Do the Oscars still matter in the COVID era?

Hollywood is bracing itself for the least-watched Academy Awards ever – so what's the point?

Looking at the volume of coverage they get in the media, both in print and online, you could be under the illusion that the Oscars actually hold some sort of consequence for our larger society. You may assume, because of how they’re poured over on daytime magazine programmes and showbiz websites, that somehow what plays out behind a sponsored podium on the stage of the Dolby Theater has wider implications for the very foundation of our supposedly civilised world. In fact, they have as much bearing on the future of our presumably doomed species as who wins the Premier League at the end of each season or when the Masterchef final has been postponed to.

That said, awards (like the Oscars) do actually matter. They matter within the industries they are for. Every year (apart from the last one) behind the grand doors of hotel function rooms all over the world, prize givings are held, tuxedos donned, gowns pinned, champagne guzzled, speeches written and then thrown away, carriages booked for 2am, awkward conversations had the next morning. Awarding endeavour and achievement is important for the psyche – it fuels competition and excellence in any industry; it recognises hard work and occasionally shines the spotlight on those who would otherwise be overlooked.

Parasite Oscars
The cast and crew of ‘Parasite’ at the Oscars 2020. CREDIT: Getty

Yet something has shifted in culture over the last year. There is, of course, COVID to take into consideration and how that has changed the public’s relationship with celebrity, possibly fuelled by the ‘musical’ ‘collaboration’ at the start of ‘allofthis’ when Gal Gadot led a Hollywood consortium like lemmings off a cliff in what can only be described as an attempted rendition of ‘Imagine’. But even before their failure to pick a key (it’s in C, for future reference), hell, even before the pandemic, the interest in the Hollywood elite was fading, with 2020 recording the Academy Awards lowest ever audience figures.

#OscarsSoWhite trended year after year, yet tone deaf nominations persisted, furthering the notion of awards season as a self congratulatory industry reach-around failing to chime with a world coming undone a few blocks away from the Beverly Hills zip code. Televised award shows were seeming out of touch, giving more of a feeling of ‘us and them’, and then to highlight how institutionally racist and sexist the awards panels are, a recent investigation by the Los Angeles Times which revealed there isn’t a single Black member in the Hollywood Foreign Press Association – the 87-person group of international journalists which decides who goes home with a Golden Globe Award. In fact, there hasn’t been a Black member since 1987, and then they had to expel a former president of theirs for an email in which he called Black Lives Matter a “racist hate movement”. It was clear Hollywood needed to change – so the Golden Globes upped their game in 2021, with greater diversity in both nominees and winners – and now it’s the turn of the Oscars.

Nomadland
‘Nomadland’ is predicted to win big at this year’s Oscars. CREDIT: Alamy

Not the strongest start then that they are not offering a virtual appearance option to their nominees. Instead, extra ‘hubs’ in other countries will be set up for those who can’t make it to LA. However, ‘turn up or don’t see your shiny mush on the telly’ feels slightly blinkered given that the pandemic is still going full-throttle through certain parts of the world, including the US. Even Steven Soderbergh’s hiring as producer of the whole affair – and his plans to shoot the event so it “feels like a film” (extended speeches will also be given that fit into an overarching narrative) – haven’t done much to allay fears that this will be the least-watched Oscars in history.

Diversity-wise though, things are looking up. It’s the most diverse Oscars ever, with nine of the 20 acting nominees from ethnic minority backgrounds. Two women were nominated for best director – the first time more than one woman has been shortlisted for that prize in the awards’ 93-year history, which, given its 93 YEAR HISTORY, seems ridiculous.

Look at me, banging on about the Oscars as if they matter… There’ll no Oscar-themed parties at 3am for me though – Elton John can sit up on his own this time. I’m going to bed and reading the results online the following morning like a sane person. Still, not all award shows are bad, and at the next NME Awards, I will happily collect the trophy for Year’s Biggest Hypocrite if it means necking free booze on a table next to Wolf Alice, and nabbing a branded water bottle and a couple of HMV vouchers in a tote bag at the end of the night. Don’t worry – I’ll act like it’s all so unexpected and remember to thank my thesaurus and therapist in my acceptance speech.

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