Requiem for the Oscars: The Academy Awards on the Precipice
To return to relevance, the Oscars must reject DEI
Libertas Conscientiae is a pseudonym.
This morning’s Academy Award nominations have sent the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences a clear message: The Oscars is facing a reckoning. Tragically, the reckoning was entirely avoidable.
From 1974 through 2015, most of that time guided by the steady hand of Executive Director Bruce Davis, the annual Oscar telecast averaged over forty million viewers, making it one of the most popular and respected legacy institutions in America. In 2016, the directionless leadership of Davis’ replacement, CEO Dawn Hudson, finally took its toll: the Oscars began hemorrhaging viewers year over year, with viewership from 2018 through 2020 dropping below 30 million for the first time in history before finally dropping below 20 million in 2021, where it has remained ever since. Defenders of Hudson invoke a broad spectrum of predictable excuses from the COVID-19 pandemic to the impact of streaming to the overall collapse in viewership of awards shows generally. Seen from the outside, such excuses appear to have merit. To insiders, it’s a very different story.
I’ve spent the majority of my life in the film industry, and if you’re an Academy member or if you know any Academy members, you know that discontent within the ranks has never been greater. Hudson’s disastrous tenure is an easy target. Formerly the head of Film Independent, whose Independent Spirit Awards were launched in 1984 as an outsider “alternative” to the Oscars, Hudson came to the Academy with unvarnished hostility for the Academy Awards brand. Her pitch was that the Oscars were simply too elitist and needed a makeover; never mind that the institution had more than eighty years of proof of concept behind it. Hudson was determined to “fix” what didn’t need fixing. She added more governors to an already unwieldy governing body and, in 2015, in a hasty, guilt-fueled overreaction to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, she pivoted the entire organization toward a “diversity, equity and inclusion” agenda, complete with “unconscious bias training” for all Academy governors. In the span of just a few short years, Hudson had managed to alienate legions of once faithful fans and Academy members alike. The final straw was the introduction of so-called “Inclusion Standards,” a passive-aggressive form of artistic blackmail limiting Best Picture eligibility to films which meet arbitrary standards for the hiring of cast and crew from “underrepresented” groups and/or which traffic in stories which champion such groups.
According to the new standards, “underrepresented groups” include racial minorities, sexual minorities, women, and the disabled. It should come as no surprise that historically underrepresented religious and political groups are not what they’re after. Here are just a few legendary Oscar winners which would have been ineligible had these standards existed at the time: Wings, All Quiet on the Western Front (both versions), The Godfather, Patton, Braveheart, Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai, The Sting, The French Connection, A Man for All Seasons, Oliver!, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, On the Waterfront, No Country for Old Men, 1917 and last year’s The Banshees of Inisherin to name only a few.
You get the picture.
What makes this blackmail especially egregious is that it follows in the heinous footsteps of the so-called Blacklist Era, when artists were denied work—and, by extension, Academy Award nominations for work performed pseudonymously— because of their politics. Today’s New Blacklist, openly touted on the Academy’s own web pages, makes it equally clear that films which prioritize artistic freedom over the Academy’s social justice agenda will be denied Best Picture eligibility, even if there exists support within Academy membership to nominate them.
Let that latter point sink in. If there were any question as to the insincere, self-serving nature of this abhorrent public relations stunt, that fact puts it to rest. While at the same time touting the most international and diverse voting body in Academy history, the Academy elects to deny that body the right to nominate whatever motion pictures it deems “best.”
Who, then, is “excluded” from these “inclusion” standards? The discrimination hits foreign language films especially hard. While films from Latin America, Africa and Asia automatically qualify, films from ethnically homogenous nations like Poland, Croatia, Ukraine, Ireland and Norway will never have a shot at a Best Picture nomination, just by virtue of who they are.
Who else is hurt by such standards? Only those dreaded straight, white males? Think again. The “inclusion” standards are designed to encourage the hiring of people based on identity traits, not talent. Their purpose is not to serve the art of cinema or the careers of cinematic artists but rather to spare the Academy the kind of social media criticism with which it was stung during the #OscarsSoWhite moment in 2015. Black, Asian and Hispanic artists will now wonder whether they are being hired for their talent or because they check a box. Artists who prefer to keep their sexuality a private matter will now feel pressure to out themselves just to be able to keep working. Pundits and critics will have a field day speculating on “the real Best Picture winner” and which films were unfairly excluded because they didn’t meet the arbitrary criteria. And, of course, audiences will continue to abandon the telecast because no one wants to be lectured by an awards show.
All of which brings us to this year’s nominations. This year, as in years past, there was no shortage of films by straight white men about straight white men, many of them biopics: Oppenheimer, Ferrari, Napoleon and The Boys in the Boat. At the same time — there is also Cord Jefferson’s magnificent American Fiction.
