Are The Oscars Good For You?

It's practically tradition this time of year to discuss the inanity of the Academy Awards. But NPR pop culture critic Linda Holmes wonders: maybe the Oscars are good for society. Weekend Edition guest host Don Gonyea hears why.

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DON GONYEA, HOST:

This weekend, one vote-casting body of officials will make some tough decisions sure to leave many people unhappy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LINCOLN")

DANIEL DAY-LEWIS: (as Abraham Lincoln) I don't envy him his task. I mean, I wish he had chosen an instrument for his purpose more wielding the House of Representatives.

GONYEA: No, no, President Lincoln, we're talking about the Academy. The 85th Academy Awards haven't even happened yet but there's already been plenty of complaining.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ARGO")

BEN AFFLECK: (as Tony Mendez) There are only bad options. It's about finding the best one.

GONYEA: But you know what?

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD")

QUVENZHANE WALLIS: (as Hushpuppy) It wasn't no time to sit around crying like a bunch of babies.

GONYEA: "Lincoln," "Argo," "Beasts of the Southern Wild" - all movies that could be considered good for you. That's right - some people think the Oscars aren't so bad after all - good for movies, good for entertainment, maybe even good for society. One such person is NPR's pop culture blogger Linda Holmes, who joins me now. Linda, we have never met, you and I.

LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: No, we have not.

GONYEA: We're in different parts of the building.

HOLMES: It's true, but they Oscars bring people together, see?

GONYEA: OK. So, the Oscars. The ceremony is always - dare I say it - kind of inane...

HOLMES: Absolutely.

GONYEA: ...kind of forgettable. Is there something that pushes the Oscars to a greater good, a net good, if you will?

HOLMES: Absolutely. If you focus on the ceremony itself, it's very silly, it's good only for social purposes - hanging out with friends, having parties, participating in our live blog, for example. But if you look at the Oscars as an institution, what you have is a high-profile list of good movies. Are they necessarily the absolute greatest movies? Probably not. But you have this year a list of nine Best Picture contenders, all of which are interesting, all of which will get extra box office and therefore extra viewing from being nominated. It brings them into the spotlight and I think that is a good thing.

GONYEA: We have big blockbuster movies, we have little small movies. Those small movies have long gotten attention from the Oscars, right? All kinds of them.

HOLMES: It's always been a mix. I think when they expanded the Best Picture field a few years from five to originally 10, and now it's up to 10, they intended to make more room for more popular movies. They were concerned that the awards were going to movies that nobody saw, so nobody cared. I think the thought was maybe it would be a place where this year you might have seen a movie like "The Avengers." But what actually has happened is you have a lot of room for movies like "Beasts of the Southern Wild," which is a very small movie, "Amor," which is a foreign film, probably tough to get a nomination, you know, notwithstanding few exceptions.

GONYEA: So, should we feel bad for those big blockbusters? Where's "Skyfall?" Where's "Twilight: Breaking Dawn - Part 2?"

HOLMES: Perhaps not "Twilight," but, you know, "Skyfall" was very much in the conversation about Best Picture nominees. I don't think anybody ever thought it had a good chance. But given what the field is like now, you will eventually see something like that happen. It's already happened with a couple of animated kid's pictures, which although "Beauty and the Beast" was nominated a while ago, typically that's been tough too. But "Up" was nominated, "Toy Story 3" was nominated. But it didn't happen this year, despite how much everybody liked "The Avengers." But fortunately they're going to have you knee-deep in superhero movies until 2030, so it'll happen at some point.

GONYEA: They'll never run out.

HOLMES: They probably won't.

GONYEA: If you go back a bit, like, "Jaws" was nominated.

HOLMES: Absolutely. One of the really interesting things, I think, about this year's Oscars is to look at Steven Spielberg, who directed "Lincoln," which is perhaps the most obviously Oscar-like movie, it used to be Steven Spielberg was the guy who made, as you say, "Jaws" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "E.T." - sort of atypical, fun movies that people loved so much that they became awards-y movies. Now, he's really the one who makes the most obviously awards-y movie of the year. It's an interesting trajectory.

GONYEA: The Oscars still face the criticism that it's very old-fashioned, very backwards-looking.

HOLMES: You know, it's really hard to get excited about an evening that is mostly very well-off people patting each other on the back. It is a tough sell. And I think that's one of the reasons you get a sort of mix of people watching it straightforwardly and watching it sort of ironically - watching it with a little bit of a wink. Because it is really tough to say will it be this fabulously wealthy, beautiful person or that fabulously wealthy, beautiful person? Tune in and see. So, people have to sort of make their own fun, I think.

GONYEA: So, back to your thesis, that the Oscars are a good thing for society. If there was a best for society category this year, what would get the statuette?

HOLMES: In terms of best for society category, I think the ability of the Academy Awards to shed light on documentaries, many of which will be available to people much more than they used to be through Netflix or On Demand. The ability to bring a documentary, like "How to Survive a Plague," about AIDS activism in New York in the '80s and '90s; the ability to cast light on a movie like that and bring it out to where more people will see it and be aware of it, I think the Academy Awards does a world of good for movies like that.

GONYEA: You have convinced me, but please don't tell me, the E! channel red carpet show is also good for America.

HOLMES: Oh no, no, no, no. It's not at all. That's just good for the worst part of you.

GONYEA: Linda Holmes, host of NPR's pop culture blog, Monkey See, where she will be live-blogging the Academy Awards tomorrow night. Linda, thank you.

HOLMES: Thank you.

GONYEA: And a pleasure to meet you.

HOLMES: Pleasure to meet you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GONYEA: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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