Popular! You're gonna be popular!
The Academy Awards, in its latest attempt to be mocked by every single person in America, added a new category this week called "Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film." Nobody yet knows what this category will be ("Eligibility requirements and other key details will be forthcoming," they said), but it seems as if the Academy is responding to last year's TV ratings free fall.
And the reviews are already in:
NBC News: "Allegedly part of a push for inclusivity, this insulting new award is ham-fisted at best and discriminatory at worst."
Writer Mark Harris: "It truly is something that in the year Black Panther, a movie made just about entirely by and with black people, grosses $700 million, the Academy's reaction is, 'We need to invent something separate ... but equal.'"
Rolling Stone: "WTF Is the Academy thinking?"
Vox: "Feels like a panicked move ... shameless pandering."
Rob Lowe: "The film business passed away today."
So, that went well. I will admit that my first thought about it was precisely the thought that Mark Harris had -- I immediately thought about the fight over Satchel Paige and the Hall of Fame. In 1966, Ted Williams uttered these beautiful words at his Hall of Fame speech:
“The other day Willie Mays hit his 522nd home run. He has gone past me, and he’s pushing, and I say to him, “Go get ’em, Willie.” Baseball gives every American boy a chance to excel. Not just to be as good as someone else, but to be better. This is the nature of man and the name of the game. I hope that one day Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson will be voted into the Hall of Fame as symbols of the great Negro players who are not here only because they weren’t given the chance.”
This shamed a lot of people in baseball (and as we saw in Nick Davis' excellent PBS documentary, Williams was asked beforehand NOT to say it). It took a few years, but eventually the pressure built and baseball had to deal with it. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn put together a meeting of baseball people -- including former commissioner Ford Frick, Hall of Fame president Paul Kerr, sportswriter Dick Young, and former Negro leaguer and major league star Monte Irvin -- and they had what is now acknowledged to be one of the nastiest meetings in baseball history.
Young was screaming at everyone that the Baseball Hall of Fame might as well not exist if you didn't have Satchel Paige in it. Frick and Kerr screamed back that including Negro leaguers would water down the Hall of Fame and, anyway, Paige didn't qualify because he didn't play 10 years in the big leagues.
And Bowie Kuhn -- displaying the Solomon-like wisdom that made him one of the least effective commissioners in the history of sports -- announced that he would offer both sides something. He would have the Hall create a special Negro leagues display, featuring Satchel Paige. This, obviously, did not offer both sides something. This was the hideous separate but equal cloak of racists, and Paige ended the whole thing by announcing that he wasn't going into the Hall of Fame through the back door.
So yes, at first, I did think about how the Academy was doing the same garbage here.
But then I thought about something else. Bear with me on this -- I'm going to go year by year since 1977 (the year of Star Wars) and list the Academy Awards' Best Picture, along with the movie that I think could have won the "Achievement in Popular Film" award, had it existed at the time.
Best Picture: Annie Hall
Best popular picture: Star Wars
-- Star Wars WAS nominated for Best Picture, so there is at least that. People would have been utterly shocked if Star Wars had won; that's just not the sort of movie that wins Best Picture. But looking back, even as a huge fan of Annie Hall, how can anyone deny that Star Wars was, by far, the most powerful movie of 1977?
[caption id="attachment_22746" align="aligncenter" width="449"] Star Wars wouldn't have been a bad Best Picture choice at all.[/caption]
Best Picture: The Deer Hunter
Best popular picture: Superman
-- I suppose that Grease could also have won Best Popular Picture. Superman was a good movie, and while The Deer Hunter was an artistic triumph, come on, nobody cares about The Deer Hunter now. Nobody watches it anymore. Superman (and Grease, for that matter) had a much, much, much larger impact on the culture and movies.
Best Picture: Kramer vs. Kramer
Best popular picture: Kramer vs. Kramer
-- It was the No. 1-grossing movie of that year ... I NEVER would have guessed that.
Best Picture: Ordinary People
Best popular picture: The Empire Strikes Back
-- Ordinary People was a really good movie, I think. But: (1) It certainly wasn't the best movie in a year that Raging Bull came out; and (2) Many people would rank The Empire Strikes Back as their favorite movie EVER, not just of 1980. Empire wasn't even nominated.
Best Picture: Chariots of Fire
Best popular picture: Raiders of the Lost Ark
-- Come on.
Best Picture: Gandhi
Best popular picture: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
-- Do you see where I'm going with this? How often is the best picture REALLY better than the best popular picture? Gandhi was an extraordinary achievement. But are you telling me that when the history of movies is written, Gandhi will be there? And E.T. won't?
Best Picture: Terms of Endearment
Best popular picture: Terms of Endearment? Return of the Jedi? War Games? Trading Places?
-- Terms of Endearment was hugely popular -- it was second to Jedi among top-grossing films. There were a lot of interesting popular movies that year.
Best Picture: Amadeus
Best popular picture: Ghostbusters
-- Who you gonna call?
