Around Oscar season, The Hollywood Reporter does a series called “Brutally Honest Oscar Voter Ballots” and posts a transcript of the voter’s responses. One voter weighed in on all the Best Picture nominees and likely winners for the remaining categories with answers that range from brutally honest to downright insulting — not only to all the creatives who have contributed to filmmaking this year, but also to the integrity of the Academy.
Well, I suppose that depends on what the Academy Awards are actually supposed to stand for and celebrate.
The Oscars purportedly reward “excellence in cinematic achievements” but that still sounds quite vague. How do they define achievement? Achievement at the box office or among the art house circuit? How we interpret this woman’s responses depends on whether the Academy rewards well-done, artistic works of film or narrowly defined Hollywood-approved, money-making movies.
Much like the MPAA, the Academy is often seen as a somewhat Kafkaesque Hollywood establishment that plays a huge role in our consumption of modern film. The statues can lead to increased box office returns (depending on release date) and give audiences an idea of worthwhile films to watch. Despite the clout this ceremony carries with it, the rules that govern the Academy are hard to discern. This specific voter has received some flack for certain contentious statements that I’ll get to in a minute, but the larger problem is present in all of her responses.
The voter noticeably remained anonymous, perpetuating the perception of a non-transparent Academy. More importantly the woman’s responses suggest a complete lack of concern for true excellence in filmmaking. When discussing Birdman, a film with nine nominations from Best Picture to Sound Editing that has narrative and cinematic complexity, she devotes her entire explanation to how it managed to rack up ticket sales. There are no doubts about how the Oscars equate to respectable film festival awards like Cannes or Sundance, but some mention of creative skill when addressing the current favorite for Best Picture would lend credence to the theory that the Oscars mean anything at all.
The rest of the voter’s Best Picture nominee analyses similarly disparage critical favorites like Boyhood and Selma, yet praise weaker showings like The Imitation Game. For whatever reason, she thinks The Imitation Game should win Best Picture because she considers it to be “prestige filmmaking.” The Imitation Game certainly passes the Hollywood test for having a silly platitude repeated too often (“Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of that do the things no one can imagine”), an all-white cast, and a contrived score. While struggling in artistic merit, much like the voter’s other beloved film American Sniper, The Imitation Game has done very well at the box office with more than double the box office returns of Birdman.
A skewed view of the definition of excellence is not all the voter brings to the table. She also makes an inflammatory statement decrying the Selma filmmakers for wearing “I can’t breathe” shirts at their New York premiere, calling it “offensive” and placing her again on the side of white Hollywood privilege. She poses Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper as the counterpoint to Selma’s off-screen politics because Eastwood decided to leave the politics in the movie. Frankly, the Selma filmmakers wearing politically charged shirts is one of the least offensive things a group of people intimately involved in telling an intense story about Civil Rights could do. For an Academy that the voter acknowledges is still mostly white males, the overt racism the voter denies is not as much of an issue in this day and age as much as a probably unintended bias that stems from homogeneity. The A.V. Club’s recent interview with a seat filler at the Oscars indicates how much the awards are concerned with appearance and façade over thoughtful substance.
The Academy’s lack of focus on substance comes through clearly with the voter’s superficial focus on Patricia Arquette’s appearance instead of her acting chops in Boyhood. For Best Supporting Actress, the anonymous voter believes Arquette should receive “a bravery reward” for having “no work done during the 12 years [of filming].” While Arquette is the favorite in that category, and in my opinion deserving of the award, the voter’s lack of attention to the actual skill of acting in favor of a rehashing of toxic, media-fueled ideals of beauty is an indictment of the Academy.
Again, the voter believes Michael Keaton should win Best Actor for Birdman not really because he’s a good actor, or at least she never mentions that fact, but because Keaton’s “grateful, not particularly needy” and he probably won’t get nominated again. While I’m glad to hear of Keaton’s upstanding moral code, neither humility nor a lack of future opportunities to win should be the basis for receiving an Oscar. Good acting and good acting alone should be. The list goes on with her dismissal of Emmanuel Lubezki’s stunning cinematography in Birdman (because it gave her a headache) in favor of Robert Yeoman’s far more conventional work in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Cinematic merit for taking risks and honing the craft are not valued by at least this member of the Academy.
What is perhaps the most alarming is that this voter was completely unwilling to broaden her horizons and get insight into the diverse and multifaceted nature of filmmaking outside of the main categories. More than her remarkably uninformed responses is what the voter chose to leave out. She abstained from almost all of the categories that require some effort on the part of the viewer to understand and appreciate them — Best Foreign Film and Best Documentary Short, for example. Unlike the rest of us that have to hunt down these films to view them, this voter receives screeners precluding any reasonable excuse to not see them except their deviation from the more palatable feature-length Hollywood standard.
The examples I drew out are only the tip of the iceberg of close-minded, cinematic ignorance contained in her transcript so please read it to get a more complete picture. It’s logical that the Academy places some sort of emphasis on making money, as it is a strong indication of what the American populace is watching, but the national awards should have a more engaged voting public that also acknowledge challenging and less commercially viable filmmaking. The Oscars have the potential to present outstanding films that inspire the average American to investigate films they would not have heard about otherwise, but if this voter’s response is any indication, the Academy has a long way to go before that becomes a possibility.