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The Oscars, once complained Truman Capote, ‘are all politics and sentiment and nothing to do with merit.’ This may have had something to do with the fact that the film of his book, In Cold Blood, had been overlooked for a Best Picture nomination in favour of Dr Doolittle; in which case, one can see his point.

There are two equal and opposite criticisms of the Oscars, and of awards generally, which tend to cancel each other out. The first is to complain that they cater for a specific taste that is suspicious of anything too popular; which moves from the truism ‘popular is not necessarily meritorious’ to the false conclusion ‘unpopular is therefore meritorious’. This line of criticism complains that Oscars are given to foreign-language films seen by three people in downtown Manhattan.

The opposite complaint is that they strive for a sort of middlebrow, easy-listening version of meritorious; rewarding films that make people feel good about watching them without ever rewarding the real risk-takers and aventeurs. You can tell these critics by the tone of casual disdain with which they write. An acid test, as with vampires and garlic, is to ask their opinion of the Sound of Music.

What historians are to make of the Oscars, if anything, depends (of course) on perspective. From the angle of awards themselves, we could pursue the rather old-fashioned approach of searching for artistic excellence. I once had a lively discussion with a friend, now a Professor of Music at Oberlin College in the USA, who insisted that it was not the job of Arts Professors to teach excellence, it was their job to teach how other people had pursued and interpreted excellence.

This is true as far as it goes, but followed to its logical conclusion is very, very depressing.

If one is to place any weight whatsoever on the pursuit of merit, then the Oscars can be seen as a contemporary attempt to identify what will make the Best 100 lists a few decades hence. Given this criterion, the Academy did well to award its highest honour to Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia and The Godfather, which are in their own way masterpieces of film-making. If journalism is history in real time, awards fulfil much the same function. In 1967, the year of Dr Doolittle, the Oscars recognised The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde and In The Heat of the Night, all of which have stood the test of time.

To take Capote’s complaint, politics and sentiment undoubtedly play a role. The acting awards in particular are littered with winners who won because they were somehow overdue, Leonardo Di Caprio being the latest example. Politically, it isn’t simply a matter of Left versus Right, although the Oscars at present lean heavily to the Left. Rather, for a historian, it is interesting to see what the Academy considered worth nominating and to draw tentative conclusions.

For example, few of us would be sufficiently naïve to argue that Dickens is useful for a historian because his work provides documentary access to the mid-Victorian period. We can glean something about the time and place, and fiction tells us something that sociological data cannot, but it would be inadvisable, in exam or interview, to base your answer on Oliver Twist.

It is a more intelligent answer (wannabe historians pay attention) to ask questions about the society that published Dickens and read Dickens and valued Dickens. By analogy, we could usefully ask what the history of the Oscars tells us about the kind of films the Academy wanted to reward, and wanted to be seen to reward. And this is where the politics comes in.

Rarely is it as obvious as the 1943 Best Picture, Mrs Miniver, which Churchill described as ‘propaganda worth a thousand battleships’; but the sort of film the Academy likes to honour indicates the sort of self-image it likes to project. As a result, it is hardly surprising that it likes to reward ‘worthy’ projects, and why it chose Gandhi as Best Picture over E.T. The list is long, from Gentleman’s Agreement in 1947 (anti-Semitism) to Crash in 2005 (race relations, although one could equally make the point that 12 Years a Slave ticked the Academy’s boxes). This is also why major Oscars are almost never given to comedy, horror or science-fiction films, and very rarely thrillers. Like all of us, the Academy wants to be taken seriously.

The film industry is, of course, just that: an industry, which is why card-carrying flops are rarely awarded, and the Academy dances with glee whenever it can shower recognition on a box-office success. Best Picture winners Gone With the Wind, The Sound of Music and The Godfather are all, adjusted for inflation, among the biggest successes in cinema history. (So is Titanic, but, even with my neutral historian’s hat on, I refuse to consider its 11 Oscars anything other than an aberration).

A final thought: you should watch Gone With the Wind now, before some idiot, in a blow to the study of History and the principles of a liberal education, decides you can’t because it’s ‘racist.’ Indeed it is – by the standards of 2016 London. I happen to be reading the novel, and it too is racist by those standards. But, if you read a novel or watch a film with the intention of criticising it from a perspective that did not exist when it was created, you are narrowing rather than broadening your vison. And we will be in a sorry state if we seclude ourselves, under the guise of righteousness, from all thought and artistic endeavour that does not equate to our values.  

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