I CAME AWAY from this year's Oscars with a too-familiar sinking feeling. There was a time when I would wait in anticipation for the annual ceremony of the Academy Awards. There was a time when, as I recollect, it meant something to keep track of the reception of a number of important films, a time when I wondered if pictures like "Lawrence of Arabia," "Bonnie and Clyde," "The Graduate," "The Wild Bunch," "The French Connection," and "The Godfather" would receive the recognition due them. Some of my favorite movies did, while others didn't, but this seems a time long ago and far away.
Many people ask me, "Who do you think will win at the Oscars?" or "What did you think of the Oscars last night?" My response is frequently indifference, at best. Very often, my feelings toward the Academy are simply hostile.
It's not so much a question of the Oscars representing a time when Hollywood gives itself a party, with a lot of long-winded, saccharine speeches and cheesy entertainment. It's not just that the ceremony reeks of inauthenticity (dishonesty?). The problem with the ceremonies of the last 10 (or 20?) years is that they seem yet another reminder of the nature of the commercial entertainment industry.
Many times, I have the sense as the Oscar talk starts each year that Hollywood needs to fish around for something to celebrate, to see if the audience will take seriously the holding up of a set of motion pictures as contributions to our cinematic canon. Small wonder. A little while ago, a student noticed that, on my syllabus for a course covering the postwar cinema, I listed no screenings of films made in the 1980s. I was more or less aware of this. I wasn't deliberately avoiding the decade when I arranged the schedule, only attempting to list movies I thought to be important.
On reflection, the 1980s marked the beginning of Hollywood's downward spiral. Certainly there were important pictures made in the decade, but very often on the fringe of the industry. Deserving mainstream films, like "Raging Bull" and the much-maligned and under-analyzed "Heaven's Gate," appeared just as the decade began. They were followed, however, by the age of the blockbuster and the proliferation of eye candy. Cinema became a cheap thrill, visual entertainment that would become the excuse to buy the VCR, the tapes, the laser discs, the home entertainment system, the DVDs. Hollywood looked for faster and faster ways to turn a quick buck, to convert an idea into a franchise if it did well; to recycle a product on the home video market if it bombed.
"Heaven's Gate," with its large budget (which now pales in comparison to the average sci-fi film) and poor reception (due in large part to the failure of the industry to give it even mediocre support), became the excuse to take away what little freedom directors enjoyed in the New Hollywood. In this atmosphere, it became difficult for me to think of great achievements.
Not that the past 20 years have been totally bereft of good movies. "Schindler's List" and "Unforgiven" deserved their plaudits, and it was good to see "Fargo" and "Gods and Monsters" on the nomination list. Yet, even when a richly meritorious picture makes it to an Academy Award nomination, is there any point in caring? It's an old saw that many great films and directors never received an Oscar, but my ennui about the entire affair goes to something deeper than the negligence of the people who give out those little statues. …