At around 10:30 last night, Sky News caught itself in a broadcasting hiccup that was at once depressing, amusing and highly instructive.
With Sky One’s coverage of the Oscars set to kick off imminently, its special presenter Alex Zane joined Sky News anchor Samantha Simmonds in the studio as she indulged in the usual round of build-up small talk with Hollywood live link Lucy Cotter. In the background of Cotter’s red-carpet footage, the bearded visage of actor James Cromwell bobbed into view above a thicket of microphone-waving media reps, triggering an instant wave of panic among the Sky staffers. None of the three experienced and, presumably, well-paid employees had the faintest idea who Cromwell was, or what he was doing there.
“This is really going to bug me,” groaned Zane.
Not nearly as much as it bugs me, I thought. Not nearly as much.
Cromwell was there to represent film-of-the-moment The Artist, in which he plays no less a role than second male lead. He has also appeared in a variety of other popular films, including LA Confidential, Babe and Deep Impact, and had a long-running guest slot in one of the later series of ER. He’s only been seen by several-hundred-million people around the globe: no big deal or anything. Eventually, Simmonds received the actor’s name from the Earpiece Gods, and tipped off the others. In short order, Cotter bounded over to him with her mic, exclaiming “James!” as though she were his long-lost friend.
“People who only like going to the movies love the Oscars, but people who really love the movies only like the Oscars.”
Horror novelist Stephen King
Attempting to draw Cromwell on some of the artier aspects of filmmaking, Cotter was bewildered to find he was having none of it. “This,” he said, “is about business. Budgets. Positioning.”
In just a few moments, the broadcast had highlighted a number of things that are off kilter or self-contradictory about the Oscars: valuable news minutes given over to ceremonies that lean towards the predictable; journalists exposed by embarrassing gaps in their knowledge; and laconic comments from Hollywood veterans that deflate whatever magic remains in viewers’ minds as they watch the events unfold. And this near-hysterical set of circumstances has all been spawned by a mysterious trade association.
Founded in 1927 by 36 Hollywood moguls – including actors Harold Lloyd and Mary Pickford – the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was an inevitable step in the evolution of a medium that was desperate to pat itself on the back.
Over the decades, its ranks swelled, and the body now encompasses 6,000 honorary members – with the requirement that each new entrant is appointed by invitation of the Board of Governors, and sponsored by at least two existing members. Once onboard, a novice is entitled to take part in the annual rounds of voting to decide Oscars nominees and winners, and will therefore be susceptible to the fierce studio marketing campaigns that spring up from October onwards in efforts to sway the outcome.
In other words, the Academy is not much different to a Masonic lodge, and has drawn criticism for – among other things – ignoring certain types of film entirely, all to uphold the industry’s sheen of polite respectability: something that undoubtedly stems from its average membership age of 62.
But this zeal to airbrush the image of an entire creative community has also produced some disconcerting side effects. Witness the arrival at last night’s ceremony of Sacha Baron-Cohen, in costume as the lead character from his forthcoming film The Dictator – as promised (or threatened) last week. After upending an urn purportedly containing the ashes of late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il over US TV presenter Ryan Seacrest, Baron-Cohen was muscled away by Academy bouncers who were there to prevent such stunts occurring (for video, please see the updated version of our previous article about The Dictator). All this, at an event attended by some of the most impulsive, extrovert and attention-seeking people IN THE WORLD.
Don’t these actions – redolent of totalitarian states – seem a bit excessive for an industry powered by artistic expression? Have Hollywood leaders just created a bureaucratic monster that, year after year, demands to be fed with ever-larger quantities of red tape?
The Academy has a twin brother in the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA): another body set up by studio insiders in the 1920s to safeguard the industry’s image. While the Academy provides the business with notions of excellence, the MPAA was established as a self-regulation entity for setting age ratings, helping studios to fend off a government-backed censorship system.
In 1968, the MPAA moved to advisory ratings that would enable as many people as possible to attend as many types of film as possible – for example, the highest US film rating, R, stipulates that anyone under 17 can attend a film with adult themes if accompanied by someone over 17. Pretty open. But the group has also been accused of arbitrary decisions that fail to account for the bigger picture.
Such is the case with upcoming film Bully – a documentary warning against intimidating behaviour in schools. Last week, the film’s producer (and backer of The Artist) Harvey Weinstein threatened to release all his future films outside the MPAA ratings system, after the group’s appeals board refused to lower Bully’s certificate from R to PG-13, citing frequent harsh language. “With school-age children of my own,” said the Weinstein Company boss, “I know this is a crucial issue and school districts across the US have responded in kind. The Cincinnati school district signed on to bus 40,000 students to the movie – but because the appeals board retained the R rating, the school district will have to cancel those plans.”
Aiming for a diplomatic tone, the MPAA replied: “Bullying is a serious issue and is a subject that parents should discuss with their children. The MPAA agrees with the Weinstein Company that Bully can serve as a vehicle for such important discussions. However, the MPAA also has the responsibility to acknowledge and represent the strong feedback from parents throughout the country who want to be informed about content in movies, including language … some parents may choose to take their kids to this movie and others may not, but it is their choice and not ours to make for them.”
It has yet to be seen whether Weinstein will follow through with his threat. But as the MPAA is not a statutory body, studio bosses also have a choice – about whether or not they want to continue supporting it.