The Worst Oscar Categories of the Expanded Nominee Era

To borrow a melody from Tom Lehrer:

All the board members

Hate the craft guilds

And the craft guilds

Hate the board members

All the publicists

Hate the press corps

And we all hate ABC.

That’s right, it’s now two weeks away from the Academy Awards, and we’re all tired of thinking about these movies until our Oscar picks are due. It’s time to get retrospective, and in these days where everyone has an Oscars take about how aimless AMPAS seems to be (Bilge Ebiri, Alissa Wilkinson, Sam Barsanti, Glenn Whipp, Robert Vaux, Clayton DavisSteven Spielberg…), I have my own version. Like everyone else, I think the Oscars have done themselves no favors in terms of their own credibility. If the Democratic Party can show us anything, it’s how pointless it is to try to get people who don’t like you to care about you. It’s not surprising that a board of limousine liberals has caved to just this line of thought, and the Oscars are currently suffering from some combination of “trying to appeal to an imaginary viewer” and “ABC trying to commit a murder on television.” But there’s an issue at least as important as the financial problems that the Oscars are having, and it goes beyond the basic crisis of credibility that any major cultural institution has had in the Internet era. It has to do with the Oscars picking badly.

Let’s time travel a little bit. It’s 1953, and the 25th Academy Awards are coming to television for the first time. Not only is this a peek behind that curtain, but it’s also an acceptance of TV’s already potent yet hardly realized hold on American pop culture. There’s a war on in Hollywood between Left and Right, and a stylistic competition between cinematography in black and white and in color. For the first time in the new era of the minimized Best Picture field, four out of five nominees are in color. And whether or not these Hollywood artisans know it, most of the high points of the year are outside the United States, not within it. There are major new films this year from Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, Vittorio De Sica, Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini, Jean Renoir, Max Ophuls, and Anthony Asquith. (For what it’s worth, the Oscars are recognizing two outstanding Alec Guinness-led films from 1951 here, The Man in the White Suit and The Lavender Hill Mob.) There are minor films from older masters René Clair and Luis Bunuel, and a minor film from a future legend, Ingmar Bergman. The special Oscar for Foreign Language Film goes to a deserving winner in René Clément’s Forbidden Games.

Ironically, what is universally considered the best film of 1952 is an American one, and not by some unknown figure but starring Gene Kelly and his choreography. The last movie he’d done both for was An American in Paris, which won Best Picture. This movie, Singin’ in the Rain, was nominated twice and lost both. Out of the cast, Jean Hagen scored a Supporting Actress nomination; it could not even get a win for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture. And more than that, the wrong movie won. The Greatest Show on Earth managed to snare Best Picture and Best Story (which was abandoned a few years later, presumably because giving an Oscar to the best film treatment must have seemed like a lot even to AMPAS). The Bad and the Beautiful, which was directed by Vincente Minnelli (who’d lost out for Best Director for An American in Paris), won five Oscars without a Best Picture nomination. High Noon won four well-deserved Oscars for Actor, Score, Song, and Editing. The Quiet Man won John Ford his fourth Oscar for Best Director and Winston Hoch an Oscar for Color Cinematography. There are a lot of Oscars awarded at the 25th ceremony where you can feel good about the outcome, even despite (or, in Ford’s case, probably because of) the industry upheaval. But there are three ironclad truths about the way we view an Oscars ceremony in terms of its dysfunction.

  1. The ceremony has to run smoothly. In the case of the 25th Awards, things appear to have done fairly well despite being presented on both coasts for the benefit of movie stars in Broadway shows. Bob Hope was back for his seventh hosting gig, and he appears to have been in his typically precise form. Time reports that Hope was making fun of Hollywood just as much as anyone else in the present likes to do, with jokes about the cost of the television production and a little jab about watching the losers in order to see “great acting.” If AMPAS and ABC could raise the ghost of Bob Hope to do the Oscars telecast one more time, you’d better believe they would.
  2. The winners, no matter who they are, have to pass the milk test. In other words, if you were drinking milk and heard that x movie won the Academy Award for y, would it come back through your nose as you laughed derisively? There are a couple different ways for that milk to regurgitate nasally. One is to be a decent nominee that gets the win over one that’s recognized presently to be markedly superior (e.g., Dances with Wolves over Goodfellas). Another is to just be a flat out bad choice where even a casual moviegoer can tell the film struggled (e.g., Rami Malek’s terrible performance in Bohemian Rhapsody). But what’s funny about this is that we really only judge winners by this standard. Except for a few cases which are famous for being exceptions to this rule, nominees (or lack thereof) tend not to raise our ire. And of course, below-the-line cases tend to receive far less scrutiny than above-the-line awards.
  3. We don’t expect the Oscars to get it right every time or in every category. We just need Oscars that are good enough. I think everyone who cares about the Oscars understands, to some degree, that these are not meant to award every kind of movie out there. For 1952, four of the five Best Picture nominees were lavish melodramas of one stripe or another: spectacle, biopic, period adventure, and romantic comedy. They were made by major directors and featured major stars, and for the most part they made a buttload of money. Those same kinds of movies are getting nominated for Best Picture for 2022, even though the types of movies that can achieve great fanfare and attention from critics and viewers alike has changed.

