Cameron and his glamorous ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow (for The Hurt Locker, the eventual winner), juiced up the competition.
This year, though, the membership reverted to its preference for indie and niche bio-pic fare. Yes, American Sniper has earned more than $300 million at the domestic box office after the nominations were announced; but it’s not considered a major player for either Best Picture or Best Actor Bradley Cooper. Of the other seven Picture nominees, only The Imitation Game has earned more than $60 million (which makes it the 44th most popular film of 2014, right behind Let’s Be Cops). The leading contenders for Best Picture, Birdman and Boyhood, have taken in little more than $60 million together. Why would 45 million people tune in to watch a runoff between two films that sold a total of about 7 million tickets? Still Alice and Whiplash, the movies predicted to win Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor for Julianne Moore and J.K. Simmons, have earned about $15 million between them.
While giving to the poor, the Academy snubbed the popular: a few technical citations for Nolan’s Interstellar, only one nomination for Gone Girl, last year’s top-grossing adult drama, and nothing for the one megahit animated feature (and critics’ darling) The LEGO Movie. It’s as if the Academy is telling the constituency of mass moviegoers: Don’t bother watching the Oscars. This one’s for us, not you.
Adding blockbusters to the nomination lists is part of the answer, but it’s not the big answer. The big answer is: make the voting public. Have a designated celebrity read out the five names in each major category in ascending order of the votes they received — the last-named being the winner.
In virtually every other competition, whether it’s the World Series or an Olympic marathon or a national election, viewers get to see how close the race was. The Super Bowl, for example: Would 114.5 million people have watched it if the Katy Perry halftime show were virtually the whole show and, at the end, Al Michaels simply announced, “The Patriots won,” instead of, “This was the closest, craziest, most thrilling fourth quarter in NFL freakin’ history!”?
Yet on Oscar night here’s what you get: five names, one winner, four losers; then it’s move on, dot, yawn. What if we learned, as the tally was shown on a big board behind the person reading out the nominations for Best Actor, what the names of the top two contenders were — and that they were just one vote apart? That actually happened in 1932, and the Oscar was given to both Fredric March and Wallace Beery. But we know that only because the Academy later changed the rule: to declare a tie, the figures had to be exactly even. We also know that, in 1969, Katharine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand got the same number of votes for Best Actress — because they both were named winners. (Over the decades there have also been ties in three “minor” categories that had far fewer voters.)
What else do we know about the Oscar tallies? Nothing. Did Greta Garbo or Cary Grant or Alfred Hitchcock, to pick three distinguished artists who never got competitive Oscars, ever come close to winning? If Eddie Redmayne takes Best Actor this year, did Michael Keaton lose by just a handful of votes, or was it a wipeout? And how close did Bradley Cooper get? Which races were runaways over Oscar’s 86 years, and which were photo finishes? Wouldn’t you like to know? Wouldn’t the show have a little more interest if you did?
Making the vote tabulation public would also invigorate the weeks before the Oscar show. So-called experts give odds on the nominees in top categories, but the knowledge that only the winner will be revealed renders that exercise useless; now it’d mean something. And all those office Oscar pools could promote, in addition to the winners, any number of beguiling side bets. Who can pick the top five in the most categories — in order? In the Best Director race, how many votes will separate Alejandro Iñárritu from Richard Linklater? What’s the over-under on Patricia Arquette?
It’d be fun to know, but we won’t. And all because the Academy members value confidentiality in the process above the public’s interest in their product. What are they hiding — state secrets? Oh, that’s right: in our society you can’t hide a lot of secrets forever. In the past half-century, through the Freedom of Information Act, concerned citizens have unearthed documents whose publication resulted in the banning of Red Dye #2, the recalling of the Ford Pinto, the revelation that Agent Orange was used on Vietnamese civilians and the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew.
We need a Freedom of Infotainment Act. The Star Chamber of the Motion Picture Academy must be compelled to open its books and make the results public. At least confirm to us that in 1993, the Supporting Actress Oscar really did go to Marisa Tomei. Show us the numbers! Let the sunshine in.
As long as the particulars of Academy voting are suppressed, we movie lovers will find Oscar night less exciting as we watch it, less likely to lodge in our collective memory. (“Hey, remember how close that Best Actor race was in 2015?”) The people who run Hollywood are supposed to be masters at creating drama, suspense, thrills — at putting on a great show. If we knew not only who the winners were but also by how much they won, the Oscar show could actually be the Super Bowl of movies.