Kristen Stewart arrives at the Oscars on Sunday, March 27, 2022, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

The Oscars are more about celebrity than cinema – and that’s fine

The Oscars are only good when things go wrong (or when Lady Gaga is nominated). In recent memory there was the great vindication of the Moonlight/La La Land fiasco in 2017, Jennifer Lawrence “falling” in 2013, and of course John Travolta introducing “Let It Go” singer Idina Menzel as “the wICKedly talented Adele Dazeem” in 2014.

So of course Best Actor winner Will Smith slapping Chris Rock in the face onstage last night automatically enters the Hall of Fame of “things that were not meant to happen at the Oscars and that everyone is now talking about instead of the Oscars.” Indeed, very rarely following this yearly parade of famous people are we discussing the thing the night is supposed to be honouring: that is, Martin Scorsese’s beloved art of cinema.

For years now, the Oscars have been far more about celebrity than they are about movie magic, and beyond The Will Smith Slap, the 2022 ceremony tended to cement that shift. From the decision to give out the craft and short film awards before the main broadcast, to the fact that Timothée Chalamet didn’t wear a shirt, this was all about stars being as starry as possible – a celebrity crossover event of Marvel proportions – rather than celebrating the great traditions of Hollywood.

Kristen Stewart arrives at the 2022 Oscars (Photo: AP/Jae C Hong)

While the media circus around all of this can be supremely tiresome (I would love to know if there’s a single person who reads headlines like “Old friends Jamie Dornan and Andrew Garfield reunite at the Oscars and we are living for it!” and doesn’t immediately feel their eyes rolling into the back of their head) it is reflective of our culture, which breathlessly commentates on the actions of celebrities, and in which the stories they’re paid to tell often come in second place.

Where the Oscars are concerned, this all probably started in earnest around 2014. This was the year of the wretched “Oscars selfie” featuring celebrities like Bradley Cooper and the now somewhat disgraced Ellen DeGeneres (it’s funny to think about how appreciatively the internet lapped that up, compared to the derision with which jaded users would undoubtedly receive it now – remember the “Imagine” video at the start of the pandemic?).

After that ceremony, the conversation – which had started to move onto social media – was dominated by the celeb ups and downs of the night rather than the winners or the films. It was an “unmasking” moment: it’s not like the Academy actually awards many of the best films of the year anyway – just the ones that fit into the fairly slim definition of what an “Oscars movie” is deemed to be.

Almost always favoured are portrayals of real people and this was in evidence this year, with wins for Smith, who played Richard Williams, father of tennis champions Venus and Serena in King Richardand for Best Actress winner Jessica Chastain, for her performance as Tammy Faye Messner.

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However, in wins for Ariana DeBose and Troy Kotsur (the first queer woman of colour and the first deaf male actor to victor at the Oscars), the night did of course have its important and groundbreaking moments. That these have been overshadowed by memes and discourse, however, is par for the course in our current climate. Where these would have been headlines after a night with no drama, it’s always the unscripted moments among the rich and famous that cause the biggest furore.

Cinema, then, will always trail behind celebs at a contemporary Oscars – our viewing habits have become too diverse, our cultural conversation too reactive, and the definition of an “Oscar movie” too frankly boring for anything else, and where films outside of the Oscars’ limits of acceptability have triumphed (Moonlight in 2017, Parasite in 2020), it feels like an against-the-odds story, rather than the purpose of the ceremony itself.

It’s probably about time we accepted the Oscars for the celeb-fest it is. Cinema is dead – viva drama, memes, and Kristen Stewart tottering down the most supposedly prestigious red carpet in the world in a little pair of shorts.

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