October 20, 2018

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Silver lining in Academy's cloudy decision

Maybe new Oscar category will let best picture award actually go to the best picture

Opinion

Popularity is its own reward. Or at least it should be.

But no, says the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This week, that illustrious body decreed cinema's popular kids — the jocks and cheerleading captains who make the money-spinning superhero movies and sci-fi franchises — should get the same consideration as the nail-biting, ink-stained goth kids who use every cent of their lunch money to make the art films.

This is why the Academy is adding a category in the 2019 ceremony acknowledging "Achievement in Popular Film."

It's plainly intended as an attempt to give the wider movie-going audience a stake in the Oscars, which, let's face it, seem to grow more irrelevant even as their broadcast running times stretch into four-hour marathons.

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Popularity is its own reward. Or at least it should be.

But no, says the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This week, that illustrious body decreed cinema's popular kids — the jocks and cheerleading captains who make the money-spinning superhero movies and sci-fi franchises — should get the same consideration as the nail-biting, ink-stained goth kids who use every cent of their lunch money to make the art films.

An Oscar statuette  (Jason DeCrow / The Associated Press files)

An Oscar statuette (Jason DeCrow / The Associated Press files)

This is why the Academy is adding a category in the 2019 ceremony acknowledging "Achievement in Popular Film."

It's plainly intended as an attempt to give the wider movie-going audience a stake in the Oscars, which, let's face it, seem to grow more irrelevant even as their broadcast running times stretch into four-hour marathons.

So yes, a cynic might think the Academy is offering a sop to the plebes who may actually tune in to the promised trimmed-down show if The Avengers: Infinity War has a legitimate shot at best (popular) picture.

That's probably true. But allow me to suggest there is an upside to this cynical attempt at audience-building.

The fact is the popular-vs.-art dynamic has often played out in the Oscars, especially in the best-picture category.

To best appreciate the back-and-forth, go back to 1944, when Billy Wilder's great hardboiled noir Double Indemnity lost to the feel-good singing-priest movie Going My Way.

In 1944, Billy Wilder's great hardboiled noir <I>Double Indemnity</i> (pictured) lost to the feel-good singing-priest movie <I>Going My Way. </i> (Universal Studios Home Entertainment / The Associated Press)

In 1944, Billy Wilder's great hardboiled noir Double Indemnity (pictured) lost to the feel-good singing-priest movie Going My Way. (Universal Studios Home Entertainment / The Associated Press)

The following year, Going My Way's sequel The Bells of St. Mary's was soundly defeated by Wilder's searing alcoholism exposé The Lost Weekend. Justice!

But justice short-lived. In 1952, the forgettable — but popular! — Cecil B. DeMille circus melodrama The Greatest Show on Earth won out over both Fred Zinneman's High Noon and John Ford's classic The Quiet Man.

No doubt, critics of the day were reduced to Ray Milland-level drinking binges at the outrage.

(It might have been a consolation to them that the great adult western High Noon, easily the better film, became more popular by simply outlasting The Greatest Show on Earth. In 1952, the DeMille film outgrossed High Noon three times over. But today on TV, video and on airplane movie menus, High Noon is still viewed where Greatest Show is long — and best — forgotten.)

And so it continued, more often than not with popularity defeating artistic intent: Rocky knocked out Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull was KO'd by Ordinary People. Dances With Wolves did the Bristol Stomp on Goodfellas. Forrest Gump stole the box of chocolates from Pulp Fiction and The King's Speech lorded it over Black Swan.

1980's <I>Raging Bull</i> was KO'd at the Oscars by <I>Ordinary People.</i> (The Associated Press files)

1980's Raging Bull was KO'd at the Oscars by Ordinary People. (The Associated Press files)

So maybe, and hear me out, this new category might be a good thing. Sure, on the surface, it will give Marvel/Star Wars movie stars an excuse to show up and boost the ratings.

But more importantly, by taking the popular film out of the equation, a greater likelihood looms that the best picture winner might actually be the best picture.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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