The Oscars and the Culture of Narcissism

The Oscars and the Culture of Narcissism

Introduction

Hey Kweens and Kings,

I want to talk about the Oscars. This video is meant to be about the Oscars in general rather than this year’s awards. However, it’s worth noting I am making this video a few days after the nominees for the 94th Academy Awards were announced.

I have not cared about the Oscars for almost decade. I lost faith in the credibility of the Academy Awards a long time ago. Everyone has their own story about when they started hating the Oscars. The one that did it for me was when The King’s Speech won Best Picture in 2010. I really liked The King’s Speech but I am conscious of the fact it is the type of movie people think about when they use the phrase “Oscar bait.” Oscar bait is typically a self-serious drama, often a period piece, that dispenses dull cliches reinforcing modernist moralisms. The King’s Speech was about King George trying to overcome his stammer with the backdrop of World War II beginning in earnest. It was a movie that allowed a beloved celebrity to lean on an acting gimmick while spitting drivel like “powerful leaders are people too” or “friendship can win a world war.” Don’t get me wrong, it is a very enjoyable movie, but give me a break.

I personally wanted The Social Network to win. I know people take umbrage at the prospect of enjoying that film because of its association with Facebook, but I thought it was a tour-de-force. It had an excellent ensemble cast. It was the first time Trent Reznor had done a film score and he nailed it. Easily some of David Fincher’s best cinematography. It is also likely the best Aaron Sorkin script. His decision to frame the story as a nonlinear court drama was a novel approach for livening up what would’ve otherwise been a slow drama. It also had great editing and it was generally an all-encompassing, stunning accomplishment. The exact type of film you would hope would win Best Picture. Or at the very least, better than The King’s Speech. That was the last straw for me. And we all know how rare it is for the Oscars to award anything deserving of acclaim.

Most people lost faith in the Oscars well before 2010, or have slowly hemorrhaged their interest in the show after two significant upsets brought about the waning credibility of the academy. There were two major events in Oscars history that led to its decline.

1998: Shakespeare in Love

The first example people cite was really the most influential. In 1998, Shakespeare in Love won Best Picture over Saving Private Ryan. Shakespeare in Love won not because it was such a better film, but rather due to an active marketing campaign from its distributor Miramax, which specifically targeted members of the academy to influence their vote. I have not seen Shakespeare in Love. It is apparently a great movie, but incredibly niche. We shouldn’t feel any ill will toward that movie or its creators because it’s not their fault. The campaign for Shakespeare in Love was helmed by none other than Harvey Weinstein. His approach to wheel-and-deal behind the scenes and court favors in return for prestige is now well-known because of his criminal court proceedings revealing how he did basically the same thing to sexually abuse actresses for decades. Saving Private Ryan was the expected winner by critics and the industry in general. I can say — as someone who is not a Spielberg stan — that movie is a historic accomplishment in filmmaking that really deserved the recognition it received. It was such an obvious betrayal for Saving Private Ryan to lose to Shakespeare in love that it inherently proved the strength of active campaigning for Oscars during award season.

Now if you visit Los Angeles between November and February, you’ll see movie billboards with the words “for your consideration.” These words mean “we want this movie to win an Oscar.” Often times it will say “for your consideration for… [the name of the award].” For example, there was a campaign for Andy Serkis to get nominated for Best Supporting Actor in his role as Cesar in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. That obviously didn’t go anywhere. Generally though, the industry knows campaigning is a necessity for anyone who wants to be competitive in the awards. It has remained a tactic within the metagame of the Academy Awards to campaign and if you do not campaign then you are never going to get an award. This is partly why A24 films are often ignored by the Oscars because that distribution company doesn’t bother. There are some exceptions like Lady Bird, but that movie had a joint distribution and my impression is Greta Gerwig is well-connected in the industry so it’s different. Shakespeare in Love instituted the era of campaigning for the Oscars and effectively ended the concept of merit when selecting the awards’ winners. This was the context for what came next.

2005: Crash

The second example people point to when they complain about the Oscars is in 2005 when Crash won Best Picture. This example is often cited as proof when identity politics took over Hollywood and everyone was going to start pandering to political issues now. I think this criticism is imprecise. The front-runner for 2005 was Brokeback Mountain, a story about two closeted gay cowboys who partake in a multi-decade love affair they hide from their wives. That’s not exactly a movie devoid of identity politics. For what it’s worth, it’s not like the other nominees weren’t expressly political. The other nominees that year included Good Night and Good Luck which is about radio broadcaster Edward R. Murrow waging war against Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy. There was also Munich which is effectively a criticism of the state of Israel’s retaliation against the Palestine Liberation Organization. Both of those movies are overflowing with liberal politics.

