Oscar Reads a Book

Oscar Reads Too - the cover of our Catalog 116, by Tom Bloom

What would a blog be without some opinions on the Academy Awards? Everywhere you look online and in print you’ll find plenty of comments on the recent ceremony and validity of the winners. And there has been a lot of worry that this annual media event, which once captured huge ratings, is becoming marginalized (bad news for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which does valuable archival and preservation work, and relies on the Oscars to raise most of their budget). But if the Academy had only looked to books this year, some of their problems might have been solved.

It’s no secret that the Academy is particularly good at making choices that are guaranteed to tick off lots of folks. And one of the chief criticisms is that the films that get big nominations are not the films that perform very well at the box office. This seems to forget that the Academy Awards were invented by the movie industry largely to justify the artistic claims of Hollywood. It’s easy enough to look back at eight decades of awards and find some inspired choices, some notable duds, and several glaring omissions (since I’m obliged by our blog editor to give an example of each: Jane Wyman, inspired choice for Best Actress for Johnny Belinda; Oliver!, notable dud as Best Picture; and Alfred Hitchcock, glaring omission for Best Director). But a lot of the concern these days is not whether the Academy’s choices will stand the test of time, but rather why are they losing the all important TV audience.

Planet of the Apes

Planet of the Apes - the 1963 French first edition

If you look at the list of the top grossing films of 2011, the top 9 movies were all sequels. These are the movies that the most number of filmgoers view. And, generally speaking, sequels are not movies that get nominations or awards (yeah, Godfather II, I know, I know). Number 10, not a sequel, was the comic book adaptation Thor. Should Thor have gotten any nominations? Best Use of Protein Shakes? But the 11th most popular film of 2011 was a remake, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, an update of the film franchise which was originally based, loosely, on the Pierre Boulle allegorical novel La Planète des Singes. If the Academy really wanted to be forward thinking, they could have nominated Andy Serkis, who through motion-capture technology “acted” the part of the super-intelligent, rebellious chimpanzee Caesar. Serkis (who was also Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy), and the team of special effects wizards with whom he works, are completely redefining what it can mean to act on film. And if you watch the behind-the-scenes footage of Serkis on set, you see an actor working his ass off to create an on-screen character that made the film a surprise box-office and critical success (“certified fresh” on the review aggregating website Rotten Tomatoes). Without this one actor, the entire film would have failed miserably. If that doesn’t deserve at least a nomination, I don’t know what does. I wouldn’t have expected him to win – that would have been a little too forward thinking of the Academy. But a nomination isn’t too much to ask for.

Harry Potter

The first edition of the first Harry Potter book

But the easiest, most obvious solution to the Academy’s doldrums of 2011 would have been to devote some short portion of the awards program to the Harry Potter film series. It’s not that hard to do. Spend a little money and get the principal cast together. Film a short, special sequence to be aired exclusively during the ceremony (J.K. Rowling, no stranger to charitable Potter off-shoot projects, probably would have been game if a legitimate charity could have been involved). Or simply present a special award for the film series’ contribution to cinema. BAFTA (the British Oscars) had done just that. And special Academy Awards used to be handed out from time to time at the discretion of the Academy’s Board of Governors (youngsters like Shirley Temple used to get them, the last was a 1995 special award to John Lasseter for making the first feature-length computer-animated film, Toy Story).

By showcasing the best-selling book series in history and the highest grossing film series of all time (in inflation-unadjusted dollars, for all you Star Wars freaks who know the prize really belongs to you), the Oscars could have pulled in a sizable additional audience. But do the films deserve a special award? They are not all, taken individually, great films. But each is at least a very good film. And taken as a whole, making a children’s film series of this quality and consistency, with the same cast, on this scale and with these production values, while remaining quite faithful to the source material, and all in such a short period of time, is a singular achievement, and one that will not be equaled in the future. If Hayley Mills has a special Oscar, so can Harry Potter (even if he doesn’t bop around singing “Let’s Get Together”). So, dear Academy, instead of fretting over your host (something that is not really going to have a tremendous effect on the ratings, and is guaranteed to displease many of the people much of the time), pay attention to the movies themselves, look beyond the nominations and votes which historically are pretty flawed to begin with, and find opportunities to honor your evolving craft while simultaneously catering to public opinion.

Oh, and look for more movies based on books.