HUNGER’s guide to giving less of a shit about the Oscars

The Academy Awards are made out to be the biggest night of the year in film. But is that a myth? 

When the Oscars first started way back in 1929, the ceremony only lasted fifteen minutes. Last year, it was three hours and thirty seven; a saccharine, overly happy affair that felt like it was doing everything in its power to make you forget about 2022’s notorious slap. Do a quick Google search of the Oscars ceremony that’s taking place this Sunday, and as well as the usual lists of predictions and “snubs”, there’s breakdowns of who’s said to be performing, and what’s in the coveted gift bag (if you really need to know, it’s a $1000 piece of sugar and a $10,000 micro-needling session, amongst other things). In short, the Oscars are now all about the fanfare. Still, when we emerge from watching films like Poor Things or Oppenheimer at our local cinema, we find ourselves uttering something along the lines of “I hope that wins an Oscar”. Despite the televised ceremonies becoming less and less about the films they’re celebrating, and although the viewing figures are steadily decreasing, a lot of us can’t help but think of the shiny statue everyone scrabbles over as a barometer of cinematic worth. But we should probably unpick that. 

How does a film become eligible for an Oscar? 

Technically speaking, a film is eligible for the Oscars if it premieres in a cinema, and has a theatrical run in an American cinema for seven days or more. While films by streamers “slip through the cracks” (Apple TV’s Killers of a Flower Moon, for example), that’s in place so traditional cinema doesn’t just die out and get replaced by the at home, on-demand services that are now the norm. But, as lecturer in film Lindsay Anne Hallam points out, it’s also “prohibitive for smaller, low budget and independent productions that may have premieres in online spaces and festivals, or films made outside the US that do not get a theatrical screening there”. Hallam always thinks of The Last Seduction, from 1994: “The lead actress Linda Fiorentino won several awards and was highly acclaimed, but she was not eligible for Best Actress because the film premiered on HBO,” she tells us. 

Still, it sounds relatively simple — it even makes getting your paws on an Oscar seem like quite a cut and dried situation providing you’ve got the vast amount of money to get your film into an American cinema. But the Academy – the 9,375 people who vote on the Oscars – still privilege certain types of films. “The biggest omission is simply global representation,” film writer Henry Roberts tells HUNGER. “The very concept of the Best International Feature category says it all; that the ‘norm’ of cinema is American. Parasite [Bong Joon-ho] winning the top Oscar a few years ago showed that it was possible for an international film to transcend that category, but was that the first time in over 100 years that the best film of the year happened to be from a non-English country? Of course not. Cinema is supposedly a global language, but if you were to judge by the Academy’s standards, it would look American, English-language and largely white”.

Times might be a-changing, however. This year the Academy announced that films must complete a Representation and Inclusion Standards Entry (RAISE) form, and meet two out of the four in order to be nominated. Films qualify by having lead actors from underrepresented racial groups, or crews consisting of women or members of the LGBTQ community… and the list goes on. “Honestly, it comes from a good place, but the standards are too easy to meet.” New York Times writer and author of Oscar Wars Michael Schulman tells HUNGER. “Virtually no films will actually get ruled out, and it’s too difficult to enforce. Do queer film workers now have to come out to their employers to help with Oscar consideration? Good intentions, big problems”. 

Something like RAISE might be easier to swallow if it weren’t for the fact that, despite attempts to be more inclusive, the Academy appears to be naturally drawn to films at the opposite end of the spectrum. If the controversial win of Green Book is anything to go by, they love “films that purportedly have a liberal message, but do little to actually shift any balance of power”. Roberts continues: “Radical politics aren’t celebrated at the Oscars. On the whole, discomfort is not tolerated at the Oscars. The radical films that end up being the most important films – both cinematically and socially – are only acknowledged years later, when the original strife in which they were created has passed and it is ‘safer’ to praise the works”. 

Oscar “snubs”

Take all of the above into consideration and the notion of an Oscar “snub” – when something purportedly “deserves” Oscar recognition, but didn’t get it – becomes all the more complex. Can a film really be an Oscar snub if the credentials that make a film Oscar-worthy are so convoluted and, well, meaningless? Probably not. “I think the term Oscar snub, like the very idea of the Oscars, is patently absurd,” film writer Darren Richman tells HUNGER. “The very idea of placing art in competition with each other is just ludicrous”. Roberts echoes this: “If the Oscars really are what they purport to be, namely a celebration of the art of cinema, then the entire history of winners and nominations would be different. Abbas Kiarostami would have as many awards as Katherine Hepburn”. This year, for example, it was the snub discourse that surrounded Greta Gerwig’s Barbie that revealed our glaring misinterpretation of what the Oscars mean (or don’t mean).

Still, the idea of an Oscar snub holds weight, popping up in discourse around the ceremony just as much as we discuss what gowns the celebs in attendance are wearing. And there’s times, admittedly, where it does feel like something has been snubbed, no-matter how abstract of a notion that is; this year, Sean Durkin’s The Iron Claw might be the one to get that awkward label. “I know some people object to the term, but I think it’s apt for certain instances,” says Schulman. “When a widely expected nomination doesn’t pan out, for example. Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers”. 

For Schulman, Oscar snubs were even happening way before rigorous Oscar campaigns were a thing: “The first big snub was when Bette Davis wasn’t nominated for Best Actress for her vicious performance in Of Human Bondage in 1935. The industry was so shocked by the omission that the Academy allowed write-in ballots for the first time, making every category a free-for-all. After all that, Davis still didn’t win — she lost to Claudette Colbert, for It Happened One Night. The next year, Davis won for Dangerous, a movie even she didn’t think was that good. So it was not only the first snub, but the first ‘consolation prize’ as well”. 

