Last week, Oscar viewership hit an all time low, as the famous awards show did not crack 10 million viewers — which is about half the previous all-time low for the program, which was last year’s award show. Why this is is incredibly obvious: Not only has the quality of the program itself plummeted, with it really suffering from not having an official host for the last two years, but despite notable backlash, it still has a diversity problem — one that it’s working on, but arguably hasn’t come far enough to address. It also remains the case that more so than ever, especially in a world where streaming companies have allowed filmmakers to defy convention, it has been clearer than ever that the tastes of the predominantly old, white Hollywood insiders that make up the Academy greatly differ from those of the general public, which becomes a problem when you’re trying to sell an award show to the general public.
This year’s award show was overshadowed by the Academy’s bizarre choice of Anthony Hopkins for Best Actor over the late Chadwick Boseman’s legendary performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” There were many problems with the production of this year’s show, and I think the criticism that the producers exploited Boseman’s death for viewership — especially the Boseman NFTs they gave out and their bizarre decision to move Best Actor to last, knowing most expected a Boseman win — are legitimate, though I do admit, had he won, many might have seen the moves in good taste. It does, however, highlight a vital need for the producers of the Oscars to be in on who the winners are, else they risk embarrassing themselves again.
Beyond this, many have a problem with the selection of Hopkins over Boseman, which I am among, having seen both “The Father” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” I thought Hopkins delivered a great performance for “The Father,” in which he portrays an old man with dementia who doesn’t know what memories of his are real and what are jumbled, but it was nowhere near as good as the performance Boseman gave in “Ma Rainey” as trumpet player Levee Green, a character whose passions were perhaps too big for his body, and whose drive and love for music ended up being both his salvation and undoing.
I think a lot of why I think Boseman’s performance in “Ma Rainey” works much better than what Hopkins accomplishes in “The Father” also has to do with the fact that “Ma Rainey” is crafted with more care, as “The Father” suffers from being sloppy, boring and pretentious, with its point so muddied it almost doesn’t matter until the end — where Hopkins hits it out of the park with an emotional monologue. “Ma Rainey” benefits from being a stage play first, with each line of dialogue written precisely with great attention, and as a result no minute is wasted. Unlike “The Father”, which drags in a musty fog its director probably thought was brilliant, “Ma Rainey” is consistently excellent throughout its entire runtime, with the dual leading performances of Boseman and Viola Davis being its centerpiece; of which, Boseman shines the brightest.
That’s really my takeaway; as someone who has seen most of the films nominated this year, Boseman’s masterpiece performance eclipses them all. The Oscars has not always been a representation of what’s the best film to come out or who is the best in film of a particular year. “Citizen Kane”, one of the most important films ever made, famously lost Best Picture, and nobody remembers the film it lost to save for film buffs and historians. Best Actor hasn’t even had the best track record, with the award going to Raimi Malek for “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Joaquin Phoenix for “Joker” — two crowd-pleasing popular films that, while I both enjoyed because of the lead actor’s performance — where nowhere near the best lead performances of their respective years. If anything, they just represent the opinions of the industry insiders who make up the Academy.
For an award show billing itself for its increased diversity, Boseman’s snub is a huge slap in the face, and it’s a betrayal I don’t think the award show will recover from. I just simply don’t see people trusting them anymore, and they’re not giving people a reason to tune in anymore.
I think it also represents a stubborn pushback from the Academy, who want to cling to their ways. I think it’s remarkable that in a year necessarily dominated by accessible streaming titles, they picked an obscure performance in a foreign film nobody had heard of, that is only available through VOD for about $20. “The Father” is about as much of a traditional academy film you can get, and it really feels they had to dig for it, lest they let a performance in a streaming title take the lofty honor of Best Actor, not that anything could hold off the dominance of streaming, as the sad reality is, streaming platforms are one of the few places willing to take a risk by developing Oscar-caliber films.
The Oscars have made progress, with Daniel Kaluuya win for Best Supporting Actor for “Judas and the Black Messiah” and the Best Picture and Best Director wins for “Nomadland” being proof of that. But they have failed to take control of their own narrative, and unless it makes more of an effort to reduce the disconnect between not only the Academy and the producers of the awards show, but also the disconnect between those two groups and their audience, the show’s ratings will only plummet, as will the credibility of the Academy in the public mind.
The Academy does not decide what films live on to be considered classics, or which ones live on to be considered the best of all time — the collective public conscience does that. They only decide who gets a little golden statue, and frankly, there are more important things to worry about than the opinions of industry insiders.