With that in mind, I went through almost every category (we’ll talk about it) in every Academy Awards since the beginning of the expanded era. That’s 2009’s films and on, or, if you prefer, the 82nd Academy Awards. I rated each category’s winners and nominees from 0-10 in terms of overall dysfunction; a “0” means absolutely no troubles whatsoever, and a “10” is outright calamity. I also had the Richter scale in mind as I did this. My scale is not actually logarithmic, but the difference between a 1 and a 10, say, is more like the difference between “I didn’t feel it at all” and “it’s 1755 and oh my God Lisbon is gone” than it is “nine.” As for criteria, I considered what was nominated, what wasn’t nominated, what could reasonably have been nominated, and then the same for winners.

I didn’t include a few categories. The Best Sound category, which was recently compressed from Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing (RIP the yearly explainers on your favorite entertainment website), just got “fixed,” and based on my system I didn’t think there was a fair way to represent a decade’s worth of two awards turning into one. And I also didn’t include any of the Shorts (Live Action, Animated, or Documentary), because there are like a hundred people who watch those every year and seventy-five of them are telling you which one to pick for your Oscar pool. However, I did include a rating comprising “Hosting and the Show,” which still matters because of the importance of the telecast to the Oscars.

I include a chart below to show results. I’ve color coded the bars like so:

  • Black – Non-awards
  • Yellow – Below-the-line craft winners
  • Red – Below-the-line craft nominees
  • Green – Above-the-line winners
  • Teal – Above-the-line nominees
  • Purple – Full movie winners
  • Blue – Full movie nominees

I’m also including the averages below without the lurid chart, in case that’s easier:

And just for the heck of it, here’s the Richter scale with how it would affect your average place. (Link takes you back to original source, and while we’re here, moment magnitude is the superior scale and everyone knows it except people on the news.)

The first thing to notice is that over the course of the past decade and change, not even the Hosting and the Show category averages disaster levels. But if you think about how the average quake hitting, like, the Dolby Theatre every year, then that’s where the metaphor makes more sense. There are really only four categories in my ratings which even hit 4 in an average ceremony: Original Song Nominees, Picture Winner, Editing Nominees, and Hosting and the Show. That two of those four are the most forward-facing elements makes them disproportionately important. Let’s dive in to the worst offenders.

1) Hosting and the Show – 5.25 out of 10 on the Dysfunction Scale

Given that this is technically an 11-point scale, this is still below the halfway mark. However, it’s also much higher than any other score, mostly because of two 10-point disasters which you can probably guess the identity of. Yet even aside from those, there’s still the (valid!) #OscarsSoWhite criticism which ran through multiple ceremonies, the awkwardness of the unhosted ceremonies, bringing down the curtain on a historic group of Best Picture winnners, the flat ending of last year’s show, the ABC kerfuffles, and even some just normal bad emcees. (The Anne Hathaway-James Franco misfire got a 7 from me, and I basically held that something had to be as embarrassing as Franco’s reversion into Daniel Desario to get a 7 or higher in any other category. It’s a useful reference point!)

At this juncture, each and every mediocre telecast, each and every inexplicable moment, each and every skit or musical performance that lands flat turns into a brand new piece to be obsessed over in the trades and on Twitter. No one’s liked the ceremony going back many, many years, but there have been good hosts and good bits in the expanded era. The problem is that it really seems like everyone’s fishing for an Ellen selfie moment in terms of social media engagement rather than Jimmy Kimmel turning the jet ski into a running gag that actually makes the ceremony cohere.

2) Editing Nominees – 4.583

The Editing nominees? The Editing nominees!