Oscar “bait”

The other suffix we can’t seem to get enough of when it comes to the Oscars? Bait. Oscar bait is the term used to describe a film that feels like “its entire raison d’etre is to try and win Oscars,” says Richman. “Creating art should be about something you feel compelled to do. And you see that in the best films. There’s absolutely no way that Jonathan Glazer set out to make The Zone of Interest feeling that he wanted to win Oscars for it. I would imagine that was the furthest thing from his mind”. 

Still, unlike the term Oscar snub, which gives credence to the idea that the Oscars are a worthwhile endeavour, the term Oscar bait pokes fun at the whole silly affair. “I’m also fine with this much-discussed term,” Schulman tells HUNGER. “Certain genres – self-serious literary adaptations, biopics of major historical figures, performances that lean on accents or prosthetics – are such catnip to the Academy that they do feel as if they got made just to win awards”. Reading that, it probably comes of no surprise that this year Oscar bait discourse came in the form of chatter around Bradley Cooper’s Maestro. When the trailer for the biopic of composer Leonard Bernstein first surfaced, it was actor Cooper’s large prosthetic nose that garnered the most attention. Not only did people ponder whether it was slightly anti-semitic, but it affirmed that Cooper was going whole-hog for the role. Another key characteristic of Oscar bait we should probably list is a hefty, emotional campaign trail. Cooper did just that with his directorial debut, A Star is Born, and he upped it a level for Maestro. In the most mental instance of this, Cooper even broke down crying during a group interview with Bernstein’s family, talking about how touched he was by Bernstein… Cooper has never met Bernstein. 

The sun might be setting on Oscar bait though. Those who occupied themselves with taking the mick out of Cooper’s desperate attempts to secure a golden statue have now pivoted, and asked what exactly the problem with being earnest is. “Let’s call time on the weird vilification of a guy whose crimes, as best I can tell, are: a) being sincere about his craft; b) being unwisely candid in interviews; and c) rather elegantly directing a well-reviewed biopic that Film Twitter collectively decided was beyond the pale”, tweeted film critic Guy Lodge. As Schulman also points out, “what’s helpful about the term is that it highlights the kinds of films that often get left out of the awards conversation, like comedies, sci-fi, and horror. No one would call Get Out or Barbie Oscar bait, which is why it’s exciting when they get nominated”. 


Coined by activist April Reign back in 2015, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite referred to how all twenty of the acting nominees that year were white. Though white-washing of this extent hasn’t happened since, it’s safe to say that the Academy has faced something of an uphill battle with diversity and inclusion. In a recent initiative by USC Annenberg, researchers found that since the first Academy Awards, only 17% of all nominees were women, and only 6% were people of colour. “The Moonlight debacle [when it was wrongly announced that La La Land had won Best Picture over Barry Jenkins 2016 film] was a big, big moment,” says Richman. “This extremely white film receiving the top award and then having it taken away. The only trouble I had was it felt like by the next year they felt that they’d done the job, and they’d already solved racism. The year after Moonlight, serious work by Black artists was snubbed”.

But for Schulmen, it would be unfair to say that the Academy hasn’t made meaningful changes since 2015. “It set a goal called A2020 to double the number of women and underrepresented groups in its membership within four years. It actually exceeded that goal. The voting body now has many more women, people of colour, younger members, and especially international members. You can see the effect in winners like Parasite”. For many, however, something like A2020 remains unconvincing. There’s been changes made to the people who vote for the Oscars, but the system underlying it all is still the same,” Hallam tells HUNGER. “The competition is still controlled by campaigns paid for by studios, and studio films are still primarily made by white men and star white performers. Just look at the cast and crew of Oppenheimer.” 

The upside

If the golden statue that we so often take as a measure of cinematic worth does stand for so little, why can’t we help wanting our favourite film from the previous twelve months to win one? It’s probably down to that equally elusive statement: the one about how an Oscar win will “open so many doors”. “Since 2020 there have been some significant achievements,” Hallam says. “Women directors [Chloe Zhao and Jane Campion] have won two years in a row, and there were record-breaking wins for Asian talent in Everything Everywhere All At Once”. Richman echoes this: “I feel like with everything in Hollywood, the pace is glacial. But they are just about moving in the right direction. Somehow or other they’re going to eventually get there”. But the doors that opened for Zhao weren’t exactly what you’d envisage. The director followed up Nomadland, which won her the coveted Best Picture award, with Eternals, a critically panned, disastrous entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “Everything happens in such small increments, and that’s too little, too late,” Hallam continues. 

That isn’t to say there isn’t value in the Oscars, though. “I like the Oscars for the same reason I like watching the movies that typically do well at the Oscars: they’re entertaining,” says Roberts. “The problem is that when the Oscars professes to represent cinema as a whole, millions of people go through life without even knowing there are other films to be watching.” Essentially, don’t worry too much about printing out a ballot. Just sit back, get out the popcorn, and enjoy the 2024 Oscars ceremony for what they truly are: slightly vulgar displays of wealth, and a rare opportunity to watch someone’s heartbreak live on camera — Bradley Cooper. It’s also not morbid of you to want another physical altercation to take place. That was, objectively, brilliant television.

WriterAmber Rawlings
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