If the goal for the academy was to pander to its liberal audience, then it would’ve almost certainly awarded Brokeback Mountain Best Picture — at a time when gay marriage was still illegal in the United States. Or Munich, as a pointed criticism of the United States’ unwavering military support of Israel. The academy didn’t do either of these things because what Crash’s victory really signified was the academy becoming more insular and disconnected with the general public. They’re not even capable of making the political pandering choice correctly, because they have no idea what’s going on. They very likely had no personal connection to gay rights or American foreign policy, but they’ve certainly been racist, snooty, rich people which is what Crash is all about. The academy is an elite group of mega famous people who live lives completely unlike anyone else in the world, but they also have a delusional belief their experience is the most significant of all. Which means the driving factor at the bottom of the academy’s disconnect is not liberalism, but narcissism.

The Narcissism of Hollywood

Anyone familiar with narcissism knows it is often used to mask a deep insecurity. This is why any accolade or accomplishment given by Hollywood is completely meaningless. We common folk intuit an award is something bestowed upon a work or individual for their accomplishments, but — with the examples I just cited — it has become clear the Academy Awards are not based on merit but rather a mechanism to sooth the insecurities of film’s so-called leaders by reinforcing the delusion they’re important in the industry and the world. This has become obvious to the public, which is why the Academy Awards have less and less credibility every year.

I read an interesting book last year that I thought prescribed an interesting pathology of this culture. The book is called Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch. This book came out in the 70s and it was popular at the time, but it is experiencing a modern-day resurgence because it is now understood as an all-encompassing critique of the culture of Baby Boomers. Before you get too excited about reading this book yourself, I think Lasch’s writing style is terrible and often obtuse. It’s not an easy book to read. With that in mind, I think he really nailed this specific aspect of boomer culture to seek out empty prestige. Here’s the passage:

“In society in which the dream of success has been drained of any meaning beyond itself, men have nothing against which to measure their achievements except the achievements of others. Self-approval depends on public recognition and acclaim, and the quality of this approval has undergone important changes in its own right. The good opinion of friends and neighbors, which formerly informed a man that he had lived a useful life, rested on appreciation of his accomplishments. Today men seek the kind of approval that applauds not their actions but their personal attributes. They wish to be not so much esteemed as admired. They crave not fame but the glamour and excitement of celebrity. They want to be envied rather than respected. Pride and acquisitiveness, the sins of ascendant capitalism have given way to vanity. Most Americans would define success as riches, fames, and power, but their actions show that they have little interest in the substance of these attainments. What a man does matters less than the fact he has ‘made it.’ Whereas fame depends on the performance of notable deeds acclaimed in biography and works of history, celebrity — the reward of those who project a vivid or pleasing exterior or have otherwise attracted attention to themselves — is acclaimed in the news media, in gossip columns, on talk shows, in magazines devoted to ‘personalities.’ Accordingly it is evanescent, like news itself, which loses its interest when it loses its novelty. Worldly success has always carried with it a certain poignancy, an awareness that ‘you can’t take it with you’ but in our time, when success is so largely a function of youth, glamour, and novelty, glory is more fleeting than ever, and those who win the attention of the public worry incessantly about losing it.”

Lasch, Culture of Narcissism. Pg. 59-60.

Lasch is effectively saying prestige has become its own end. It is no longer the reward for admirable behavior. The game everyone is playing is to get prestige in whatever way possible. Even if it’s not earned or credible. You can see how this kind of mindset would lead to a producer like Weinstein seeing nothing wrong with campaigning for an award that’s meant to be based on merit. To people like him, the merit of an award is inconsequential. The actual thing is the award itself. This is the mind virus that has likely infected an entire generation, but it is absolutely heightened in Hollywood where the concept of prestige is built into how the industry functions. The concept of a “bankable star” or a “hot property” all play a tangible effect on who gets work in the industry and what projects get funded. The problem with these concepts is they are not always tied to measurable metrics like box office numbers. There is an element of asking “what is the general sentiment?” Maybe an actor or director is too controversial, too offensive, or maybe they’re not pretty enough, or not white enough. I should state explicitly these perceptions are often wrong. Usually, the people arguing about these perceptions have ulterior motives to ascertain their own prestige and they are willing to take advantage of prejudicial tactics to get ahead of the competition. Which is another way of saying a lot of these perceptions are based on dishonesty or outright lies. Lasch has another passage about how pervasive a culture of dishonesty can become when it is based on prestige by any means possible. In the book he’s referring to corporate hierarchies, because I believe he is quoting a Joseph Heller book called Something Happened which is in a corporate setting, but the point remains the same:

