The End of the Oscars? — Ufuk Karataş

When we ask a bold question such as this, we must be careful about the multitude of meanings it may have. In this case the double entendre of the question must be treated as such: a question that interrogates multiple points. Therefore, we must keep in mind when we say, “The End of the Oscars?” that we mean both the last Oscar event; and the final portion of a specific iteration (2021) of the Oscars. It’s easy to see the connection; the ending of this year’s Oscars marks the end of the Oscars, period. We will get back to this “pun”, which I hope will bring into light a new way of relating to the Oscars.

This year’s Oscars were certainly different than the rest. For starters, it was framed as a film-like event, a ceremony that was not just the simple night of marketing that it always had been; but also a narrative, a story deliberately told by directors and producers [1]. The absence of a big crowd lead to a more intimate environment, theater-like in appearance; a small number of people rotated as winners are announced.

Screen-Shot-2021-04-26-at-8.55.20-AM

This ceremony was marked by a controversy, however. In the ceremony’s last category “Best Actor”, the award went to Anthony Hopkins for The Father, instead of Chadwick Boseman for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Now, a controversy born from a perception of a better pick, or a “snub” is not new to Oscars. What is new however, are the circumstances surrounding this decision. For the first time since 1948 (with the exception of 1971) [2] the best picture category was not the category that closed out the ceremony. Considering that this category is the most important category of the event, it is baffling at first glance why it wasn’t the finale. The best actor category was the final one, and with this the picture becomes much clearer.

For safety purposes, the people who organize the event (the directors, the producers, and the production team) do not know the winners before they are announced. With this fact we can take a pretty good guess at the thought process behind this decision: in all the surveys and expert analysis before the event, Boseman was leading the category of best actor. With Boseman’s recent passing, the producers of the event thought that it would be an incredibly emotional moment if the ceremony ended with this actor that was loved universally got the award. But because of their lack of knowledge, this was a risky move. The producers took a shot in the dark, and the results were catastrophic. Hopkins won instead, and the ironic point is that he wasn’t even attending the ceremony [3]. This was the worst possible result for the producers; not only they left out the most exciting and important category (best picture) from the finale, but the actual finale was also an old white man winning over a dead black one [4].

Now, it is important to underline the performance of the Oscars when it comes to progressive attitudes. This year, Oscars have done a better job at giving (deserving) awards to people of color and women. The best picture winner Nomadland is an example of this type of pick, but there are many more. From the point of view of progressive politics and identitarian sensibilities, the ceremony was mostly a success. This is why Hopkins’ victory casts a shadow over the ceremony so aggressively. The prevailing opinion is that this year, the Oscars almost got it right. Another point of popular commentary that complicates things further is that most critics found the picks correct, including Hopkins over Boseman; which (according to critics and cinephiles) makes sense from a filmic point of view. While Boseman’s performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is certainly Oscar worthy, the same could be said of Hopkins’ performance in The Father (for some, even more so). All this points to the idea that the placement of the award as the final one, is the main spark of the controversy. It marks a point where even when the Oscars do things right, they are wrong nonetheless.

Thus we are back to an idea that has been floating around in the past few years; the idea that the Oscars themselves are pointless and should not continue. With this we are also back to the second part of our “pun”, the end of the Oscars as such. Proponents of this idea certainly have plenty of ammunition on their side. The progressive criticism is that the Oscars committees are bunch of old white men who are racist, sexist, heteronormative, transphobic, homophobic etc. While the Oscars have been trying to combat this claim, the ending of this year’s ceremony only added fuel to this fire. There is also a Marxist criticism, claiming that the award show is just an excuse for fashion brands who want to market their new clothing lines. According to this logic, movies are a pretense for the red carpet, the actual important event. We can add a feminist glaze over this criticism as well, considering that the people who are the most showcased on the red carpet are women. There is also the cinephile criticism, which claims that the Oscars pick the right movies or actors/actresses so rarely that it ultimately is a pointless event, filled with awful nominees and even worse winners. These criticisms and many more can be leveled against the Oscars. So the natural follow-up question is: why have the Oscars at all?