This has been an enormously confusing period for this category, because at this point it really feels like “Best Editing” is synonymous with “Most Editing.” There are other categories that work on this premise as well, but only Editing has managed to turn that into a complete farce. Every year there’s some movie that is in the field and what it’s doing there is totally baffling. The Descendants? Silver Linings Playbook? The Imitation Game? And in the past few years it’s only gotten worse, with the field just being filled with stuff like I, Tonya or Green Book or Joker or Jojo Rabbit or The Trial of the Chicago 7. Is a montage all it takes anymore? A flashback? My kingdom for a field of nominees with clean, sensible cuts and rhythm that’s not the trailer wagging the dog. The winners in this category have been pretty mediocre in the expanded era, but what can you expect when the choices tend to be quite bad? The Editing field of a decade and more now has failed the third expectation of the Oscars: just be good enough.

3) Picture Winners – 4.417

Complain as much as you want about the telecast, the behind-the-scenes drama, the lack of blockbusters among the Best Picture nominees, whatever. It really comes down to this. The winners of this award have not been able to pass the milk test in the expanded era, and that’s the only thing that matters for Best Picture. I genuinely believe that the last time the Oscars did this bad a job at picking the best movie in their own field of nominees over a decade, World War II hadn’t happened yet. It’s not even that the best movie gets passed over, but that the choices the Academy makes as a whole are totally mystifying. Take the 88th Ceremony. Mad Max: Fury Road was a big success both commercially and critically, and it won more Oscars than any other film at that ceremony. Spotlight won Best Picture. I wouldn’t have made that choice, and I don’t think most informed moviegoers would have made that choice either…but I’m sort of okay with it. Spotlight is a really good movie! If the Academy isn’t going to choose the right movie, at least they didn’t choose a wrong movie. But time and again in the expanded era, the Oscar has gone to such a terrible choice. The Social Network was the right choice at the 83rd Academy Awards, but they could have made a not-wrong choice with True Grit or Inception or even Black Swan, unlikely as that would have been. But they went with The King’s Speech. I don’t need to rehash every ceremony, because the record speaks for itself. Just suffice it to say that this category could have avoided this outcome if it had gone like, True GritMoneyballLincoln instead of what really happened.

4) Song Nominees – 4.083

The Original Song category is like Delaware in that it basically exists for frauds of its own making. This entire category is so broken because “original song” has come to mean “song that plays over the credits.” I don’t mind a category that honors diegetic music, but that’s not really what this category is really about anymore. There is so much unnecessary bloat at the Oscars that this category’s nominees, which have basically ceased to represent filmic music in any serious way, are a waste of space. Ironically, the winners of this category have been largely uncontroversial in the expanded era, and even the two songs over the Bond opening credits don’t bother me. People understand those as part of the experience of a Bond movie in a way that people don’t understand listening to a song they’ve never heard before over the closing credits as part of an honest movie-watching experience. “Writing’s on the Wall” is part of Spectre; is “All the Stars” really part of Black Panther?

5) International Feature Nominees – 3.917

Like the Original Song award, the International Feature does a much worse job at actually getting the right movies than it does in picking a winner. I’ve got International Feature Winners twenty-five spots down, and the winners in the expanded era include masterpieces like A Separation, Amour, Ida, Roma, and Parasite. But the nominees have been no better than fine most years, and a lot of this has to do with relying on panels from individual countries to send one nominee from their nations. I understand the rationale. Obviously this makes the amount of films manageable, and it also means you can’t just have three films from France and two from Denmark every year. But the international committees also seem to have a real problem just choosing the right stuff? This may not be the most broken Oscars category, but existentially this is probably the most fraught category in the ceremony anymore. (Other contenders include Best Picture, Original Song, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actress.) Parasite broke the mold when a film with no connection to the United States or the British Commonwealth won Best Picture, and as the branches continue to diversify, a provincial awards ceremony is about as provincial as ever but now conceives of itself as cosmopolitan. What that means for a category which has had a Best Picture nominee headlining it for three of the past four ceremonies is still up in the air.

T-6) Picture Nominees – 3.833

Trust me, we need to nominate better movies than we’re doing for the biggest award. I’ve made this case in another post, but I have this sneaking suspicion that a five-picture field tends to do a better job of focusing the voters towards good-enough movies for the prize even if they aren’t always able to come to the right conclusion together.

T-6) Adapted Screenplay Nominees – 3.833

This is just an uninspiring group of nominees over this period. There’s like, one interesting choice in each year.

CeremonyInteresting Choice!
82ndIn the Loop
83rdTrue Grit, The Social Network (winner)
84thTinker Tailor Soldier Spy
85th…Life of Pi?
86thBefore Midnight, 12 Years a Slave (winner)
87thInherent Vice
88thBrooklyn, Carol
89thMoonlight (winner)
90th???
91stThe Ballad of Buster Scruggs, If Beale Street Could Talk, BlacKkKlansman (winner)
92ndLittle Women, The Irishman
93rd???