Best Picture: Out of Africa
Best popular picture: Back to the Future
-- So this seems as good a time as any to tell you one of the themes of my new book on Houdini. Oh, did I mention I've written a book about Houdini? The idea is this: Harry Houdini was not the greatest magician of his age. That is more or less the universal thought across the magic world. Thurston was probably greater. Kellar was probably greater. Devant ... Blackstone ... Vernon ... almost every interesting magical thinker today will tell you that Houdini was not the best of his age.
And yet, none of them would argue the fact that Houdini endured in ways that none of the others did. We know him 100 years later. We think about him 100 years later. We use him in daily conversation 100 years later. Why? That's my book. And that idea of what is great in the moment vs. what will be timeless, that's something that the people of the Academy don't think about at all. The difference in impact between Out of Africa and Back to the Future is the difference in impact between T. Nelson Downs and Harry Houdini. The first might have been "better" in various measurable ways. But there's no comparison between their respective effects on the world.
Best Picture: Platoon
Best popular picture: Platoon
-- Platoon was third in gross for 1986, and you couldn't argue with people ranking it ahead of Top Gun and Crocodile Dundee. Though if Platoon was playing you probably wouldn't watch. If Top Gun was playing you definitely WOULD watch.
Best Picture: The Last Emperor
Best popular picture: The Untouchables? Moonstruck? Good Morning, Vietnam? Fatal Attraction?
-- Not a great year for best pictures or popular film. I think Broadcast News was by far the best movie of 1987.
Best Picture: Rain Man
Best popular picture: Die Hard
-- Rain Man was the most popular movie of the year, so it proably wins both categories. But looking back, the most influential and lasting movie of 1988 was Die Hard.
Best Picture: Driving Miss Daisy
Best popular picture: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
-- Batman also came out that year, and it fundamentally changed the possibilities for comic book movies.
Best Picture: Dances with Wolves
Best popular picture: Dances with Wolves
-- Home Alone was the biggest movie of the year, Ghost second, but Dances With Wolves was third, and that movie definitely reverberated in the culture. I think Best Picture should have been Goodfellas.
Best Picture: The Silence of the Lambs
Best popular picture: Beauty and the Beast
-- Both of these movies were hugely popular, and to the Academy's credit, both were nominated. There's no question that Silence of the Lambs has had a lasting influence, though not as big as Beauty and the Beast, which fundamentally changed animated film forever.
[caption id="attachment_22747" align="aligncenter" width="536"] Beauty and the Beast set a new standard for animated films.[/caption]
Best Picture: Unforgiven
Best popular picture: Unforgiven
-- Unforgiven was one of the 11 movies that year to gross more than $100 million, and it's an interesting group -- Aladdin, A Few Good Men, A League of Their Own. Unforgiven probably wins out.
Best Picture: Schindler's List
Best popular picture: Jurassic Park
-- This is a great year to study, because they're both Spielberg movies. You could argue, perhaps, that he made Schindler for artistic reasons and Jurassic Park for commercial reasons. Which one would you say has greater staying power? Which has altered the landscape more?
Best Picture: Forrest Gump
Best popular picture: Forrest Gump
-- You could make a powerful argument for Pulp Fiction in both categories.
Best Picture: Braveheart
Best popular picture: Toy Story
-- This would be exhibit A for my argument that best popular picture is a better category than best picture. Braveheart is an absurdity. Toy Story launched a whole new way to tell stories.
Best Picture: The English Patient
Best popular picture: Uh, pass? Jerry Maguire? Independence Day?
-- Some years are worse than others. Fargo was the best picture of that year, another time when the Academy, even in their highfalutin pomposity, totally blew it.
Best Picture: Titanic
Best popular picture: Titanic
-- Maybe you could argue for Good Will Hunting, but let's be realistic. That was and will always be Titanic's year.
Best Picture: Shakespeare in Love
Best popular picture: Saving Private Ryan
-- I was THRILLED when Shakespeare in Love won because I found the movie to be delightful. But looking back, come on: Saving Private Ryan was the No. 1 grossing movie of that year. That's amazing. It was a gruesome (and brilliantly done) war movie. And it was No. 1 anyway.
Best Picture: American Beauty
Best popular picture: The Matrix
-- Another banner year for the Academy. Who cares about American Beauty? The Matrix is one of the most significant movies of the last half-century. You could also argue for The Sixth Sense in the popular category (and it was nominated for Best Picture).
Best Picture: Gladiator
Best popular picture: Probably Gladiator
-- I suppose some people would argue for Cast Away or X-Men. But Gladiator really was the force of that year.
Best Picture: A Beautiful Mind
Best popular picture: The Lord of the Rings
-- I'm no fan of the Rings movies or books; that stuff is just above my level of imagination. But either Rings or Harry Potter absolutely crushed A Beautiful Mind in impact, influence, resonance and, all things considered, probably quality too.
Best Picture: Chicago
Best popular picture: Chicago
-- You could argue for the second Rings movie or even another Spielberg film, Catch Me If You Can. But Chicago is fine.
Best Picture: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Best popular picture: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
-- Finding Nemo came out that year too, and it was pretty spectacular. Same with Pirates of the Caribbean.
Best Picture: Million Dollar Baby
Best popular picture: The Incredibles
-- Million Dollar Baby II probably won't come out anytime soon.
