Why do we care so much about the Oscars?

What that little gold man really says about our movie-going tastes and preferences – and what it doesn’t.

The Oscars are the undisputed juggernaut of the Hollywood awards season, capping off a series of self-congratulatory ceremonies every year and imbuing – for what it’s worth – an inherent value to its winners and nominees that goes beyond a simple award.

As much as we always wring our hands and rant and rave over who should be nominated (and win), the cultural cachet associated with these little gold statuettes has only gotten more pronounced. Even as box office numbers have declined and the movie-going audience has splintered, Hollywood still puts on the same show with the same pomp and circumstance each year – and we still get up in arms about who deserved to win and didn’t.

Today’s ceremony as we know it, with the red carpet extravaganza and all the glamour that comes with it, is a far cry from the Oscars’ fairly humble origins. The Academy Awards started life as a dinner party held for just over 200 people at the Roosevelt Hotel in California in 1929. It was hosted by actor and then-Academy President Douglas Fairbanks, Sr and dreamed up by MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer as a way to help advance the film industry. Winners were announced ahead of the ceremony, with the first Best Picture Oscar going to silent film Wings, and Best Actor and Best Actress going to Emil Jannings and Janet Gaynor.

Tonight, 92 years on, Hollywood’s A-list will once again descend on LA’s Dolby Theatre to hand out those coveted gold trophies. This year’s crop of nominations has been criticised – very fairly – for a lack of diversity with only one person of colour being nominated across 20 potential slots for performers, and no female directors getting a nod despite it being arguably a banner year for women in film. Issa Rae probably summed it up best:

It’s fair to say the Academy hasn’t always gotten it right with who it chooses to recognise. That’s something it has taken steps to address in recent years, having invited almost 1,500 new members to its ranks in a bid to diversify.

That means something – because the Academy, by turning the spotlight on a precious few films and industry professionals every year, in turn signals to the wider public what’s worth watching and what’s not. What’s worth paying attention to, and what’s not. And by extension, what stories deserve to be celebrated, and what gets shunted to the side.

On one level, of course, the Oscars don’t mean anything – they’re a bunch of little gold men handed out by an exclusive club whose tastes are, at the end of the day, subjective. Those honest Oscar ballots from actual Academy members are always a great (or horrifying) read around this time, because it illuminates just how petty and personal these votes really are. Take this one, for example, from someone who won’t vote for Bong Joon-Ho (Parasite) this year because she wants “an American director to win”. Seriously.

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@vanityfair. That’s all.

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On the other hand, though, the Oscars send a wider message about what we value and what we don’t when it comes to our films and the stories they tell.

Movies are powerful. They ask you to suspend your disbelief and put yourself in the shoes of the characters up on that giant screen, to feel what they feel and get swept up in their story.

When you confer the title of ‘best’ onto a film, it says that story was seen and heard and deemed worthy of being lifted up higher than all the rest. Even if it’s only by a voting body who, until quite recently, didn’t remotely reflect the diversity of people working in Hollywood today, or our wider society.

That’s why it still feels like such a landmark moment when films like Parasite, or Little Women, or Harriet get an Oscar nod. It signals that yes, a story that’s not about yet another white male character is still worthy of telling. And that in itself means something deeper, too, because the stories we tell both reflect and help shape the world we live in.

Actress and writer Brit Marling wrote this for the New York Times recently: “Stories inspire our actions. They frame for us existences that are and are not possible, delineate tracks we can or cannot travel. They choose who we can find empathy for and who we cannot. What we have fellow feeling for, we protect. What we objectify and commodify, we eventually destroy.”

Filmmakers don’t create films in a vacuum. There is a message there behind every story, every frame and every detail in it. The Oscars are a way of rewarding the work and the storytellers behind it, and by extension, the types of stories seen as having cultural value.

That’s why, despite knowing the Academy itself is fallible, we still agonise over who and what gets honoured every year. We hold our stories close, and we want the ones that resonate with us to get their turn at the podium too.

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