My girlish interest in the Academy Awards is surely fairly obvious to frequent readers of this column, given the truly embarrassing number of times I’ve written here about the Oscars (including last week, in what was, upon reflection, possibly least coherent column in the history of my Mountain Times career—a serious achievement). Even so, I’ve steadily insisted that the actual choices made by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in terms of who gets the trophies and who doesn’t, aren’t important, either as determinants for the long-term reputations of the Best Picture winners or even as reliable indicators of an elsewhere-derived cultural significance.
In short, my belief is that the Academy usually picks movies that don’t matter much and, in doing so, probably only further contributes to their not mattering: the critics, academics, and film historians who, more than anyone else (except the viewing public at large), shape the grand narrative of the American film industry and help to define its high and low points are, if anything, a little suspicious of Best Picture winners, I think, and likely a bit more hesitant, as a result of the Academy’s official seal of approval, to grant classic status. The collaborative process among high-level tastemakers, amateur film buffs, and general audiences that, for example, made “Pulp Fiction,” “Fight Club,” and “The Matrix” the essential cinematic touchstones of the 1990s (for better or worse) did not involve the Academy—or even the box office, really, where the decade’s victors were “Titanic,” “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace,” and “Jurassic Park.” The place where we, as a culture, figure out what we actually care about is somewhere else—not at the multiplex itself, nor at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.
Where, then? On the internet, of course. Recently it occurred to me that the best way to measure the irrelevance (or relevance) of the Best Picture Oscar—in its ability either to generate a permanent popular interest in its recipients or to predict, which movies will, regardless of the interference of award shows, end up mattering to people—would be simply to examine the vote totals for all the winners on the Internet Movie Database. The IMDb is, of course, not a perfect representation of the totality of film culture; as I’ve noted before, it skews geeky, but then again, it may simply be that the long arc of the cinematic universe bends toward geekiness. Overall, there’s probably no better way of figuring out which movies of the past people today are still thinking about than by looking at how many people have clicked to rate them on IMDb.
Here is the test I concocted: is a Best Picture among the top five vote-getters on IMDb for the year in which it was released? If so, that means the Academy “got it right” in this particular sense; if not, then the Academy “got it wrong.” Note that I don’t care what the score for the movie is on the IMDb’s ten-point scale; I want to know only if people are thinking about it, not what, specifically, they think.
I applied this test 79 times, starting with “Wings” (which won the first Best Picture) but ignoring the last ten Oscar ceremonies under the belief that, if a movie is less than 10 years old, it hasn’t had a chance to settle into what will likely become its permanent historical reputation. In other words, the jury is still out on the likes of “Spotlight” and “Birdman.”
So, the results: did the Academy more often get it right or wrong? To my surprise, the answer is: right. 47 times, the Best Picture winner landed among the top five vote-getters of its year on IMDb; it fell short only 32 times. The most impressive stretch was the 1970s, when the 42nd Academy Awards commenced a streak of 10 “good” choices, from “Midnight Cowboy” to “The Deer Hunter,” with the likes of “The Godfather” and “Patton” in between.
The Academy’s weakest period was the 1980s, when, on seven out of 10 occasions, it failed to pick a Best Picture that would land among the IMDb’s top five most voted movies for its year. I think it’s not coincidental that the 1970s is frequently considered the best decade in American film, while many believe the 1980s to be among the worst. The worthy Oscar choices of the ‘70s reflected the clarity of vision and purpose of a voting body comprised of industry professionals who not only were at the top of their game artistically but understood the connection between movies and the larger culture, which was why they made selections that continue to resonate. By the 1980s, the industry had primarily retreated to big-budget special-effects extravaganzas that existed mostly to sell toys; it was no longer clear what the artistic purpose of Hollywood filmmaking was, and the confusion of the voters who landed on “Chariots of Fire” and “The Last Emperor” showed that Hollywood movies, on the whole, weren’t doing anything recognizably significant at the time.
But in the larger picture, are the Oscars kind of relevant after all? I’ll acknowledge, maybe, that they’re semi-relevant. A 59-percent success rate, with a fairly capacious definition of “success,” isn’t that great, but I can admit that I underestimated the Academy’s acumen. Of course, it doesn’t matter much one way or the other. As you surely know, deep down, if you tuned in on Sunday night, the Oscars are about celebrity, not about film.