Oscar Preview: Can the Academy Still Rock the Vote?

Looking at the men behind the curtain reveals the only unpredictable factor Oscar’s got left

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Is there really anything new to say about the Oscars? Perhaps that’s an odd and self-defeating question to ask at the beginning of what is admittedly a column about the Oscars, but come on—you were thinking it. And I’ve made no secret of thinking it. A few years ago, in fact, in this very magazine, I wrote that their reliance on predictable, empty opulence and tiresome, un-self-conscious narcissism had rendered the awards ceremony inconveniently impotent in the Internet age.

While undeniably glitzy (and a good excuse to host a boozy party), from a viewer perspective, let’s be honest: They’re little more than a three-and-a-half-hour Mad Libs now. [Host name] was [begrudgingly positive adjective], but couldn’t save the show from feeling much too [negative adjective]. [Name of heavy favorite to win Best Actor] won Best Actor, said [exclamation] and thanked [500 names no one else recognized, recited at warp speed while the orchestra passive-aggressively played that Celine Dion song from Titanic].

The small moments of actual, unscripted tension, when the winners are announced, are so swiftly snuffed out by bloated showboating no one asked for (why, yes, I was hoping a group of former buddy-cop franchise stars would perform a musical ode to the Steadicam!) that ironically there’s no real drama achieved, only a series of bait-and-switches that usually end with a disappointing Jack Nicholson sight gag.

So, yes, I’m jaded. But amazingly, something has piqued my interest this year, something new rumbling below Oscar’s normally sleek and unruffled golden surface. No one’s really talking about gowns or upsets or whose collarbone can most clearly be seen from space. Instead, much of the pre-show speculation has centered on a very famous alleged sexual predator and the film industry’s allegedly deeply entrenched (ahem, alleged) racism. Much of it is opinion and conjecture, but it’s trained my attention on the proverbial—and, statistically, literal, since 76 percent of them have testicles—man behind the curtain: the Academy voter, otherwise known as the dark horse in what seems increasingly like a fixed race.

Ever since Dylan Farrow’s explosive February 1 New York Times op-ed about Woody Allen’s sexual abuse, countless articles have sprung up about how it might cost Cate Blanchett her Oscar. (Let’s try to ignore, temporarily, the fact that this is a truly absurd and offensively point-missing takeaway from a gut-wrenching first-person account of being molested at age 7.) Like many movie buffs I know, I spent early February wondering morosely if I could ever watch Annie Hall again without guilt, finally deciding that I would unapologetically remain an admirer of his past work (a decision which may have been influenced by the box set of DVDs I have owned since the late ’90s). But in the end, as unfair as it may be, artistic talent knows no bounds of moral decency; despicable people have created some of the most beautiful and profound artifacts of our culture.

And so it follows that since the Oscars are supposed to award artistic and/or technical achievement and not life choices, Blue Jasmine should be judged on its merits as a film—and Blanchett on her acting—rather than on the crimes its director may have committed. But this is where it gets really murky and interesting, because Academy voters aren’t Supreme Court justices. They’re not duty-bound to be fair and balanced. They can vote based on whatever criteria they deem important. For example, last year, an anonymous director admitted to The Hollywood Reporter that he didn’t vote for Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook because he didn’t like her Saturday Night Live episode. That’s like a ref giving Peyton Manning a flag because he hated his Papa John’s commercial: not at all relevant! But Academy voters are just regular (white, male) people with opinions, and so if they’re creeped out by Allen, they’re allowed to take it out on Blanchett. Them’s the breaks.

There’s no telling yet which way voters will break for 12 Years a Slave, the powerhouse historical epic currently favored (ever so slightly over fellow frontrunners Gravity and American Hustle) to take home Best Picture. Few would deny, at least in print, that 12 Years deserves the top honor—it’s the kind of bleak, excellent prestige drama Oscar’s wet dreams are made of—but its chances of winning have taken on a broader, and probably misguided, meaning of late. The New York Post challenged Academy voters to “make history” in selecting the film, arguing that any other vote would be a “cop-out,” while Time helpfully pointed out that “more agreeable” movies tend to win out over those with difficult subject matter. The message seems to be that if 12 Years a Slave loses, then the Academy is racist, but if it wins then we will all instantly be transported to the “post-racial” Shangri-La that was promised to us when Obama took office.

While I don’t have space to go into it in detail, I do believe that the reason we don’t have more famous black actors and filmmakers, or more Oscar-winning films with largely or all-black casts, can be traced, directly or indirectly, to racism (although, to be clear: An Academy member declining to nominate or vote for a black actor, writer or director is not an inherently racist act in and of itself). 12 Years a Slave has nine nominations; Gravity and American Hustle each have 10. So with all other factors being more or less equal, giving the night’s crowning statuette to an unflinching look at the horrors of slavery, written and directed by black men, would probably do more for society than handing it to George Clooney for smirking a lot in space. Yes, of course, films should be judged on their artistic and technical merits and not on the color of their actors. But if personal feelings are going to play into it anyway [insert loaded ellipses] I figure they might as well be standing on the right side of history, in service of major social and cultural change, and not based on a bad Coumadin reaction—the median age of Academy voters is a spry 62—or a weak five minutes of sketch comedy.

So while I may not always agree with their reasoning, and think they could budge a few dozen percentage points in terms of ethnic and generational diversity, I guess I’m glad, deep down, that the secrets of this overproduced spectacle rest in the whims of a bunch of potentially petty and opinionated individuals who bear no resemblance to the stodgy robots of Pricewaterhouse Coopers. At 86, the Oscars has long since had its crow’s feet Botoxed away and its teeth professionally capped, but it’s still got a delicate, bloody, beating human heart inside.

And there’s no telling what it might do.

Related: What’s the Vegas-iest of all Best Picture nominees? Our pop culture columnist investigates.