Expert Oscars Advice


I am awards-show illiterate.

I couldn’t tell you what won Best Picture at the Oscars this year, I’m confused about the distinctions between the Golden Globes and the Emmys, and will someone please tell me what the People’s Choice awards are. Who are these people? Was my choice taken into account?  If not, does that mean I am no longer a person? Vital questions.

Partially to sooth my existential dread and partially out of reluctant interest, I turned to my neighborhood Award Show Aficionado: Nicholas Dehn. It was time, I decided, to cast off my ignorance. I resolved to come into the light, to see and understand the dazzle of those shimmering awards. Nick took my hand and led me through the wild.

I began asking about the personal stuff, to ease my way into it.

me: what drew you to the Oscars initially?

nick: As a child, I was obsessed with reading the entire world almanac. For a while, family road trips consisted of me quizzing my parents on countries, we would play guess the nation. That got old, and we moved on to awards. That sort of got me interested in the punditry of it all, it got me hooked on the kind of culture surrounding the campaigning and the awards giving.

So far, so good. Turns out Nick had been a huge nerd as a child and likely read the World Almanac during recess, so I was no longer intimidated by him. I delved deeper.

me: So why do you think we as a culture are so invested in it?

nick: I think you have two different types of people who enjoy this kind of stuff: you know the people who enjoy the glitz and the glamour, they want to know who you’re wearing. They’re the kinds of people who live for the awards narratives-

me: What do you mean by awards narratives?

nick: Like the young ingénue in the dress winning an Oscar for her first major role, or the old veteran finally getting his or her due. So that’s great, and they you have the other people who are in it to see how the motion picture industry is responding to social and cultural and political intersections of our time. I’m interested in seeing how the people who win, how the films that are considered “awards worthy” reflect the anxieties or the values of the given time. 

This seemed promising. I had taken SOC 101, surely I could get behind a critical analysis of what art says about society. Out of curiosity, I also asked who Cate Blanchett was wearing this year. He didn’t know, and I considered admitting that my faith in him as an “expert” was shaken, but I refrained.

We got into discussing the kinds of disconnect that came into play with the awards: the gap between what the academy considers worthy of acclaim and the motivations behind the conception of a given film. He spoke about the “common consciousness of the awards body” and the factors that influence what the academy is willing to put its stamp of approval on. These movies finance enormous, costly campaigns to generate buzz, to increase public interest and awareness. All those talk-show appearances that I had taken for granted as facets of celebrity life, Nick pointed to as examples of political award-show campaigning.

He also introduced the idea that not only do actors fall into “award narratives”, but the films themselves also are worked into marketable niches. They have cultivated brands: the Big Money Classic, or the Moving Morality Tale, or the Faux Indie Underdog. These all help them to be preened for easy public consumption, and to fit into the slots the awards shows seek to fill.

He gave me the example of mad max: it won six technical awards but it didn’t win for best picture. How could the parts be so much less than the whole? Well, even though those individual elements were pleasing to the academy, the film as a whole didn’t fill a niche or have a cohesive enough narrative or identity that would make it a satisfying win. Food for thought.

Our conversation came to issues of race and representation, something even I had heard of and was invested in. Nick felt firmly that the problem lay not with a specific awards show or deliberating body, but that insidious inequity was more widespread and complex: “The Oscars are symptomatic of a larger industry issue. I don’t see combatting the Oscars as very productive: these are institutions that aren’t going to be swayed by that sort of resistance.”

The homogeny and whiteness of the Oscars is more than a binary issue of no black, actors too many white actors, he explained.

nick: What we have to do is  reform the industry from the inside out, and that means giving more opportunities for actors, directors, writers, filmmakers of color, for women, queer folk, trans folk. These are all people who are underrepresented in the film industry in all sorts of capacities.

He stressed the need for a multitude of perspectives to be heard. Not only do we need these underrepresented groups to be visible and bringing stories to life, we need create structures that allow them to tell their stories as well.

As Nick put it so brilliantly:

“Until Hollywood, which is filed with liberals, puts its money where its mouth is, and risks failing in order to have a multiplicity of perspectives and narratives, it’s going to keep being fifty million films about white men a year, mediocre movies about white men on spy missions that don’t pass the bechdel test, you know?”