“The better the corporate executive or bureaucrat understands the personal characteristics of his subordinates, the better he can exploit their mistakes in order to control them and to reassert his own supremacy. If he knows that his subordinates lie to him, the lie communicates the important information that they fear and wish to please him. ‘By accepting the bribe, as it were, of flattery, cajolery, or sheer subservience implicit in being lied to, the recipient of the lie states, in effect, that he is willing to barter these items for the truth.’ On the other hand, acceptance of the lie reassures the liar that he will not be punished, while reminding him of his dependence and subordination. ‘In this way, both parties gain a measure … of security.’”

Lasch, Culture of Narcissism. Pg 62.

This is what is at the bottom of Hollywood’s culture. A culture where everyone wants to be lied to about their importance. Everyone wants to ascertain prestige because prestige is the only thing anyone else cares about. It’s how people get funding, or attract talent to their films, or accomplish anything with powerbrokers in the industry like Weinstein. If for some reason you discover a person is undeserving of their position you are incentivized to keep that to yourself. In fact, the industry will likely turn against you if you do that — as we saw with the Weinstein debacle. This is likely because the whole industry senses it is built on a house of cards. I don’t think we should lose sight of the fact this is a cultural attitude rather than the result of one individual. Weinstein was a product of this environment and there are probably others like him. They may not be literal rapists, but the industry incentivizes prestige-seekers.

The downhill effect of that phenomenon is you have an award show that is completely meaningless. Or more precisely, it is meaningless to anyone outside of the governing body that votes on the award. Everyone who votes on the award knows this is an extension of the ongoing popularity contest in the industry. Or it may be more precise to say it’s an ongoing secret password that’s always changing. If you don’t know the password, then you’re out of step with everyone else and that’s bad. I think this is the best explanation for why the Oscars routinely make incomprehensible decisions. For example, in one year everyone decided Birdman was going to be Best Picture. My opinion on Birdman is irrelevant to the point I’m making here, but if you’re curious — not a big fan of the movie. The other frontrunner for Best Picture that year was Boyhood directed by Richard Linklater. It is now a posh opinion to criticize Boyhood for being too white, but that’s not why it was never going to win. Linklater has a known contempt for Hollywood. He refuses to shoot his movies in Los Angeles and often sets his movies in his home state of Texas. Not exactly the type of person who would participate in the circus of campaigning for awards. So, with the competition out of the way, Birdman won a bunch of awards. You can argue the merit for these awards, but it was especially interesting that movie won for Best Original Screenplay. Birdman has exactly one scene where two women speak to one another, and it ends with them making out. This movie not only fails the Bechdel test, its relationship with that test is worthy of being a punchline in an episode of South Park. You would think that would eliminate it from consideration. This kind of thing happens every year. This is the problem with the Oscars but the academy has lost the plot.

The Academy has tried to address critiques of being too insular by expanding the membership from a couple hundred to several thousand. This misses the point. The problem was never the membership. It is the culture. By expanding the membership, the academy has effectively exported its culture to the entire industry. In fact, it goes beyond the industry. The only thing you need to be a member of the academy is sponsorship from two current members. Traditionally, you only gained membership if you were nominated for a past award. Now anyone can join. So you have people like J.K. Rowling and Kendrick Lamar voting for Best Picture. And yeah — I know J.K. Rowling wrote the books that spawned a popular film franchise. I know Kendrick Lamar produced the soundtrack for Black Panther. They may have a connection to the industry, but I still don’t care what their opinion is on movies. And those are just the examples we know about. There are 7,000 members of the academy. I have to imagine they all love getting free screeners of movies at the end of the year. It must feel great to be actively courted by companies you want to work with, even if they only care about getting you to vote for Green Book. It’s nice to feel wanted even if it’s all meaningless. This is the pernicious lie that both parties keep up to gain some concept of security about their own prestige and their importance in the industry

