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OSCAR SMOSHCAR

SHOW BIZ SEEMED BIGGER ONCE
The Oscars - Academy Awards officially - were once huge cultural events - in 1975, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, Shirley MacLaine and Bob Hope co-hosted, for example - and Best Picture noms included The Conversation and Chinatown. Godfather Part 2 won. Last two years, movies titled Birdman and Spotlight won, and the hosts and those films are retrospectively minor, trifling. This year, some important, resonant films are up for consideration - including Hidden Figures and Moonlight, two favourites of this blog. Viola Davis and Denzel Washington will hopefully win for their sterling performances in Fences. However, La La Land - the most superficial and empty Best Picture contender since Gigi in 1959 (which beat Vertigo) - could smite all comers, and render this year's awards historically trivial, even idiotic.

The Oscars often opt for safe, optimistic films, or safe, pessimistic films, that are usually about white men (less often, white women) finding their path to doing the right thing, or white men tragically failing to do the right thing, and doing bad things instead. This is of course the trajectory of drama from Aristotle up to at least Death of a Salesman - and these are the boundaries known as comedy and tragedy. The darkest ever Best Pic winner, Silence of the Lambs, is actually a comedy (or romance), and it is about the redemption of a bad man by a young ingĂ©nue, not a million miles from My Fair Lady.

Since the question of whether art (and drama) should be entertaining or morally instructive, or both, is ageless, and probably unresolvable, it is unfair to blame the Academy of Motion Arts and Pictures for falling prey to this aesthetic puzzle. However, La La Land is, on the spectrum, most comic, and least instructive - unless once considers it a bland expose of how selfish self-improvement is better than love and fidelity - which would suggest it has Moliere's depths. It does not. Compared to Gigi, it is worthless. Moonlight is the greatest aesthetic achievement, but perhaps too instructive for some traditional voters. Hidden Figures, if it won, would be the perfect medium way, the golden mean, of a moral, and entertaining, film.

I would say who cares? - but millions still do - perhaps because, along with the Olympics and a few other very rare global events, this one remains a benchmark of times gone by. You can check the Wiki page, or the Guinness Book list, and be transported back, with these nominees lists, to a window on values, social politics, and ideas of most of the past century, that few other cultural events offer. The magnitude, like our screens, may have shrunk to smartphone proportions, but the Oscars still just barely matter, and they hopefully will reward worthy winners tonight.

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