by John Ellis
Depending on when you read this, tomorrow night is Hollywood’s Prom Night. A-listers parade in front of the cameras wearing enough monies worth of clothes and jewels to feed an entire small country. They then take their seats inside the plush theatre, and settle in to be celebrated by none other than themselves. B-listers and the movie production crews sit in the back of the Dolby Theatre, hoping that cameras will deign to pan across their row; screen time at the Oscars is worth money, after all. Just because you’re invited to the prom doesn’t mean you get to dance.
Hollywood’s evening of self-congratulation is a reminder that their world is small, privileged, and requires an invitation to enter. As referenced above, not all those invited are allowed to fully participate, though. The Oscars also demonstrate that homogeneity exists in a sub-culture that is supposedly diverse (and I’m not talking about the lack of or manufactured frequency of non-white nominees and/or winners). Like a high school prom in an 80s movie, the Oscars allows the cool kids to flaunt their coolness in the face of the wallflowers, much less in the the faces of those glued to the TV screen.
Paraphrasing the incomparable Bard, the Oscars are the silliest stuff that ever I saw.
But being silly doesn’t necessarily equal unholy. In fact, over at The Gospel Coalition, Samuel James argues that, “Christians would be wise to enjoy and appreciate the Academy Awards.” He gives three arguments why he believes that to be so: 1. The Oscars honor Excellence. 2. The Oscars transcend individual taste. 3. The Oscars remind us of the power of story.
While having enjoyed and benefited from past articles by Samuel James, I completely disagree with “Why the Oscars Matter to Christians.” His three arguments amount to special pleading where, frankly, special pleading isn’t even needed. Further, his three arguments miss the mark of what the Oscars actually accomplish and celebrate.
The Oscars Honor Excellence
Speaking about Oscar nominated films, Samuel James writes, “the films honored at the Academy Awards all do something well.” On one level, I agree with him, but I’m not sure that his statement isn’t true accidentally and not actually.
Change it to “At Times, the Oscars Honor Excellence,” and I might agree. Google “Oscar snubs” and you’ll find lists longer than a list of the actual winners. While Hollywood has yet to bestow the Oscar for Best Picture on films as devoid of excellence like Freddie Got Fingered, the award is more marketing and commercial driven than it’s driven by concern for objective aesthetic excellence.
This past Super Bowl, I watched the game with a group of people that included a couple of Brazilians. Throughout the game, the Brazilians continued to rightfully giggle over the notion of the Super Bowl winner being crowned “World Champions.” Likewise, only nine foreign language films have even been nominated for Best Picture. I don’t fault the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for failing to nominate foreign language films. Their targeted audience doesn’t watch foreign language films. They watch big blockbusters with good-looking, Hollywood-crowned movie stars while throwing in the occasional indie-ish film starring a “slumming” good-looking, Hollywood-crowned movie star. To ensure continued interest by the home crowd, the Academy has no choice but to subjugate the pursuit of excellence to the pursuit of the buzzworthy. Think about the 70th Academy Awards when Titanic won Best Picture. It’s a good movie, but it’s not excellent. And it definitely wasn’t the best movie made in 1997. It was, however, the highest grossing movie at the time and generated a lot of buzz for the Oscars and Hollywood, in general.
I agree with James’ contention that, “Simply because a filmmaker tells a Christian story doesn’t mean he has told it well,” and, “Christians should be thankful for talented artists and creators, and value them.” However, I’m not sure that the Oscars is the best venue for Christians to acknowledge those truths. Wading through too much aberrant ideology and glorification of immorality in order to pick out the aesthetic heft from the silly fluff seems like an odd way to glorify God through the pursuit of excellence, if that’s the goal for Christians watching the Oscars. Read The Tempest instead; it’ll take you about the same amount of time as watching the Academy Awards and it’s unquestionably excellent.
The Oscars Transcend Individual Taste
I find James’ opening sentences in this section odd. He knows movies and Hollywood, so I don’t understand how he could write with a straight face, “The Oscars honor excellence, but that’s not the same as honoring popularity. Indeed, the films honored by the academy are frequently not the year’s highest-grossing or most-discussed.”
I’ll grant that “the films honored by the academy are frequently not the year’s highest grossing,” but wholeheartedly reject the claim that those films are not the “most-discussed.” Movie studios spend millions of dollars in Oscar marketing. The very purpose of the Oscars is to gin up discussions about movies, and the Academy rewards movies that generate discussion. The majority of the films honored are the year’s most-discussed. By way of anecdotal example, I watch very few movies anymore that don’t include talking animals, yet I am aware of the plots and cast of this year’s Best Picture nominees; and I didn’t even want to be aware. If you want to dismiss my anecdote, fine. But look up the films honored. “Most-discussed” does apply to almost all of them.
Back to the “not the year’s highest grossing,” though. Literal definitions demand that I acknowledge that statement as, well, literally true. But being a bona-fide blockbuster doesn’t demand being the “year’s highest grossing.” Here’s a break-down of the last five Best Picture winners – Spotlight earned over $88 million at the box office on a budget of $20 million; Birdman earned over $103 million on a budget of $18 million; 12 Years a Slave earned over $187 million on a budget of $17 million; Argo earned $232 million on a budget of $45 million; The Artist earned $133 million on a budget of $15 million. Granted, some of the money earned by those films was generated by the Oscar buzz, but the point stands that the Academy Awards rarely honors films that don’t make the industry money. In fact, you’d have a better chance of finding financial duds by combing through the last few summer “blockbuster” slates.
So, no, the Oscars do not transcend individual taste. If anything, they collate the tastemakers’ taste into a culturally universal taste. The Oscars turn individual taste into group taste. The scary thought is that many Christians are allowing ideologically-driven Hollywood to set their personal tastes for them. Watching the Oscars is a big part of that problem.
The Oscars Remind Us of the Power of Story
Yes, the Oscars do remind us of the power of story, and that’s a problem. I wholeheartedly concur with Samuel James that, “This [story], far more than ‘teaching,’ is how films shape us, and it’s why we keep coming back to the cinema year after year. We want to hear and to feel great stories because we’ve all been made for God’s story.” And my agreement on that point is one of the main reasons that I disagree with Samuel James’ conclusion.
Stories are powerful, very powerful. God revealed/s Himself in and through the story of redemption told in the Bible. I echo James in saying that God made us to love stories because we’ve been made for God’s story. Sadly and frighteningly, Hollywood trades on our innate need for stories, and often perverts God’s story in order to further their construction of the Tower of Babel.
If you want to watch the Oscars, then watch the Oscars. But you don’t need to resort to special pleading in order to justify doing so. Watch the Oscars, and praise God for the opportunity to relax for three hours. If you do choose to watch the Oscars, though, I highly encourage you to pray for discernment and wisdom as you interact with one of the most insidious tools in our enemy’s toolbox for destroying faith.