In a week of Oscar-mania, screenwriter Steven Cutts offers his perspective.
When we talk about the Oscars in terms of their history, it’s important to remember just how little history the medium has. Movies are older than the internet but younger than America. Whereas the study of practically every other art form enables us to go back centuries, people have only been trying to make movies for a hundred years and with sound for much less than that.
Once established, however, film was quick to steal an audience from every other rival. Opera, classical music and traditional theatre soon saw their following shrink as a people flocked to film. But for the truly discerning, this kind of blatant cash flow didn’t matter. Movies were fun, but they could never be regarded as a serious art form.
Hollywood had money but no kudos. Then one day, they had an idea. The movie industry would invent an awards ceremony. In May 1929, the very first awards were issued although the winners had been announced in advance.
The media wasn’t actually allowed into the event but that didn’t matter. With so many people wandering around in black tie outfits, Movie stars could stand besides the opera singers of this world and not even cringe.
And yet, behind closed doors, the original conflict remains. Are we talking about idle banter or can film be described as a serious art form?
Well, for the most part, it’s about idle banter and yet it would be foolish to ignore its grip on our imagination. Twenty years after Pretty Woman, people still ring up the Beverly Hill’s Wiltshire and ask for the Penthouse Suit, even though it doesn’t exist.
In Britain, Merchant Ivory productions have added entire percentage points to our tourist revenue.
The pursuit of culture carries dangers of its own. On this side of the pond, film and television production was often dominated by people with a background in the theatre and, at times, Britain’s leadership in class and intellectual snobbery seemed to bar us from making the audience feel better.
The results are history. Whereas the British pop music industry managed to beat the Americans on their own ground, the British Film Industry (if it exists) remains a problem child. In the end it took crass Americans like Spielberg and Lucas to direct blockbusters in our own studios using a British crew.
Meanwhile, back in the US, the people who ran the Oscars had found a way to reconcile commercial success with artistic achievement. More prizes. More to the point, more nominees. Counting through the number of people and films that have been nominated for an Oscar this year, I gave up when I got to 100. There are only 52 weeks in a year and only a few movies achieve a broad theatrical release each week. If there are only 20 feature films a year that can even begin to be called decent, the American Academy has invented so many categories of award that just about all of these can be nominated for something.
In 1986, Top Gun – a film with a story line that can only be described as limited – was nominated for and actually won the Oscar for Best Original Song. In 2012, The Muppet Movie picked up a similar prize. With glitter like this on the streets, surely we can all expect something.
Suitably enthused, last May at the Cannes Film Festival, I actually tried to pitch my own, half-finished feature film to an eager industry professional who seemed to have little or no interest in the story line.
“Does it contain any known actors?” he asked.
“ No.” I told him. “But I can tell you that it’s a really great premise and an original story, not a remake.”
He didn’t seem bothered. Remakes are fine in Hollywood. A demographic that ranges from 14 to 26 never remembers the first one.
“Our romantic leads are heterosexual.”I added. He seemed pleased. “But of different ethnicity.”
He seemed to lose interest. We’re still looking for help with the post production costs on that one.
More recently, and just before the current awards season, I attended a working lunch with a film distributor in San Francisco and asked why he thought such difficult people moved into such a difficult industry.
He gave me three answers. “Money. Power. Sex.” And then he rested his cutlery and reiterated the third. “Mostly sex.”
And that’s the whole crux. In spite of eight decades of Academy Awards, the central conflict of the industry remains the same.
That isn’t to say I don’t love it and if you’re looking for something much worse, just turn your thoughts to porn. At the beginning of this century, the LA times reported that Hollywood had released 11,000 porn movies in one year, more than 20 times the number of mainstream movies. The business is widely reported to have a higher turnover than the mainstream, too.
The whole point of the Oscars is for the industry professionals to convince themselves and others that Hollywood is not dross and in some respects they are right.
For example, the Academy may be interested to hear that Donald Sutherland has had a massively successful career in what is still a young and exciting industry. He is one of the foremost screen actors of his generation.
They haven’t noticed. Donald Sutherland has never received an Oscar nomination. It isn’t easy to take an award system seriously if it can’t spot this, but then, it’s probably important to remember that movies aren’t an entirely serious business.
* Steven Cutts’ novel, Viking Village, is available on Amazon.