Creating an account with gives you access to more features and services, like our weekly newsletter and other special features just for the film community.


Oscars: Change vs. Tradition

The Oscars will always have detractors. Will all the changes underfoot in this year's ceremony make any difference?

Oscar Statuettes


Change is necessary, but it’s painful. It requires a leap of faith, a paradigm shift and forward-thinking commitment. Traditions are also necessary. We need stability, comfort and a sense of history, too. So how do you change a grand tradition? The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (better known as the Oscars) have been posing this question frequently in the past few years. They may not be always be vocalizing it, but the question leaks out from the sweaty pores of their producers, governing officials and publicists. They worry about changing public tastes, declining television ratings and the debate over what kinds of movies are honored versus the kinds that are ignored. This panicky identity crisis is also right there in the annual broadcast as they continue to tinker with the way awards are presented, which stars they choose as presenters, how the show is hosted, how long it will be, and what they’ll allow for acceptance speeches.
Hugh Jackman at 2009 Oscars


Last year’s experimentations—unusual acting presentations, with groups of former winners welcoming a new sister or brother into the fold, and a new, musical comedy-trained host (Hugh Jackman)—paid off. The show felt a little more lively and unpredictable… even during a nearly complete sweep for the Best Picture winner (Slumdog Millionaire), which is no small feat if you stop to think about it. But will this year’s changes pay off?
The first major experiment—10 Best Picture Nominees!—seems to have paid off quite well so far, fueling media attention and fan interest. But the rest of the changes, from reality television tie-ins to the dumping of the honorary Oscars to the recent announcement that they would jettison the Original Song performances, are horrifying.
Denying us a big Lauren Bacall moment on March 7 was just hateful to people who actually love movies… i.e. the Oscar’s target audience. One of this year’s producers even called the long acceptance speeches the “single most hated thing about the show.” They plan to cut speeches into two this year, one for the broadcast one for the Internet. If the winners only have 45 seconds on stage, how will we ever get those memorable breakdown moments… the hyperventilations, the tears, the rambling incoherent joy? Part of the great appeal of the Oscars is the very thing they’re so nervous about: Tradition.  If you change too much, it just won’t be the Oscars anymore, and they’re the gold standard awards show for a reason.
Reality TV shows tie-ins are a very bad idea: you can see reality television shows on literally every channel now, and you can only see the Oscars once a year, on one network. Celebrate what we’re there to see, not what we can get everywhere else at any time. Why are we carving out time by denying the Best Original Song nominees their due while allowing for So You Think You Can Dance performers?
Oscar Nominations 2009


Now, there’s a good argument to be made that the Original Song category is the least important category within the 24 that Oscar currently recognizes: How is the craft of songwriting all that important to the cinema? It’d be a different story if people were still writing original screen musicals, but they’re not. It’s all stage transfers or jukebox musicals now. Songwriting is certainly a less crucial movie skill than casting and stuntwork, neither or which can win you an Oscar. But other than the themed collage, a device which the show runners have always overused and which they bizarrely have never consider paring down in their annual plans to speed up the show, musical numbers are the best way to break up the show to make for better pacing. Otherwise you’re left with the potential monotony of the actual action: presenter intro, presenter banter, nominee announcement/clips, winner announcement/dramatic walk to podium, acceptance speech. Repeat!


It’s not that the songs this year are particularly special, but who wouldn’t want to see Marion Cotillard reenact her striptease routine from Nine’s Take It All (video) or see Crazy Heart's Jeff Bridges (or writer Ryan Bingham) croon The Weary Kind (video) before winning the trophy he’s had to wait 38 years for? If you know such people, please don’t introduce them to me. Why are they watching the Oscars to begin with? If you must avoid the unknowns who actually wrote the songs, get famous musicians or movie stars to sing them. Don’t give up. Just make it memorable.
No matter what one thinks of the songwriting category (I’m not a fan), the show needs it. The truth is that the years where the producers trust the category, it rewards them with memorable moments: Madonna visibly shaking during Sooner or Later (video) from Dick Tracy, the moving Falling Slowly from Once, the delightfully incongruous rap chaos of It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp (video) from Hustle & Flow, or a rare opportunity to see actual movie stars singing live, like Catherine Zeta-Jones and Queen Latifah doing I Move On (video) from Chicago.  Even when the numbers are bad, they’re often so bad they’re good guilty pleasures. The inverse is also true. Whenever the producers neglect this category, problems arise: Remember when we lost the opportunity to hear a Thom Yorke/Björk duet on I’ve Seen It All (video) from Dancer in the Dark because they made Björk truncate the song? Remember when they were so nervous about unknowns singing that they let Beyoncé do not one, not two but three songs (zzz) and then let Antonio Banderas butcher Al Otro Lado Del Rio? The songwriter ended up having to save it by singing it again (beautifully!) as his acceptance speech.
If you look around for press coverage on this matter and others, you’ll see that the people who cheer on every drastic change tend to be the ones that cannot be pleased by the show. They find it boring, overlong and dreary. They always will. Shouldn’t the Oscars concentrate on the people who do love watching and seeing Hollywood royalty celebrated? You have to energize the base first.
In recent years, the tinkering has become so rampant it reads like an absolute crisis in confidence. And that’s more troubling than any decline in ratings. The Oscars should be sexy—they’re selling movie stars after all—and what’s sexier than confidence? A little bit of change is necessary, but sometimes there can be too much of it. Sometimes the thing you’re trying to fix isn’t broken. It just needs a tune up. And Lauren Bacall. And maybe Marion Cotillard stripping. 


Nathaniel Rogers
blogs on The Film Experience. He is also a bit of an Oscar savant.


More in this series:
The Oscar Combination
Oscars: The Best of... Everything?
The Peoples' Globes
Sundance: The Oscar Connection
Oscar Noms: Ten Talking Points

Oscars: The Acting Races



What you need to know today