Hooray for Hollywood: Oscar win for “Birdman” continues a trend.Written by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
thoroughly enjoyed “Birdman.” It is a rare treat to find a film that so deftly swoops between the disparate tones of comedy, tragedy, surrealism and slapstick. I found the ending a bit of a letdown, as I felt there were a few loose ends both thematically and on a character level that the film didn’t even try to tie up. But on the whole, I found “Birdman” an excellent moviegoing experience.
I say this to establish that what I’m about to write doesn’t come from a place of bias against the movie because it won the Academy Award for Best Picture, or that I would have preferred any of the other candidates. “Birdman” is a wonderful film, very worthy of the honor. But its victory seems to solidify a somewhat disturbing trend — an indication that, in its attempts to honor the best of its art form, Hollywood is in danger of disappearing (even further) up its own backside.
The fact is that of the last four films that have won Best Picture — a prize meant to signify a movie that represents the pinnacle of achievement in show business — three of them have centered around one particular subject: show business itself. And I would argue that the trend goes back even further than that, leading an interested observer to deduce that Hollywood’s voters are a little too keen on rewarding work that they, and perhaps few others outside of moviemaking, can relate to.
Start with “Birdman.” A sly meta-satire of both Hollywood and Broadway, with a few dollops of pathos and self-doubt mixed in. The characters are all show business archetypes: the down-on-his-luck veteran actor, the egotistical method performer, the paranoid agent, the neglected daughter. These are all individuals that Hollywood types can easily relate to and see themselves in. Other nominees depicting historical figures, individuals struggling with their humanity or both didn’t have that natural in-road with the voters.
In 2014, Best Picture was awarded to “12 Years a Slave” — a harrowing and important film that interrupted the Tinseltown reverie. But in 2013, the winner was “Argo,” a film about a fake film set up by the CIA to rescue diplomats from Iran. Sure, the movie wasn’t focused on Hollywood, but show business certainly played a key role, with plenty of inside winks to moviemaking and film buffs added in.
In 2012, Best Picture went to “The Artist,” a nearly-silent movie depicting a famous actor who has hit the skids and is looking for a way back to stardom. Hmm, that sounds familiar. Hey, whaddya know, that sounds almost identical to the basic plot of “Birdman”! Now, sure, the two films could not be more different in terms of filmmaking style, tone and more, but the fact remains that once again the story Hollywood deemed the best of the year was largely focused on Hollywood itself.
So that’s three films in four years that featured a behind-the-scenes entertainment story Best Picture. And then we get to 2011’s winner, “The King’s Speech,” about British monarch George VI overcoming his stammer in an effort to become an effective leader. If you get right down to it, the story can be read as working to overcome fear of expectation, of not performing well, which isn’t too far removed from stage fright — something many actors can certainly identify with. (Coincidentally, actors make up the largest branch of the Academy’s voters. Go figure.)
Look, I’m not saying any of these films are bad — in my opinion, they’re all excellent. But when a long string of victors for filmmaking’s top prize share a common theme, it begins to indicate a sort of tunnel vision, no matter what that subject is. Imagine if four out of five Pulitzer Prize winners were war novels, or (much less likely) sci-fi thrillers. It would hint that the voting block may be naturally biased toward that subject matter, potentially to the exclusion of other kinds of stories.
The Oscars are supposed to spotlight great examples of filmmaking artistry, and encourage the audience to seek out great work. The filmmaking industry churns out an endless stream of vacuous garbage on a yearly basis, so working to bolster great, smaller pieces is always worth the effort.
But when those same awards seem focused on honoring a series of films that play better to a very select market — the same market doing the voting — one can’t help but wonder if Academy voters would be well served to widen their scope in the years to come.