What Covid Hasn’t Quashed: Our Fetish for Awards

Like nearly everything else in this year of Covid, Sunday’s Oscar ceremony will have a strange look. It’s coming two months late, for one thing — the deadline for eligibility having been extended to give more films time to qualify. It will be an indoor-outdoor event, with no host (for the third year in a row), but a cast of 15 presenters for an “awards-show-as-a-movie” approach, whatever that means. All to honor a slate of films that almost no one went to see in the theaters.  

The pandemic may have wreaked havoc on much of the entertainment world. But it hasn’t done anything to quash our inexplicable obsession with awards. 

Inexplicable because they’ve become nothing but trouble. This year’s Golden Globes were plagued by controversy over the all-white makeup of its voting body, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and the glitch-filled awards show in February drew only 6.9 million viewers — a calamitous 63% plunge from last year’s audience. The Grammy Awards had to navigate its own controversy (why wasn’t the Weeknd nominated?) and suffered an equally precipitous drop in ratings — down nearly 50% from the lowest-rated Grammy show ever.  

And woe to anyone who stumbled across the Screen Actors Guild awards a couple of weeks ago, on TBS and TNT.  Pre-taped and edited down to a speedy one hour, the Zoomed ceremony was so perfunctory that presenters simply read the winners by rote off the Teleprompter, without even the usual pause for suspense while opening the sealed envelope. Less than a million people watched, another all-time low. 

The reductio ad absurdum has to be this year’s Tony Awards. Broadway was forced to close up shop over a year ago, but that didn’t stop the Tony folks last October from cobbling together a list of nominees from the truncated 2019-20 season. (The category of Best Actor in a Musical has exactly one nominee.) Voting was delayed until March — a full year after the shows closed — and the actual ceremony still hasn’t been scheduled. By the time it airs, the nominees for Best Play may well be eligible for Best Revival. 

Nowhere, however, has our awards fetish spun more wildly out of control than the Oscars. The turning point came several years ago, with the creation of a new reporting beat: the Oscar correspondent, whose job was to spend nearly half a year on the awards trail — handicapping the hot films to emerge from the early-fall film festivals; chronicling the studio maneuvering to secure prime release dates for their Oscar hopefuls; tracking the PR campaigns of the top contenders; reporting from the parties and press conferences; scoping out the inside buzz on who’s up and who’s down; and finally, of course, making the all-important predictions.

Even film critics were enlisted in the hype, forced to come up with those annoying “should win/will win” lists just before awards night. Let’s get something straight: you’re either a critic (“should win”) or a reporter with a pipeline to the Hollywood insiders (“will win”). You can’t be both. 

This year, happily, the Oscar reporters didn’t have a lot to do, since campaigning was drastically scaled back because of Covid.  Still, Hollywood’s Biggest Night has a decidedly second-rate feel this year. Several of the most anticipated films— Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, the sci-fi epic Dune — were postponed until theaters can fully reopen. That has left the field to a batch of mostly smaller films that seem scaled for the TV screen —which is where nearly all of us watched them. With all due respect to Nomadland and Minari, two fine films, the whole affair has a whiff of Major League Baseball during World War II, when most of the game’s top stars were serving in the military and team rosters were filled largely with aging retreads, second-stringers and a one-armed outfielder. 

Another problem, to be perfectly honest, is the relentless, now overbearing fixation on the racial and ethnic diversity of nominees. Not because diversity isn’t important, but because it’s been reduced to a numbers game pegged to an award whose significance has been blown all out of proportion by the Hollywood-journalistic complex. Last year’s awards prompted endless hand-wringing because there was only one black nominee in the four top acting categories (Cynthia Erivo for Harriet). This year: huzzahs all around, because actors of color have a good chance of sweeping all four of the acting awards. And Chloe Zhao, of Nomadland, is favored to become the first Asian-American woman to win as best director. 

A sign of progress? Certainly. But also probably just as overplayed as the grievances were last year. The Oscars have never been a reliable indicator of filmmaking quality (otherwise The Greatest Show on Earth would be playing in heavy rotation on TCM). Nor are they necessarily an accurate gauge of Hollywood’s progress on racial equity and social justice. They’re just a gold statuette, headed for another likely ratings tumble.         

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