Friday, December 9, 2011

What Does "Oscar-Worthy" Mean To You?

The New York Film Critics Circle and other critics groups have begun announcing their winners for 2011, officially launching this year's awards season. But regardless of their picks, the biggest awards event—the Oscars—is still to come.

I'd like to look beyond the Oscar ceremony itself, though, at just the phrase "Oscar-worthy." When the nominees are finally announced next February, what will unite them all is that at some point, a critic somewhere has used the phrase “Oscar-worthy” to talk about them. For example, “So-and-so delivers an Oscar-worthy performance. His/her most understated yet.” Or, “So-and-so’s gifts for directing make Such-and-Such one of the best films of the year, a truly Oscar-worthy effort.”

But as contemporary culture becomes more fragmented and the Oscar telecast struggles for relevance, a question worth asking is whether phrases like “Oscar-worthy” or “Oscar-level” mean anything anymore, if they ever did.

My own disillusionment with the Oscars began when Shakespeare in Love won Best Picture over Saving Private Ryan. As a small boy, the Academy’s choices had been sacrosanct to me. But in 1998 or 1999, it was suddenly obvious that voters had chosen what was comfortable and romantic—a crowd-pleaser—over a work that was serious and of historical and stylistic importance.

From there, once I learned about Oscar campaigns and how politics plays into the voting, the magic began to evaporate. I never would’ve guessed, when I was a boy, that sometimes people win because “it’s just their time.”

This was precisely the feeling when Martin Scorsese finally won his Best Director Oscar in 2007. Here’s the director of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas—all lionized as classics of Hollywood cinema—winning largely because of the overwhelming sense that it was finally his time.

What, then, does it really mean to say that something is “Oscar-worthy” if the Oscars themselves aren’t as genuine as they might appear?

The name may be tainted, but I have to admit that it still means something to me, as I suspect it still means something to others. Getting rid of Oscar and “Oscar-worthy” means casting aside a cultural shorthand that unites generations and connects the present to the past and the future. The ceremony itself may amount to nothing more than the industry patting itself on the back, but the name signifies a gold standard that doesn’t belong to Hollywood—it belongs to anyone who loves movies.

That’s why, whenever I think about giving up on “Oscar-worthy,” I have to ask myself, what do we replace it with? A common language and shared history are important. I’m not prepared to give up on them. Not just yet.

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