The One Statue That Actually Needs To Be Torn Down
The Oscars, the oldest and most popular awards show in existence and historically the second-most-watched annual broadcast next to the Super Bowl, lost 58% of its audience in a single year. But hey, almost no movies were released in 2020, so no wonder nobody wanted to watch, right? That’s what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which produces the Oscars show for ABC, would want you to think… But in truth, the Oscars have been dying for more than a decade. In 2010, 41.6 million people watched. In 2021, that number was 9.8 million.
The quality, or lack thereof, of the 2021 show itself cannot be blamed for its own bad ratings, for the simple reason that no one had seen it yet and therefore could not have been inspired to avoid watching it due to its lousiness. No, what American audiences had seen were its predecessors. The show has stunk up the joint for many years. It has provided precious little entertainment or amusement for the people who used to enjoy it. Viewers were relatively patient. Most kept coming back. But lose 7% of your audience annually and pretty soon you’re down to nothing.
And the Winner for the Worst Award Show Goes to…
There hasn’t been a host in years that compares with the easygoing manner of Johnny Carson (who emceed five times) or the delightful neo-Borscht-Belt stylings of Billy Crystal (nine times, the last one in 2012). Oh, they’ve tried all kinds of things… One year, Family Guy‘s Seth MacFarlane opened the show by singing a ditty he had penned for himself called (I am not making this up) “I Saw Your Boobs.” A wan TV actor named Neil Patrick Harris, who had done a good job on the Tony Awards (whose audience is about a tenth the size of the Oscars), got the gig to little effect. The brilliant standup comedian Chris Rock followed him, but his brand of no-BS balloon puncturing seemed to unnerve the Academy rather than inspire it.
And then, in 2017, Hollywood was torn apart by the “Me Too” movement. That watershed moment accelerated a trend toward humorless correctness that had already begun to take its laborious toll on the proceedings. How could an Oscars host even think of cracking wise at a time when the producer who invented the modern get-my-movie-an-Oscar campaign, Harvey Weinstein, had been exposed as a rapist – a rapist, moreover, whose evil conduct had been an open secret in Hollywood for two decades?
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Add to that the supposedly civilization-ending presidency of Donald Trump and how idiot Hollywood journalists sought to depict his rise to power as an expression of white supremacist tendencies even in the most avowedly Left-liberal industry in America. #OscarsSoWhite, as the Twitter hashtag went. The Oscars are the single greatest promotional tool any industry has ever had – a nearly four-hour ad for the centrality, power, and importance of a single medium. And suddenly, the motion-picture business had no idea how to promote itself effectively, or at all.
Hollywood didn’t know what to do. In desperation, it turned to the hottest new star at the time, the hyperactive Black comedian Kevin Hart, to bring multicultural harmony and heat to the spheres. But it turned out Hart had said some putatively offensive things about LGBTQ issues, and within 72 hours of the celebratory announcement, Hart wisely vamoosed before he could get further chomped up in the social media maw.
It seemed that the cultural elite had decided that not only was America rotten to its core, but so was the entire male gender and heterosexuality in general… and this general disposition needed to be reflected in the words spoken from the stage of the Kodak Theater. In such an atmosphere, comedians of any sort – people with genuine experience in generating enthusiastic up-to-the-moment responses from people in the seats in front of them, and therefore the perfect people to manage the show – were more likely to be lightning rods than the kinds of people who could catch lightning in a bottle. They were to be avoided rather than embraced. And the hunt for a few bad words spoken at any time in anyone’s career, which had become standard fare in Oscars coverage, ensured no sane person would be caught dead taking the gig.
And so came the innovation of innovations… the show with no host! Let the movies be the stars, not the host!
This preposterous avoidance of any conceivable controversy went hand in hand with the astounding incompetence that was, in hindsight, the moment at which the Oscars went into its final tailspin. I speak of the stunning moment of glaring, nightmarish amateurism that ended the 2017 show, perhaps the most cringe-inducing live moment in the history of television. Best Picture presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty – neither of whom seemed capable of even moving their lips properly due to the astonishing level of cosmetic surgery that had rendered the one-time-hotter-than-hot Bonnie and Clyde almost unrecognizable – literally gave the prize to the wrong movie, La La Land. It was left to that film’s generous producer, Jordan Horowitz, to reveal from the card they had handed him that in fact his picture had lost and Moonlight had actually won instead. You might watch the Indy 500 in hopes of seeing a car crash and explode, but you don’t want to see it happen on Oscars night.
The Oscars had a brief moment of ectopic life in 2019 when ratings rose again, in part because the wildly popular Marvel movie Black Panther had become the first superhero flick to get a Best Picture nod. It didn’t win, but audiences were jazzed by the phenomenon. Why wouldn’t they have been? They had seen the movie, at least. The previous year’s winner was a bizarre jape about a mute woman’s affair with a half-man-half-fish called The Shape of Water. And before that was Moonlight, about a gay Black man whose life was redeemed as a boy by a saintly drug dealer, which had grossed a grand total of $1.5 million at the box office before Oscars night.
