If you go back and read everything I’ve written for Paste about movies or television, you will notice that I don’t use the word “actress” anywhere. I long ago came around to the thinking that it inherently devalues and segregates female performances, that it shoves many of Hollywood’s best performers into a gendered box and that it promotes a dynamic of valuing the saturnine, “Method” performances that are common to stereotypically male roles at the expense of every actor generally, and women and nonbinary people specifically. Just say “actor,” I say.
Yet, what’s the best way to go about untangling that, as it relates to, say, the Oscars? Right now, there are four acting categories: Best Actress in a Leading Role, Best Actress in a Supporting Role, and their Best Actor counterparts. If we were to collapse that down to just two awards for Leading Actor and Supporting Actor, how many do we honestly think would go to women, given the sterling track record of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who couldn’t be bothered to nominate Lupita Nyong’o for her 2019 performance (two performances really!) in Us? I’m open to arguments that she would not have won it, I’m just saying it belonged in the damned conversation—and that it is an indictment of the system that it wasn’t.
This is the clearest example I can point to when I argue that the Oscars, as an award for industry professionals, is outdated, fusty and incapable of responding to the breadth of experience you can find in contemporary film if only you bothered to watch a good cross-section of it (which many Academy members do not). It is also a clear example of how the Oscars are doomed to continue sinking in the Nielsen ratings, as they consistently manage to somehow be overlong and overproduced yet feature very little anybody seems to particularly care about. And if you appreciated, say, the hair and makeup in a movie, or its original score, well, you aren’t going to see those awards live this year, as eight categories will be cut from the live broadcast in the interest of time.
These two directives—the Oscars as a trade award show that honors the people who in some cases risk their very lives to make movies vs. the Oscars as a spectacle to get people to watch TV and buy Blu-rays—seem to be fundamentally in conflict with one another. Cutting those categories is an example of the ceremony itself somehow managing to sabotage the interests of both: Original score is an incredibly labor-intensive part of filmmaking that deserves public accolades, and audiences love them some original scores! Original score is a category that lends itself quite naturally to being televised!
But it doesn’t have to be this way. I humbly propose the following changes to the Oscars, which include adding a few categories that should be in there and for some baffling reason are not. If you hate these ideas and think they are dumb, take heart: They will not happen.
Here’s how the Oscars should change:
I apologize to the journalists who may be reading this and shuddering at the thought of spending three 14-hour days chasing Oscar Isaac around under this model, but the Academy needs to acknowledge that the film industry is a multibillion-dollar enterprise with whole entire categories of proprietary technology and specialized labor propping it up—and if you’re struggling to shove all of that into a three-hour broadcast, maybe stop trying to do that? Our movies are one of just a handful of remaining meaningful U.S. exports, just ahead of agricultural machinery and just behind military force. It warrants at least as much of a to-do as, say, any of the videogame industry trade shows that last several days.
If the Academy were to spread the thing out over a long weekend and broadcast it on YouTube (which is where everybody watches the pirated clips of it anyway), there would be no need to cut categories, and some could even be added, as they should be.
I know I just said that collapsing the acting categories into non-gendered ones opens up several cans of worms at once. The fact remains that we need to figure out how to do it if, as I say, these awards should honor the trade and respond to the audience. I propose stripping gender from the proceedings and, in the interest of heading off the high likelihood that this will result in all-male, all-white winners from now until California sinks into the sea, expanding the number of recipients of each acting category to more than one.
This would not lessen the prestige of receiving one of these awards if you expanded the number of recipients to just a handful. And if you also expanded the number of allowable nominees, it could give more exposure to a broader range of actors. Regardless of how it’s done, the acting categories must change somehow, as much for the actors who keep getting stiffed as for the ratings you get when you just might see an award go to an Asian actor for fucking once.
I say again that for some dedicated professionals, moviemaking is dangerous. Yet for all the times Chad Stahelski has risked life and limb standing in for Brandon Lee or Keanu Reeves making movies you absolutely have seen multiple times, he and every stunt professional like him have no hope of taking home a gold statue.
To exclude stunt professionals from awards is ridiculous and to my mind, appallingly disrespectful considering the risks they take and the fact that they are an integral part of the movies that make Hollywood the most money hands down. The difficulty and precision involved in making a film like Mad Max: Fury Road is in a different realm entirely than, say, Spotlight, which got Best Picture that year instead. Both are great movies. One of those movies found a way to make a story of militarized semi trucks and motorcycle sniper grannies into a smart action feature, and yet the folks who nearly killed themselves making it are categorically unable to receive industry recognition for it. And what highlight reel of nominees could possibly be more telegenic for the broadcast?
I attended a panel once during which prolific voice actor Scott McNeil said that voice acting was in his mind a purer form of acting. A stage or screen actor might say “It’s all in the eyes,” McNeil said, but when you’re dubbing an anime or voicing some other cartoon character, that isn’t true. Everything, he said, has to go into your voice. While there is an animated feature category, there’s really no performance category for those behind them.
Related to that is the field of motion-capture performance, a technology which—alongside its associated disciplines—has fully emerged and become an integral part of filmmaking. The considerations of putting on a big dorky suit with balls all over it and little sticky thingies on your face are key to bringing characters to life in, again, some of Hollywood’s biggest windfalls. Considering the incredible animation that gets nominated these days, the talent that helps embody it deserves Oscars—and it’s another category the camera would love during an awards broadcast.
One reason the Academy should add this is to give some acknowledgment to the folks who get people hyped up to spend billions on movies. Another reason is to do something, anything, to encourage more variation in trailers, which every few years pivot to some new paradigm that it then takes them 10 or 12 years to shake free of (“In a world…!”, “BWAAAAAAAM!”, etc.). Finally, we should do it because trailers are fun to watch. If you televised that, people would absolutely pop some popcorn and tune in.
We need to come to terms with the fact that the Academy spurns and disdains genre filmmaking in the same way the publishing world spurns and disdains genre fiction, likely for the same reason: They are dominated by extremely tedious people. No matter how well-crafted action, horror or comedy films are, they are dead on arrival when it comes to Best Picture. A horror movie has never once in nearly a century won Best Picture, and only six have been nominated in all that time. This is despite the fact that horror is a genre that has always made money and has some of the most devoted fans, and that it is another genre that generally takes a lot more filmmaking craft to do well than dramatic biopics (which are also good movies!). Some of the best movies ever made are horror movies, as some of them are comedies and action films.
Adding categories for genre film (and whether we keep Best Picture at all, I’m willing to debate) would not only spread more accolades to more films that absolutely deserve it, but would also increase the likelihood of the average filmgoer tuning in to see their pony potentially win the race. All of which would result in more movies drumming up interest off the back of their awards success and better Nielsen ratings, the two things the Academy ostensibly wants.
I’m just spitballing here. But if the Academy wants its awards show to find new relevance in a way that will not piss off the people who make the product, it has to stop reacting to backlash and start reimagining a format that doesn’t work and hasn’t worked for a while.
Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Movies. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.