Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Bone thrown; now let's move on

Before we quite justifiably move on from the Oscars, let me conclude with one final thought. (This from the guy who started out last Monday thinking he didn't know what he was going to write about during "Oscar week." Six Oscar posts later, he's still going.)

The order the Academy Awards are handed out is chosen according to a theory of building momentum as the evening moves on, toward the more exciting awards. Like a movie itself, the Oscars telecast wants to increase the drama until it reaches a crescendo in the third act.

But, as we know from the increase of the best picture nominees to ten, ratings and advertisers are also an important consideration, perhaps the biggest consideration. (And wouldn't you know it, the stunt paid off -- the ratings were up significantly this year.) That means you have to give us at least a couple good awards right off the bat, or we'll have no reason to tune in at the start. No one wants to make sure they're in front of their TV by 8:30 p.m. EST, 5:30 p.m. PST, just to see who won best documentary short. (Though that was probably one of the most controversial moments of this year's show.)

Traditionally, that's meant giving out the best supporting actor and best supporting actress awards right off the bat. Because these involve actors, and therefore, celebrities, they're probably the fifth and sixth most exciting awards of the evening, after best picture, best director, best actor and best actress.

But only one of them kicks off the show these days.

That's right, in the last five years, the show producers have thrown off the symmetry of the night's first two awards by pushing best supporting actress way back into the show. How far back? Christophe Waltz won the first award of the evening for his delicious portrayal of Nazi "Jew hunter" Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds. When Mo'Nique finally picked up her richly deserved Oscar for Precious, it was an hour later, after eight more statues had already been given out.

The reason for this seems obvious to me: It's an exaggerated case of the Academy throwing a bone to its female members, who have long been considered second-class citizens in the world of cinema. If Kathryn Bigelow was the first woman to win an Oscar for best director, it's probably because there are twenty times as many male directors as female ones. And this gender disparity spreads outward to most other areas of filmmaking, even -- and perhaps especially -- the roles written for actors and actresses.

So here's what I figure happened. When I watched the Oscars as a kid, they always paired the two acting awards, and always gave the lead actress or supporting actress her trophy first. The theory being, of course, that the men are more important, meaning they should get their award closer to the end of the show -- even if it's only two minutes closer.

At some point, some prominent woman or group of women said "That's gender bias!" So Oscar did the easiest thing it could think of -- it flip-flopped which gender received its award first. This would effectively throw a bone to women, both in the Academy and in the audience, making them feel more important without costing the stuffy white men we discussed here anything of significance to them.

But then at some other point, after this had been working for a couple years, Oscar decided to throw that bone a little farther. Why not show the women just how important they are by pushing best supporting actress into the middle of the show? Why not ghettoize the supporting actor category by putting it up there while most people are still arriving at their Oscar parties, and save best supporting actress until people are plenty settled?

I don't know, it seems strange to me. Maybe this is just another ratings stunt -- an attempt to wedge an important award in the midst of the long dull patch of sound editing awards and costume awards. And maybe it achieves what they are trying to achieve. That argument is furthered by the fact that the best adapted screenplay and best original screenplay were also separated by a handful of awards. The more exciting awards there are spread throughout the running time, the less likely it is you'll feel you can run to the store for more chips and guacamole.

But I like that symmetry of expecting both the supporting acting awards to be given out at the beginning of the show. Especially if the only reason you're breaking up that symmetry is to make women feel more important. I'd argue that the reverse is going on, that you are blatantly pandering to them in a way that any of them should be able to see right through.

Besides, you could still let the women go second when both awards are handed out in pairs. Let Mo'Nique seem more "important" that Christophe Waltz, and let Sandra Bullock seem more "important" than Jeff Bridges -- I'm fine with all that, and in fact, I think it's the perfect amount of deference for the "majority" to show the "minority." But separating them by an hour on the show? It stands out, and invites questions.

Well, maybe Bigelow's win will be a step forward in little details like this as well. Maybe the only way to truly achieve a greater gender symmetry at the Oscars is to achieve a greater gender symmetry in the industry on the whole.

Sure, and soon they'll start letting women into the NFL, too.

1 comment:

Monty Burns said...

agreed. Pair the acting awards (supporting and best) and then alternate who goes first each year. done and done. and don't give ben stiller 5 minutes for a 9 second joke.