What Are the Oscars For?

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“Hollywood is easy to hate, easy to sneer at, easy to lampoon,” Raymond Chandler wrote in The Atlantic in 1945.

Chandler, at the time already a popular author of detective fiction, had lately begun working as a screenwriter, but he still considered himself an outsider in the movie business. “I hold no brief for Hollywood,” Chandler wrote. “I have worked there a little over two years, which is far from enough to make me an authority, but more than enough to make me feel pretty thoroughly bored. That should not be so. An industry with such vast resources and such magic techniques should not become dull so soon.”

Yet dull is exactly what Chandler found the industry to be. Its people, he thought, were essentially shallow backstabbers:

I suppose the truth is that the veterans of the Hollywood scene do not realize how little they are getting, how many dull egotists they have to smile at, how many shoddy people they have to treat as friends, how little real accomplishment is possible, how much gaudy trash their life contains. The superficial friendliness of Hollywood is pleasant—until you find out that nearly every sleeve conceals a knife.

Among Chandler’s many complaints was what he perceived as a lack of respect for writers. “The first picture I worked on was nominated for an Academy award (if that means anything),” he recounted, “but I was not even invited to the press review held right in the studio.”

Do the Academy Awards mean anything? In the lead-up to Sunday night’s 96th Oscars, you too may find yourself asking this question about what another 1940s Atlantic writer once termed “the Academy’s annual rodeo of self-approbation.”

“For years,” my colleague David Sims, who covers film, wrote recently, “the panicked question around the Academy Awards has been the same as the one bedeviling every other pop-cultural awards show: Does anyone even care anymore?” Especially in 2024, following a year in which Hollywood was frequently in the news for its ongoing streaming woes and protracted labor disputes, one might naturally conclude that the glitz of the red carpet is little more than a showy distraction from the truly important issues facing the industry and its workers.

In fact, showy distraction is a key part of the Oscars’ DNA. As Dana Stevens has written in The Atlantic, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was formed in 1927, “when the silent era was coming to an abrupt close and the studio system’s grip on the industry was tightening. As the craft guilds formed in the 1920s began to threaten strikes, the MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer banded together with a group of influential industry players, including producers, directors, writers, and actors, to establish a bulwark against growing labor unrest.” The awards, created the following year, were essentially a bet on keeping the talent in line: “If I got them cups and awards,” Mayer reflected decades later, “they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted.”

From the vantage point of the 1940s, Mayer’s bet seemed to have more or less paid off. Members of the Academy, Chandler lamented in a 1948 Atlantic essay, “Oscar Night in Hollywood,” were “conditioned to thinking of merit solely in terms of box office and ballyhoo.” True quality, according to Chandler, mattered little: “A superb job in a flop picture would get you nothing.”

Still, even the cynical Chandler thought that the awards, at their best, could serve as a reminder of film’s artistic potential. “In the motion picture we possess an art medium whose glories are not all behind us,” he wrote. “It has already produced great work, and if, comparatively and proportionately, far too little of that great work has been achieved in Hollywood, I think that is all the more reason why in its annual tribal dance of the stars and the big-shot producers Hollywood should contrive a little quiet awareness of the fact.” (“Of course it won’t,” Chandler concluded. “I’m just daydreaming.”)

Also in 1948, Jean Hersholt, then the president of the Academy, put a more positive spin on things, boasting in an article for The Atlantic that the Academy had “already firmly succeeded in establishing round the world the idea of creative incentive.”

This week, I asked David for his thoughts on these 1940s characterizations of what—and whom—the Oscars are for. In 1948, David told me, Chandler wasn’t wrong: The awards were “essentially a back-patting popularity competition between the big studios, still years away from recognizing anything approaching independent or foreign cinema. All of that is still baked into the show, of course—there’s no night more filled with self-congratulation—but what Chandler probably didn’t anticipate is that the Oscars became a way for serious adult cinema to survive as a studio interest.”

The Oscars, that is, are one reason that, instead of focusing solely on maximizing profit, Hollywood continues to make genuinely good movies that may or may not prove to be hugely popular. David acknowledged that “in today’s globally minded market, companies mostly care about worldwide grosses.” But, he said, “winning a big trophy is still a motivating factor. That’s how we get sophisticated movies like Poor Things, American Fiction, and even Oppenheimer, along with the more daring material up for awards this year, like The Zone of Interest and Anatomy of a Fall.”

Maybe the awards ceremony does, after all, provide a valuable “creative incentive” for the people who make movies—even if watching it from afar can be rather dull for the rest of us.

Amy Weiss-Meyer is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

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