The fact that Oppenheimer, the odds-on favorite to win Best Picture, and American Fiction are both nominated for Best Picture is a rather spectacular comeuppance for the first year of the “inclusion standards,” because together they expose the hypocrisy and the insincerity of the entire anti-artistic farce. If a film as white and male and utterly lacking in any ethnic diversity as Oppenheimer can meet the new inclusion standards, then the standards are exposed as a meaningless, virtue-signaling charade which should be immediately abolished. And if that’s still not enough, then consider the conundrum of American Fiction, a film quite literally aimed at the hypocrisy of white powerbrokers who attempt to define what black artists should be and do. If the architects of the Academy’s “inclusion standards” don’t see themselves in American Fiction, then they are hopelessly disconnected from reality and the general public, and the Academy may well and truly be doomed.
Fortunately, the Academy is no longer subject to the obsequious pandering of Dawn Hudson. The organization’s new CEO, Bill Kramer, has made careful but decisive moves in his first year which merit guarded optimism. Unraveling the catastrophic damage of the Hudson years will take time, and Kramer, a veteran of the arts world who previously served as the director of the Academy Museum, appears to have the skillset to do it. But the clock is ticking. We are but four short years from the 100th Anniversary of the Academy Awards, a celebration which the organization cannot botch. Failure to restore the organization’s luster in time for that momentous occasion could doom its chances of ever again recapturing past glory.
Unfortunately, repairing the damage in four short years is not entirely within the Academy’s control. The Academy cannot reward movies which aren’t being made. The Academy can, however, be a powerful lobbying force to encourage studios to make more films like Oppenheimer and American Fiction, the kinds of original, auteur-driven Oscar-caliber movies which enthrall audiences, critics and Academy voters alike. Such films have been in short supply in recent years, but current trends bode well. What the Academy can also do is get its own house in order. Abolishing the degrading spectacle of “anti-bias training” and terminating the autocratic farce of "inclusion standards" is a start, but by no means the only needed change. The Academy’s Gold Programs are a proven and effective tool for opening filmmaking opportunities to those who might otherwise never have had them. To date, however, the Gold Programs have been aimed primarily at already-privileged college students. The Academy should extend such programs to high schools and broaden its “inclusion” definition to include anyone who finds themselves marginalized from such opportunities for any reason, be it religious, political or socio-economic.
Lastly, the bureaucratic paralysis of the Board of Governors needs to be addressed. It’s not merely a matter of the group’s size — fifty-five individuals representing eighteen branches — but its make-up. For an organization which openly prides itself for its “diversity” and “inclusion,” the Board of Governors is shockingly homogenous. For all of its ethnic and gender diversity, the group is overwhelmingly American and Democratic, with forty-six governors holding American citizenship (84%) and thirty-two of those with recorded donations to Democratic Party causes and candidates (70%). The number of governors with a record of donating to other parties and causes, whether Republican, third party or even non-partisan? None (0%). The number of American governors with no such donation record at all? Fourteen (30%).
Whatever conclusions one is likely to draw from that data, it’s fairly clear that the Academy’s Board of Governors either lacks ideological diversity or tolerates ideological intimidation. Either way, it speaks poorly of the organization’s culture and begs for change.
Finally, there’s the Academy’s once-touted flagship museum, which recently saw its revenues plummet 24% in just its second year of operation, when they should have been rising coming out of the pandemic. It’s no secret that Hudson’s misguided identitarian initiatives were already deeply woven into the fabric of the museum’s staff and curation philosophy. Upon the Museum’s opening, the absence of any celebration of Hollywood’s Jewish founders (and open contempt for Academy founder Louis B. Mayer in one instance) incurred the wrath of Museum donors, Academy members and even the Anti-Defamation League. While the Museum has since backpedaled and promised an exhibit celebrating those founders, set to open this year, it's too little too late. Celebrating Hollywood’s moguls for being Jewish merely adds insult to injury. Had the Museum celebrated them at the outset for their achievements, as opposed to their ethnicity, there would have been no problem and the truth of Hollywood history would have been served. As an afterthought, it’s an insincere mea culpa from a tarnished curatorial staff who appear to subscribe to the view that Hollywood’s Jewish history is an emblem of white supremacy and not the triumph of a once-marginalized immigrant ethnic and religious group. Attendance at the Museum will return only when the public feels as if they are entering a temple that celebrates the history and wonder of cinema, and not a social justice lecture hall.
Ironically, just as Oppenheimer the man walked the world to the precipice only to save it, today Oppenheimer the movie has walked the Oscars to the precipice. Now it’s up to the Academy to save itself.
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