Oscar overload: Can we please stop banging the gong?

Why can't the media discuss the season’s best releases without bringing up the Academy Awards?


Forgive me, for I have sinned. The subject of this column is the media’s depressing habit of expressing the quality of any new release in terms of its apparent ability to win Oscars.

As Sam Adams noted recently in a piece for Indiewire, news reports on Steve McQueen’s upcoming 12 Years a Slave (above) have generally avoided discussing the film’s troubling political themes for a consideration of its potential appeal to the Academy. After all, if McQueen were to win best director, he would be the first black man to do so. Mind you, the box-office success of Gravity could nudge that space adventure towards the front of the pack. Of course, Philomena might pick up . . .

Oh, Lord. We’re doing it again. Awards season is now so aggressively present that it permeates all conversation about any even vaguely serious film.

As is often the case with reports written to a deadline, the news stories rarely identify any source for the supposed rumours. Is there any phrase less sound than those that begin: “There is already talk of an Oscar nomination for . . . ”? Yes, I suppose there is talk. After all, you’re talking about it. Right?

One can see why this habit developed. It’s easy enough to make a news story of some controversy stirred up by a current film. The forthcoming release of Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Colour will, for instance, certainly trigger a few pieces about the very long, very sexually explicit scenes of lesbian sex. A few years ago, the airwaves were alive with people who hadn’t seen Brokeback Mountain telling us why the film would curdle milk and turn babies into Satanists.

Similarly, any old fool can build a narrative around a box-office catastrophe or sensation. You didn’t need to have seen Avatar to detail the astonishing array of records it smashed on its way to the top of the all-time charts. Titanic’s journey from certain flop to overwhelming smash offered the perfect arc.

It is, however, a great deal more difficult to express a film’s quality in objective terms (particularly if you haven’t seen it). Obviously, the journalist can quote a few reviews from whichever festival the film opened at. But he or she needs firm recognition – or slippery potential recognition – from the industry to turn opinion into something that looks like hard fact.

So 12 Years a Slave is “set for Oscar Glory”. Gravity is “an Oscar lock”. And, of course, “there is already talk about an Oscar nomination for” whoever you choose to place in that frame.

Was it ever thus? Did early readers of The Canterbury Tales argue that it was set for “manye pryses at all tourneyments”? Did town criers report news of Columbus’s achievement in terms of his campaign for Explorer Of The Year? They did not.

We really need to get out of this appalling habit. But we won’t. Return here to read more about the Oscars in three weeks time.

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