Fixing the Oscars: A Modest Proposal

(A contribution to the I Can Do It Better blog-a-thon.)

newoscars.jpgIt’s too long. We’re miffed by the nominations, and sometimes the process itself. The production numbers are cheesy and interminable. We’re displeased with the final results more often than not. Years later, we’re typically embarrassed by the outcome.

So let’s scrap the Oscars.

Even this year, when a reasonable and strong case can be made that the Best Picture winner was indeed the year’s best picture, all I heard were complaints. The ceremony was dull, and No Country for Old Men and Day-Lewis and Bardem were nearly inevitable.

So let’s replace this evil with another: We’ll choose the best movie of the year through something similar to the presidential-selection process.

Of course, what’s true with the Oscars is true with the presidential campaign. It’s too long. We’re miffed by the nominations, and sometimes the process itself. The production numbers are cheesy and interminable. We’re displeased with the final results more often than not. Years later, we’re typically embarrassed by the outcome.

But it’s something different and new, and a natural fit.

Think of the analogies. A film’s marketing budget is akin to a candidate’s fundraising prowess, and its distribution is its field organization. Critics are the pundits, establishing the leaders and setting the agenda. Each branch of the Academy replaces the individual-state contests, its own primary or caucus. (A movie is the collection of its component parts, just as the country is the collection of its provinces.) It all culminates with the general election, in which the actual viewing public gets to cast its vote for Best Picture among the movies that remain after the attrition of a long campaign.

You have your “prestige” vanity candidates (Atonement as Rudy Giuliani) with high expectations but little actual support, your scrappy surprises (Juno as Mike Huckabee), your anointed front-runners with their passionate partisans (starring There Will Be Blood as Barack Obama and No Country as Hillary Clinton, beating the shit out of each other), and the self-proclaimed maverick (Michael Clayton as John McCain) that inspires ambivalence at best.

The benefits of this system are many. For one thing, we create a long, public, open contest — with strategy! — out of what had been a compressed, secretive two-step process. For another, we front-load the year with good movies; the contenders had best get in the public consciousness early, or risk being the equivalent of Fred Thompson.

Think of the excitement. We’ll have debates for every award, with the leading contenders trying to woo voters. (James Lipton, naturally, would moderate the acting debates.)

I’m not certain on the particulars yet, but the concept has merit.

How might this past year’s race have gone down? The Bourne Ultimatum wins some of the early technical awards and becomes a dark-horse candidate for Best Picture. With it and Michael Clayton running neck-and-neck for fourth place in the polls — behind No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, and Juno — their makers form an alliance. Tony Gilroy wrote both movies, after all.

But they reach an impasse trying to figure out which of them should be promoted. It is George Clooney who suggests that they lend their combined backing to a candidate lurking in the darkness: Ocean’s Thirteen. It shares Michael Clayton’s star and big-name executive producers (Clooney and Steven Soderbergh), after all, and also features The Bourne Ultimatum’s star.

Like all great compromises, it pleases nobody, so it sticks. They target their campaign at There Will Be Blood, focusing on the fact that the movie barely delivers on the promise of its title. (Clooney has a soft spot for the Coens and can’t yet stomach going negative against them.) That attack resonates with voters, who by this point are as tired of milkshakes as political junkies are of the word “change.”

Blood takes some shots in the media but is still within striking distance of the leaders when an unexpected implosion alters the character of the race. During the Best Director debate, Ethan Coen’s one-, two-, and three-word answers to every question make Paul Thomas Anderson vibrate and turn beet red, and then he snaps, unleashing a florid flood of incoherent, profane babble and ill-fitting metaphors.

The next day, Anderson withdraws There Will Be Blood from Best Picture consideration but refuses to endorse any of the remaining candidates, even though many of his supporters would happily back No Country. Juno throws its weight behind Ocean’s Thirteen, citing a common interest in “entertainment value” that seems to be missing from other candidates.

Going into the final weeks of the campaign, the race is too close to call, with the populists lining up with Ocean’s and the elitists and Coen apologists sticking by No Country.

Then Clooney, conflicted, goes public with what had been an open secret in Hollywood: The cowardly Coen brothers refused to take responsibility for editing their own movies, instead repeatedly blaming the fictitious Roderick Jaynes.

Joel Coen tries to explain that there’s a long tradition of pseudonyms in movies, and rebuts that Ocean’s cinematographer “Peter Andrews” is actually Soderbergh.

But Ethan’s near-silence on the accusation speaks volumes.

The bombshell sinks No Country once and for all, and Ocean’s Thirteen wins Best Picture in a landslide.

You might not like the result, but you have to admit that it’s a hell of a lot more fun than what we get now.

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