Best Picture: Crash
Best popular picture: Batman Begins
-- And the superhero movies begin to take over.
Best Picture: The Departed
Best popular picture: Maybe Casino Royale? The second Pirates of the Caribbean movie? Cars?
-- Not a great year all around.
Best Picture: No Country for Old Men
Best popular picture: Ratatouille or The Bourne Ultimatum
-- We're entering a kind of lull in popular films here. The most popular movies of the year were not only sequels, they were threequels -- Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, even The Bourne Ultimatum was the third in that series. I'd give it to Ratatouille, which was bold and original.
Best Picture: Slumdog Millionaire
Best popular picture: The Dark Knight, Wall-E or Iron Man
-- Don't get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed Slumdog Millionaire. And it was pretty popular -- 17th on the list for that year. But that was a transformational year for movies. Iron Man launched a whole new industry. Wall-E was Pixar at its height. And The Dark Knight might be the pinnacle of the superhero movie. The Oscars totally missed the revolution.
[caption id="attachment_22748" align="aligncenter" width="514"] The Academy missed the boat in 2008, and not just with The Dark Knight.[/caption]
Best Picture: The Hurt Locker
Best popular picture: Avatar or Up
-- This is the Academy at its most elitist. This is the year you point to when you want to say that while this whole new "Popular Picture" category is ham-fisted and insulting, the Academy NEEDS the Popular Picture category. Avatar and Up vs. The Hurt Locker? Come on.
Best Picture: The King's Speech
Best popular picture: Toy Story 3 or Inception
-- The King's Speech was perfectly delightful. You tell me which movie will last.
Best Picture: The Artist
Best popular picture: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
-- Look, it doesn't always work out in the popular sphere. One thing I've been doing is ignoring the fact that Transformers movies are ALWAYS at or near the top of the popularity charts, and they're neither good nor influential. We do like escapism too. This year, the popular films were generally the sort of pointless, escapist bubble gum movies that the Academy desperately wants to ignore. Twilight. The Hangover Part II. Transformers. Fast Five. Another Mission Impossible. The Artist was absolutely a triumph. I understand wanting to honor it.
But my point is that by ONLY wanting to honor smaller, quirkier, beautiful and "important" movies like The Artist, they so often miss that the popular movies are better in the grand scheme of things.
Best Picture: Argo
Best popular picture: The Avengers
This was another great year for popular movies, with The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall and The Hobbit and Django Unchained. Argo was a fine movie, but it was an uninspired choice.
Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave
Best popular picture: Frozen
How do you compare THOSE two movies?
Best Picture: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Best popular picture: Guardians of the Galaxy. The Lego Movie or X-Men: Days of Future Past
-- None of those popular pictures were even nominated, and they nominated EIGHT movies that year. I was outraged that Boyhood didn't win, but realistically, Boyhood and Birdman, neither of those movies had the Houdini effect that Guardians or The Lego Movie had.
Best Picture: Spotlight
Best popular picture: Inside Out
-- Sorry, Pixar just makes the best and most lasting movies. I loved Spotlight -- of course I did -- but The Martian, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, these will last so much longer.
Best Picture: Moonlight
Best popular picture: Zootopia, La La Land or Rogue One
-- Best not to revisit how this Academy Awards show ended.
Best Picture: The Shape of Water
Best popular picture: Get Out, Wonder Woman, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Coco or Logan or ...
-- This was the year that the Academy went off the rails. There has always been this gap between what the Academy saw as a great movie and what America saw as a great movie. And for a long time, America just kind of went along with it; we conceded that our tastes were not as refined as the critics' taste or the Academy's taste. They understood excellence in a way that we, mere movie fans, did not.
So why did we care at all about the Oscars? We checked in for the glamour, the indulgences, the celebrity sightings, the over-the-top productions. It became an American tradition. But as time went on, our movie tastes drifted more and more away from what the Oscars celebrated and honored.
The Shape of Water? Who in the heck is going to watch The Shape of Water in 20 years? Or five? Or now?
[caption id="attachment_22749" align="aligncenter" width="370"] Come on, seriously?[/caption]
Movies are meant to do more than entertain us. They are meant to challenge us, to disturb us, inspire us in the best sense of that word. They are meant to make us see the world in a whole different way. The Academy's role, as they see it, is to make sure to honor movies that do those things, rather than the silly pop-culture thing of the moment. That's fine in theory.
But if you look back over the last 40 years, you find that we meager movie goers honored those movies -- the challenging and provocative movies -- at least as often as the Academy. More often, I think. Our popcorn movies that the Academy snubbed and looked down on are in so many cases more revolutionary, risky, demanding and exciting than their choices. Has a movie as bold as The Matrix won an Oscar? As touching as ET or Up? As important as Saving Private Ryan? As mind-bending as Back to the Future or Inception?
Sure, we watch some pointless junk, just like they nominate some pretentious junk. But while this popular movie thing is obviously a nakedly ambitious attempt to win back much of what the Academy has lost, it's also long overdue. I don't think they should add a category so that they can honor Black Panther.
How about they just HONOR Black Panther?