“In Hollywood, no one knows anything.” So wrote legendary screenwriter and author William Goldman. This is an adage that the writer of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, and The Princess Bride coined to explain why so much of what Hollywood has to offer is so rarely received well by the viewing public. And this is just as true of the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony that cemented a once-vaunted celebration as a funeral dirge for Tinsel Town’s prestigious industry.
When actress Regina King kicked off the Oscars by referencing the recent Derek Chauvin verdict, saying, “I have to be honest if things had gone differently this week in Minneapolis, I would have traded in my heels for marching boots,” the viewers at home knew they were in for a night of simplified political blandishments and posturing.
Daniel Kaluuya, who won the best supporting actor award for his role in Judas and the Black Messiah, also referred to George Floyd when he said, “We’re going up tonight. We’re going to celebrate life. We’re breathing; we’re walking; it’s incredible. Life is incredible.”
Who’s On First?
As Liberty Nation’s Laura Valkovic wrote of the 2018 Oscars:
“After complaints that last year’s  post-election Academy Awards were too political, it seems that Hollywood was just getting started. [Host Jimmy] Kimmel admitted on stage that these movies aren’t making money, but, as he said, “that’s not the point.” Entertainment is no longer the purpose of Oscar-worthy films. Hollywood sees itself as a moral arbiter whose job is to guide the rest of us onto the social justice path. The overall tone of the night was more bitter than energizing, however, with too many resentful complaints that are likely to alienate rather than inspire.”
Kimmel’s words appear to have even more resonance in 2021. With many of the films having to be shown on streaming channels rather than in the traditional movie theatre due to COVID restrictions, this year’s awards were very much of the Academy’s choosing.
This was the longest Oscar season so far due to the coronavirus and associated restrictions and was also the first year in which nominees were not required to have a theatrical run. Whereas in the past, it would be difficult to ignore a seasonal blockbuster – at least one that had a serious theme – this year, the voters did not have to consider how their decision might be weighed and measured.
William Goldman wrote of the decline in interest toward the awards ceremony in his book The Big Picture: Who Killed Hollywood? And he offered a cure. His suggestion was that the Academy publish the number of votes each nomination received. Simple though this sounds, Goldman’s argument was that it would allow an otherwise out-of-the-loop public to catch a small glimpse of the motivations and tastes of those who determine the eventual winner.
At present, each of the more than 9,000 eligible Academy members gets to propose five movies in order of preference (for the best picture award). It takes roughly 465 first-place votes to secure a nomination for this award; contrasted with the best costume which requires less than 30. So although one film may be a runaway in terms of first-place votes, Goldman believed that publishing the other placements would develop a real “water-cooler culture” around how and why the decisions were made.
Yet it seems with major media outlets listing the race, gender, and orientation of each nominee and winner as if describing an intersectional phonebook, the motivation of the judges could be all too clear.
In The Dark
Goldman wrote in his dissection of Hollywood, Adventures in the Screentrade:
“Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”
Perhaps, despite their status and stardom, the denizens of the Hollywood hills are really just groping their way through the dark in the hope of finding that thin sliver of light. And as movies face the unrelenting challenge of on-demand TV streamers, maybe the stars, starlets, money-men (and women), and Tinsel Town players are just hoping for an edge in a game where nobody understands the rules.
Read more from Mark Angelides.