COVID Killed the Silver Screen
The pandemic year was so catastrophic for the motion-picture business, with the nation’s 44,000 screens mostly dark for months at a time, that sensible observers like the peerless entertainment journalist Richard Rushfield suggested canceling the Oscars show and replacing it with a star-studded telethon to raise money for COVID relief. Not only would that have made sense as a matter of simple logic, since almost literally no one had seen any of the movies the Academy eventually nominated, it would also have allowed Hollywood to use its cultural power for a positive end while restoring the show’s role as an ad for the wonders of the movie business.
Instead, Black actress Regina King began the show by saying she was glad the George Floyd verdict had gone the way it did or she would have had to be marching instead of introducing the broadcast. She added: “I know that a lot of you people at home want to reach for your remote when you feel like Hollywood is preaching to you, but as a mother of a Black son I know the fear that so many live with, and no amount of fame or fortune changes that, OK?”
OK! And guess what? Millions did reach for the remote, just like she said. Ordinary folk getting preached at by people who are far richer and far more famous than they are isn’t a recipe for ratings success, except with those who already agree with you entirely and are thrilled to hear their prejudices reflected by your prejudices.
Listening to King express her disgust at this country – given her own experience in it as an American who has been a successful working actress since the age of 14 with earnings to boot, has won four Emmys and an Oscar, and just directed her first film – offered us an up-to-the-minute display of a long-simmering attitude that is at the root of the Oscar’s’ self-destruction. This attitude was exemplified by the speech given by George Clooney when he won his trophy for supporting actor in 2006…
Hollywood: Woke, Tone-deaf, and Irrelevant
Clooney, one of the biggest stars of the previous decade and a man whom middle America had clasped to its bosom, declared himself happily “out of touch” with the nation that loved him – the America that had elected George W. Bush. “We are,” he said, “a little bit out of touch in Hollywood every once in a while, I think. It’s probably a good thing. We’re the ones who talked about AIDS when it was just being whispered, and we talked about civil rights when it wasn’t really popular. And we, you know, we bring up subjects, we are the ones – this Academy, this group of people gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939 when Blacks were still sitting in the backs of theaters. I’m proud to be a part of this Academy, proud to be part of this community, and proud to be out of touch.”
People like Clooney are rewarded for the entertainment they provide, and we do not begrudge them their success. But when they claim they are superior to others in virtue? That attitude is, quite simply, disgusting. The problem these days is that we are assaulted by the supposed virtuousness of celebrities, as they present themselves daily for our perusal on social media. There was a time this was not the case.
Remember when we knew nothing about movie stars? If you do, you’re relatively old, so if you don’t, you have to trust me that there was a time when this was a fact of life – a time when the power of celebrity was reinforced by the power of scarcity rather than the ubiquity and constant presence in our lives of today’s celebrities. Once upon a time, the American dream machine always left you wanting more. Details about the lives of famous performers were dribbled out through very narrow channels. They went about their work, and their existences were largely unseen, unless you happened to be a restaurant or bar in Los Angeles or maybe a department store in New York. Hollywood husbanded information about stars the way DeBeers husbanded diamonds – it deliberately kept the amount in circulation low to keep the value high.
The first use of the term “paparazzi” – the generic term for the photographers who capture unbidden the famous going about their daily lives – dates to 1960 and Federico Fellini’s movie La Dolce Vita, which captured the phenomenon in its infancy. Before then, and pretty much until the late 1970s, you could literally go months without hearing much about a performer you loved, and a year without seeing a new photograph of one in a newspaper. They were so elusive that the only way to get a glimpse of one was to wait until a movie showed up on television one night – and you had to check out TV Guide at the beginning of every week and keep track so you knew to be home and ready for it.
Only when stars had something to promote would they surface – perfectly made up, perfectly dressed, and perfectly rehearsed for what to say to the newsreels, Life magazine, and rotogravure sections. If you’ve seen the parody of the movie premiere that opens Singin’ in the Rain, you get the gist. Gene Kelly is a smooth-talking spin doctor who makes up a ludicrously false tale about his classical training as an actor while we see him pounding it out in vaudeville. Meanwhile, his gorgeous silent-film co-star is always on the verge of delivering an oration into the microphone before he seizes the mic yet again, and it’s only when no one is listening that she gets to unburden herself of her thoughts – in a screechy voice that would shatter glass. She can only be seen… never heard. If she is, she’s finished and so is the studio.
Or… on Oscars night. In America and across the world, the Oscars were for many decades the most glamorous event of the year – and in some ways, perhaps, the only glamorous night of the year in a world where there was precious little glamor. You wanted to know what they wore. You wanted to see them accompanied by spouses whom you never saw otherwise. You wanted to see how they did reading a teleprompter. Americans were thirsty for them, and on Oscars night, they had their thirst quenched.
Then came Entertainment Tonight… and the rise of celebrity journalism… and cable’s hundreds of channels… and streaming services… and social media. The Oscars, once a telescope that provided us a glimpse of the people we were taught to believe lived in some secular version of Mt. Olympus, became another cork bobbing about in a vast sea of entertainment. We are being drowned in content… We cannot keep our heads above water to catch a breath. And instead of throwing us a lifeline, the people who make the movies and star in the movies and give awards to the movies are sucking up all the oxygen with their nonsense, foolishness, and self-satisfaction. The hell with them.
John Podhoretz is the editor of Commentary magazine.