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The biggest winner is still the academy

Oh, the Academy Awards. The one night every year where the American film industry comes together to celebrate the best, most innovative and most thought-provoking films of the past year, then hand awards to whatever the Weinstein Brothers produced.

There’s a beauty, however, among the parasitic nature of it all. In spite of the smug self-righteousness, white people back patting, tabloid fashion statements, bad Ellen DeGeneres jokes and poorly-conceived social media integration (see: picture above), there are few – if any – high-tier award shows that give screen time to the people behind the scenes, from Best Visual Effects to the people who wrote the music for Frozen. It’s moments like these that – to quote the beautiful speech of Best Supporting Actress Winner Lupita Nyong’o – “remind me and every child that no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid”.

The big winners of the night were 12 Years a Slave (three awards, including Best Picture), Dallas Buyers Club (three awards, including Best Actor) and Gravity (seven awards, including Best Director). Each one deals with topics that a predominantly white, male Academy voting block has trouble comprehending. 12 Years a Slave is a haunting look back at the recent history of pre-civil war America. Dallas Buyers Club deals with the 1980s AIDS epidemic among the LGBTI community. Gravity spends over 90 minutes focused solely on an independent woman.

source: Times Reporting, Data analysis by Doug Smith, Robert Burns, Khang Nguyen, Los Angeles Times

Each film is a deserving winner on face value. Though once you dig deeper, cracks start to show. 12 Years a Slave is easily one of the best films of 2013, but when the much larger ‘spectacle’ film Gravity wins most of the awards throughout the night, you get the feeling that the win was an act of penance for past wrongdoings. Forgive me if I take the cynic’s approach on this one, but it’s not a far stretch to think that the Academy – an institution built on traditional, conservative values, who has previously lauded such racist tripe as Crash and The Help – weren’t awarding this film with their highest honour out of pure merit.

Similarly, Dallas Buyers Club, aside from being a classic ‘Oscar-bait’ film, brought its own Pandora’s Box to the fore. Jared Leto’s turn as trans*woman Rayon won Best Supporting Actor, despite the fact that the trans* community had spoken out against his casting. The same can be said of the Best Hair and Make-Up Award accolade bestowed to them; the Academy essentially saying, “You did an awesome job of making a guy look like a trans*woman, instead of hiring a trans*woman!” Though, to be fair, in a field where your other options were The Lone Ranger and the latest Jackass film, it was probably the best choice.

Gravity is an interesting beast. It’s somehow the most optimistic of the big winners even though it stars Sandra Bullock. But it’s also about not much at all: the US space program is over so there’s no commentary to be made there, the film’s problems are resolved via dream sequence, and any tale about the introspective nature of loneliness is lost in the constant need to make the emptiness seem exciting. What’s left is something more thrilling than a Movie World ride, but also a whole lot less poignant, the final message being a dull “earth good, space bad”.

Like every year, arguably the better films were left out of the envelopes. Blackfish, Fruitvale Station, Blue is The Warmest Colour, Before Midnight, The Wind Rises and The Act of Killing all left the ceremony either unmentioned or empty-handed, despite each one being infinitely better than most Best Picture nominees could ever dream of being. The Academy Awards arguably play out in rote fashion, where the nominees and winners merely exist for the betterment of those that vote for them. The real winners, in the end, are the Academy, who can spend another year feeling good about their ‘choices’.

The real sign of the Oscar’s lack of contemporary understanding, however, may have appeared during the show itself. The biggest cheer of the night was reserved for, surprisingly, Kevin Spacey, who broke out the southern drawl of Frank Underwood, from TV series House of Cards, during proceedings. While it was a funny reprieve for the audience, it also served as a warning: television, especially premium cable channels like HBO, are taking the place that cinema once occupied as the innovative, thought-provoking and indeed best mainstream artistic medium.

 Alberto Santos