Let us begin by saying that it is impossible not to have an evaluation regarding film (or any artwork for that matter). We all have movies that we like, don’t like; actresses whose performance we prefer to others; the animation that affects us more that the rest. While this evaluation left alone is fine, without some sort of a discourse regulating our interpretation of these films, actual communication cannot happen. This is the position of the Oscars. The accuracy of the Oscars is almost an unimportant category, the point is that the wrong choice itself can lead to discourse. The idea for the Oscars’ existence is not that the award winners represent our own evaluation; rather it is a catalyst for a collective idea of cinema itself. This collective idea in turn becomes a fruitful ground of cultural critique and political analysis [5]. In this way, not only cinema functions as a form of Ideologiekritik; but the collective evaluation of cinema does so as well. With this we can return to the Boseman-Hopkins debacle. Coupled with the fact that the event was structured and marketed as a film-like narrative, the Hopkins choice marks a clear moment of the Lacanian gaze: the real in the image that distorts the visual field, the point at which the image looks back at the spectator/subject, the visual variant of the Lacanian objet a. What was revealed at the end of the ceremony was this moment of the gaze, which showed that the desire of the Oscars was still wrapped up within a racist phantasmatic framework [6]. But does this not support the idea that the Oscars should be gotten rid of? “The gaze revealed the racist investment; therefore the logical next step is to remove it.” What this type of thinking misses is that removing the Oscars does not remove the gaze, only obscures it. Thus the point is to keep in touch with the gaze, however traumatic that may be. In order to better illustrate this point, let’s ask the question: what if Boseman won over Hopkins? The aftermath is easy to envision. The ceremony that celebrated the films of 2020 (the year of the rekindled Black Lives Matter protests) ends with a black actor who tragically passed away, winning one of the most important awards in the award show. An emotional ending to a film-like Oscars, the producers can sleep easy knowing that they have done something substantial towards a more progressive Oscars. All the while no actual political change is made. Fortunately, the real-life Oscars does not let us live in this fantasy world. It shows the investment in racism in full force. Thus an argument that is seemingly against the Oscars, turns out to be for it nonetheless.

We can now return to our “pun”, the double entendre with which we have started our inquiry. The obvious conclusion was that the ending of this year’s Oscars signals the end of the Oscars in general. But instead of a strictly causal relation, the pun could have a dialectical relation between its meanings instead. As in, instead of Meaning 1 (the end of this year’s Oscars) causing Meaning 2 (the end of the Oscars in general); the contradiction within Meaning 2 creates Meaning 1. The end of the Oscars would only obscure the racist phantasmatic investment; so this year’s Oscars emerges out this contradiction to prevent its actualization. Just like psychoanalysis itself is a wound to thought that must constantly be reinflicted; the gaze in this year’s Oscars is a wound to the Oscars in general that must constantly be reinflicted.

Ufuk Karataş is a university student in Bilkent University, Ankara. He mainly works on film theory and cinema studies.

Notes:

[1] No doubt this is partially a result Steven Soderbergh being one of the main producers of the event.

[2] In 1971, Charlie Chaplin was given an honorary Oscar just after the best picture category. This marks the importance of Chaplin, as well as the importance of the final category.

[3] Hopkins did not attend presumably for personal health reasons as well as Covid-19. It is important to note that Hopkins did not attend last year’s Oscars ceremony either; in which he was nominated in the best supporting actor category for The Two Popes.

[4] With regard to the ‘film-like’ quality of the event, this finale is analogous to the twist ending in the mystery film.

[5] Beautiful Mind winning instead of the much more deserving Gosford Park in 2002 reveals the ideological investment in the combination of being a genius and madness.

[6] We have stated earlier that Hopkins was deserving of the award as much as (if not more) Boseman. Does this not complicate the assessment? Here I’m reminded of Žižek’s idea that an ideological statement being true does not make it weaker, in fact it makes it stronger. If Hopkins had not been deserving and still received the award anyway we could have made the claim that the Oscars committee were in fact consciously racist. But the fact that Hopkins was deserving of the award pushes us to look deeper for an actual encounter with the gaze, instead of being fooled by simple explanations.

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