Sixteen interesting screenplays of sixty? Quel dommage.

T-8) Actress Winners – 3.833

This group has been hijacked a little bit by three winners, all of whom were middling winners in the abstract and who are totally unsatisfactory based on the fields from that year. Sandra Bullock at the 82nd and Brie Larson at the 88th both got 7s; Renee Zellweger at the 92nd pulled an 8 because it could not be plainer that no one thought harder than how cute she was campaigning for it when they put her over a field where literally everyone else gave a far better performance. Otherwise…this category has been doing a pretty decent job at picking winners. It goes to show how most of the individual categories aren’t misfiring in huge ways in picking winners; being dead wrong just 25% of the time is enough to land you in this top 10.

T-8) Actor Nominees – 3.75

When I said earlier that the Best Actor category is having an existential crisis, here’s what I mean. In the twelve years before the expanded BP era (that’s 1997 movies to 2008 movies, 70th to 81st ceremonies), twenty-three performances of sixty were based in some way on real people. There were multiple ceremonies where no nominated actor’s performance was based on a real person, and only one where four nominees were from life. In our current era, twenty-six performances of sixty were based on real people, which is not so different. But there were four ceremonies with four nominated performances from real individuals, and no ceremony had all fictional characters.

Of course, if you go back an equal number of years to this sample, to 1973, you find just thirty performances of 120 based on real people, and then your chart starts looking like this:

All I’ll say is that if you look at the actors in the first half of that sample and compare them to the actors in the second half, you’ll get some repeats (Jack Nicholson, Daniel Day-Lewis), but excluding those…who do you think the better actors are? Who gave the better performances? And which do you think are more representative of the best in that era’s history?

10) Original Screenplay Winners – 3.678

This is the inverse of the issue that issue the Original Song and International Feature categories are having. The fields are pretty good. The winners aren’t. There are some obviously strong choices in here, like Her, Spotlight, Get Out, and Parasite. But so many other winners—The King’s Speech, Midnight in Paris, Green Book, Promising Young Woman—are insufferably cute, quippy rather than piercing, and about as flat as the Nebraska section of I-80. I don’t think we’re all the way to an existential crisis for this category yet, but the winners that haven’t gone with Best Picture in the expanded era definitely have this tone of “here’s your consolation prize,” and I don’t think that supports this category as its own entity.

Which Ceremony Was Most Dysfunctional?

As far as the telecast goes, it’s sort of like the Oscars are facing an earthquake that results in mild structural damage every year. There are two 10s in terms of total disaster, one for the 89th (where La La Land was the Best Picture winner for a minute or so), and one for the 91st (where the absence of Kevin Hart and the threat of a “Popular Film” Oscar loomed over that ceremony like an executioner’s axe). But there are plenty of ceremonies—the 82nd, the 86th, the 90th—which were basically smooth sailing.

I went ahead and looked at the averages across the categories as they affected the total ceremony as well:

Incredibly, despite having the most famous Oscars mix-up now and forever, the 89th Ceremony is my least dysfunctional. Anyway, the field of nominees was really strong for 2016, given what you can expect from the Oscars, and even most of the winners aren’t that bad. The winner that raises this average most is Zootopia in the Animated Feature field, followed by Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them for Costume Design. The only nominee field that even raises is an eyebrow is for Supporting Actress, partially because the winner, Viola Davis, should have been a lead. On the other hand, 2011 brought back Billy Crystal in sort of semi-solid form to host, though that wasn’t a real contributor to its highest average. The problem is that The Artist won in the kind of fervor one usually associates with moral panics, and even against a weak field that’s a huge problem.

I try not to predict cataracts and hurricanes, as a general rule, but I do wonder how long the Oscars are going to go on this way. It really seems like they’d do better to set up a good live stream—how hard could it be for the movie people to set up a good live stream?—and make it pay-per-view instead. Or it would be better to do the Oscars over two nights, with a below-the-line night for psychos like me and an above-the-line night which is only a couple hours. Or they could add more categories, like Stunts and Casting and Best Debut Feature, etc., and spread it out more evenly. I dunno. It requires some iota of creativity, of risk-taking. But it really seems like the best thing the Academy Awards could do is not to make itself more carnivelesque, not to make itself appear more cartoonish or clownish than it already has. Memes, regardless of platform, are not frequently born from respect. That begins with a focus on the awards themselves, and it would just help a lot if they were better at picking things that didn’t make people snort their milk from their nose.

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