The Academy Awards is arguably the founding father of the modern day award show that we see almost everywhere. First held way back in the year 1929, the Academy Awards have grown into the most prestigious awards meant to honor the best work in Hollywood, and world cinema.. but mostly Hollywood. At the ripe old age of 87 years, much like many grandparents, the Academy has been accused of racial bias this year. Awards may have come under fire repeatedly, but the golden statuette still remains the most prestigious piece of metal in the film universe. As Anil Kapoor tried to put it in 2009, “In India I’ve been to all the award functions, but that was in Hindi; now it’s in English so it’s a much bigger scale.” Yes, that’s an actual quote.
History and origin
The first ever Academy Awards, which were held in 1929 were a low key affair with 270 people in attendance and took place at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles. It was not until two years later that the ceremony was broadcast on radio. In its initial years, the broadcast was black and white, while now, it is mostly all white. The purpose behind the ceremony was to unite the five branches of the film industry, namely the actors, producers, directors, technicians, and writers. Speaking about the need for the awards, Louis B Mayer, of MGM, had said, “I found that the best way to handle [filmmakers] was to hang medals all over them ... If I got them cups and awards they’d kill them to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created”. The main purpose behind the awards was to prevent unionization amongst actors, writers, directors in the industry. It was meant to be an elite institution which honoured the people that were part of it. Made of gold-plated Britannium, the Oscar statuette has an actual value of $10. Winners can get their names engraved on the statuette at an event post the ceremony.
When we picture the Oscar jury, most of us picture a bunch of old white men in their 60s. Most of us are right. As per a study conducted by the Los Angeles Times in 2012, out of the voting membership, 94 percent were Caucasian, 77 percent were male, and 54 percent were over 60. The membership of the Academy is split into different divisions, with each branch representing a different aspect of film production. The membership is not disclosed publicly, although some of the members invited to join have been revealed since 2007. The membership is strictly invitation based.
India’s tryst with the Oscars
India’s relationship with the Oscars has been strictly one-sided. Although India has been sending entries for consideration under the Best Foreign Language film since 1956, only three of its films have been selected and made it to the final round of nominations. None of these three have won the award. Chronologically, these are Mother India(1956), Salaam Bombay(1988), and Lagaan(2001). This year’s official Oscar entry from India was Court, the satirical courtroom drama in Marathi.
The closest that India came to winning an Oscar was when Slumdog Millionnaire, a film made by a British director, produced by a British producer and backed by American Studios won eight Academy Awards in 2009. Well, in our defense, it had Anil Kapoor in it. Also, out of the 48 films that have been sent by the Film Federation of India, 30 have been Hindi films. This is indicative of the neglect of regional cinema within India, as most non-Hindi cinema is rarely given space in the mainstream, leaving to languish in the shadows.
The first ever Academy Awards, which were held in 1929 were a low key affair with 270 people in attendance and took place at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles.
The Academy Awards are the time of the year when a debate on the whiteness of Hollywood overshadows one on pay inequality, albeit only briefly. Kanye West, is likely to be disappointed for not been nominated in the acting category(despite not acting in anything) this year. However, he won’t be the only one. Critically acclaimed performances from actors such as Idris Elba(Beasts of No Nation), Will Smith(Concussion) are just some of the few that have been ignored by the Oscar jury. Even though Chris Rock will be hosting the ceremony this year, the 2016 nominations have seen the omission of any black actors. Due to this, the hashtag “Oscarssowhite” has been one of the top trends. The issue is divisive as some have called for a boycott of the event, while some, such as Jamie Foxx have asked fellow black actors to “act better.” When it comes to numbers, the number of black men and women who have taken home the acting Oscar stands at a meagre 14. Also, only 2 percent of the Academy Awards voter membership is black.
The blame for this is often thrust on an alleged institutional bias within the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Although that might be the case, the lack of race-neutral roles in big budget Hollywood is where the problem starts. For instance, the powerful character of Furiosa in Best Picture nominated Mad Max: Fury Road could belong to any race, as could other principal characters. However, filmmakers often defend their decisions claiming that casting a relatively unknown non-white actor would mean that fewer people would watch the film, thereby deflecting the blame onto the audience.
The absence of comedy
The Oscars are also often defined by a clear absence of comedy films from its list of nominees. It is said that voters look for movies that have a message to convey. As a result, we see historical dramas, biopics, or just very powerful dramatic performances being nominated. From recent memory, Silver Linings Playbook and Midnight in Paris are two comedy films that were nominated in the ‘Best Picture’ category. This phenomenon might also underline what most have felt for a while; mainstream Hollywood has been scraping the bottoms of the comedic barrel for a while now. With names such as Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and Adam Sandler alongside their entourages consistently churning out high grossing mediocrity, there is an absence of thought provoking comedy which doesn’t rely on genital references, people getting injured in weird ways, or weed-smoking protagonists. Thought provoking fare like Woody Allen’s best-picture winner Annie Hall is rare and is often relegated to the confines of the indie space. Although there have been disjointed voices asking for a separate award category for comedies, the issue has never gained much traction.