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The Oscars have changed very little, what’s changed is the way they’re watched.
Human bondage, the subject of Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave, used to be demurely referred to by Southerners as “our peculiar institution”. Today, the same might apply to the Academy Awards, an event which practically no one in the United States admits to liking but that literally everyone watches.
We can count off the miscarriages of justice (Ordinary People over Raging Bull), the undeniably great figures from film history who were never honoured with a statuette and who, at most, might warrant a spot in the tacky “In Memoriam” montage when they die, the awful jokes and the sluggardly pacing. But still we tune in.
A bit of backstory: The idea behind the “Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences” (AMPAS), founded 1927, was to impose an Old World, 19th-century concept, with the attendant stamp of prestige and ideas of officially judged, quantifiable artistic merit, on the unruly 20th century film medium, which had made itself most vitally at home in the New World, making up rules as it went along and producing a number of sui generis geniuses along the way.
One sign that the Academy, in its earliest stage, didn’t quite know what it was doing is that you can’t fault their Best Picture choices for the 1928-29 season: William Wellman’s Wings, which remains spectacular in the air if inelegant on the ground, and Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, lauded as the season’s “Most Unique and Artistic Picture”.
Of course, the “Most Unique and Artistic” category, with which the proto-Academy effectively acknowledged the divide between art and commerce, ambitious aesthetics and ambitious subjects, was dispensed with the following year — perhaps it was too self-condemning — and Best Picture was hereafter expected to encompass the Most Unique and Artistic as well. The interceding 85 ceremonies have shown how well, on the whole, this has worked out.
To better understand the yardstick that the Academy would use to determine the Best, we should look to the “hierarchy of genres”, as proposed by the first president of England’s Royal Academy of Arts, Sir Joshua Reynolds, in his Discourses On Art. The comparison reveals the degree to which the unspoken dictates of co-founder Louis B. Mayer’s Academy conformed to that of Reynolds.
Reynolds advocated a hierarchy of subjects (endorsed by the academies of art in the 17th and 18th centuries), with history paintings in the grand manner at the very top, and still life and genre subjects at the bottom. This naturally also accounted for a distaste for Dutch and Flemish painting generally, as vulgar or low subjects — peasant scenes, still lifes, etc — continued…