Empty prestige over love for film

We should have seen this coming because Hollywood has had a delusional relationship with its own accomplishments for generations. Narcissism is in the DNA of Hollywood. Sometimes it reveals itself in ways that we can relate to and other times its creepy, but it has always been there. When you look at past Oscar winner speeches through the lens of self-aggrandizing narcissism, how do some of the more memorable moments hold up? What was Sally Fields’ saying when she said, “you like me, you really do?” As if she had just been canonized by the Catholic Church. Why did Leonardo DiCapiro give a speech that sounded like he just won the Nobel Peace Prize? There has always been a desire among the type of people who receive and campaign for these awards to elevate their accomplishment as a kind of entryway into the gates of heaven. An opportunity to look important in front of their peers. This is what the Oscars have always been.

You know what the Oscars are not? An actual celebration of filmmaking. If I were to watch all of the Oscar ceremonies back-to-back, would I gain any understanding of why anyone or anything is any good? No. The most we’ve gotten is those 5-10 second clips played for Best Actor or Best Supporting. Those are a self-evident example of quality, but there are no actual words of affirmation for anyone at these awards. The attitude is very much a “we gave you an award, we pretended to envy you, now get off the damn stage.” If the Oscars want to be what they claim to be, they should spend more time articulating a love for cinema. This is especially needed for the “smaller categories” like best screenplay, best editing, best sound design, or best costume design. I think the ceremonies have only ever shown resentment for these categories. It would not be difficult to make these categories better. There was one year where they presented best screenplay alongside screenshots of the script in comparison to the final scene. The presentation was a little clunky, but it was a good first step they never followed-up on. They should do something like that for every category. They should have a montage of the best shots for best cinematography or better yet have testimonials from someone who voted for the winner. I would love to hear Quentin Tarantino talk about why the writing for another movie is so good. Or a renowned Director of Photography like Roger Deakins gush about a shot from another movie. If they don’t want to do that, then get some YouTubers to do it for you. There are thousands of hours of content from people online who actually love the medium talking about it very passionately for free. Maybe we’re at the point where any genuine love for this industry needs to be contracted out.

I would be willing to accept the Academy Awards as the hollow farce they’ve become, if they made any effort to bolster appreciation for the artform, but they don’t even do that. That’s part of the reason why I feel so passionate about this channel. I have loved movies my entire life. The only reason I got into writing is because I started writing movie reviews for my high school newspaper in 10th grade. I know from personal experience how you can form a deep relationship with a movie because of how it connects to your life. Not everyone is great at articulating that connection or explaining how film accomplishes that so consistently. It is especially disappointing the award ceremony claiming to celebrate the industry doesn’t even attempt to do that for general audiences. So, I personally use this channel to explore my own relationship with films I love, and I can only hope some of my musings are useful for other people as well. I think if you want to better develop your relationship with art, your best bet is watching some random person on YouTube or Tik Tok. The official entities that claim to represent film are not doing it any favors.

Closing thoughts

At the same time, I do really wish the Oscars become relevant again because we need a credible organization to make the case for the artistry of filmmaking. Without a trusted entity helming that effort, the industry will very easily fall into pure consumerism. We’re already seeing that with the dominance of Marvel movies. Disney practically abandoned all non-Marvel films released in 2021. The fact Steven Spielberg released a remake of West Side Story that was both critically acclaimed, and a box office bomb is a travesty. It’s also absurd Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza has been referred to as an “independent film” when it had a $40 million dollar budget. If Spielberg can’t get support and Anderson is considered chump change, then we are in deep trouble. We are going to miss out on a lot of good stuff if the industry becomes “make a billion dollars or bust.” And for whatever criticism you can lay against the concept of an “Oscar bait” film, at least it provided a metric for success that pretended to care about art rather than financial returns. The fact the academy has become corrupted and disentangled from merit is a big problem.

I don’t have the answer for how to resolve the situation. I think things have to get worse before they get better. I actually applaud directors like Linklater or Tarantino, or studios like A24 for checking out from the Oscars. I’m sure they’d still love to get an award, but I don’t get the sense any of them participate in campaigning. As more creators do that, we’ll have more examples of the Oscars’ irrelevancy. At some point, we might force the awards to restructure in a way that is meaningful — not just an appeal to populism. Until that happens, I will not be watching the Oscars and I don’t care what they think.

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