Oh, the rending of garments concerning Birdman’s Oscar win over American Sniper, the sole blockbuster in the Best Picture field of eight. The triumph throws into high relief the growing disconnect between Academy voters and what scores with ticket buyers — Birdman (gross cume, $37.8M); American Sniper ($320M) — according to the people who tell people what to think. Moreover, the Academy hadn’t even bothered to fill all 10 available slots in the expanded Best Picture category. “In the end, it was the audience that got snubbed,” huffed Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes in a New York Times piece that wasn’t even labeled commentary, inferring that the Oscars ought to be a popularity contest.
Of course, by that reckoning, any number of other box office hits deserved nominations, if not the Oscar itself. Why not just drop the voting and hand out the statuettes to the biggest-grossing movies?
Imagine the outcry had American Sniper actually won the big one: The complaints about factual distortion in the film account of Navy SEAL sharpshooter Chris Kyle certainly would have taken over that narrative, not to mention the inevitable complaints about the Academy selling out to the box-office Mammon.
Compare this kerfuffle with the annual grousing on the Other Coast post-Tony Awards, where more often than not the whining occurs when popular shows win over “art.” Two seasons back, the powerful London import Matilda — a shoo-in for Best Musical, or so it was thought — lost the big awards to Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper’s Kinky Boots as the Broadway snooterati held its collective, Heavenward-tilted nose.
When La Cage Aux Folles won out over Sunday In The Park With George back in 1984, La Cage composer Jerry Herman (Hello, Dolly!, Mame) had the good taste in his acceptance speech to dig at critics’ darling Stephen Sondheim. Brandishing his Tony, Herman said the award showed that the “simple, hummable tune is still alive on Broadway.”
But that’s the eternal conundrum of the Big Prize: You just can’t win for losing. Unless, of course, you’re a pundit. (Full disclosure: I’m one.) The audience may have been snubbed but such “disconnects” are fodder for critics, who every year can shout “Scandal!” from either side of the art-vs-commerce fence.
What do you think?