The Academy Awards are tonight – but are they just an opportunity for the rich and famous to slap each other on the back, or do they really say something important about the world? Writer at Large Neil Mackay takes a closer look

IT’S Oscars Night. The world will stop this evening to watch a carnival of wealth, adulation, fame, talent, glamour and – most of all – power. It is a night bestowed with global significance. Millions around the planet see it as the cultural and artistic heart of the year. We’re told that the Oscars matter.

But is that true? Do the Oscars say anything about the world we live in, about our culture, our society? Or is it all, as the cynics believe, just an empty, gaudy show that signifies nothing?

Who decides?

First of all, let’s be clear what the Oscars are. Like their British equivalent, the Baftas, the Oscars are an expression of how a very narrow sliver of society sees both culture and the world at a specific moment in time. When it comes to the Oscars, that sliver of society is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

It is the academy’s roughly 7,000 members who hand out the gongs. All members are part of the film industry – directors, cinematographers, producers – but actors make up the biggest proportion, 22%.

Of the academy’s active voters, 94% are white, 77% male and 54% over 60, and about one-third are former Oscar nominees and winners. Given we’re in Hollywood, the academy also has a liberal bias. Right-wing movies – unless you’re Clint Eastwood – don’t get far.

For such a youthful art form as cinema, the old, white, wealthy, male demographic is jarring – and it lies at the heart of the Oscars’ diversity problem, with not enough black or female artists up for awards.

The question of race

The movie Green Book, which won Oscars in 2019 for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali, is a good case study when it comes to liberalism and diversity.

In an elevator pitch it sounds the perfect pro-diversity film: a white, working-class man learns to be a better person by working for an intellectual black man.

The only problem is the film was hammered for its “white saviour” narrative. In the film, the black guy only learns about himself thanks to

the white guy. Green Book was criticised for perpetuating a fantasy that racism only happened in the

past – it’s set in the 1960s – rather

than today.

Green Book is a perfect example of Hollywood trying to be liberal, but falling on its face with a story about black life filtered through white eyes. If the academy wanted to hand the Best Picture Oscar to a “good” film about race last year it could have awarded BlacKkKlansman by Spike Lee.

American power

So the Oscars represent a very narrow worldview. They also represent a very American worldview. Of course, America is the planet’s cultural powerhouse, but the Oscars crowd out the vast majority of films which don’t come from the English-speaking world.

The rules have a built-in bias against foreign films. Any contender for the big awards – Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, Screenplay – must play for seven nights in LA. That might be hard for a brilliant but broke filmmaker from Africa or Asia.

The nominee for Best Foreign Film doesn’t have to open in America – but it does have to be its country’s official selection, which in itself is a mountainous task of networking, campaigning and schmoozing.

The schmooze

Speaking of schmoozing – that’s the other problem which erodes belief in the Oscars having real cultural significance. If you want your film to win you need deep pockets.

Winning an Oscar is all about campaigning – and campaigning costs. In 1967, Doctor Dolittle was a turkey. Over budget, critically hated and a box office disaster, it still managed to get a Best Picture nomination, and eventually won Best Song and Visual Effects after 20th Century Fox launched a champagne-fuelled charm offensive for Academy members.

In 1999, the schmaltzy Shakespeare In Love beat Saving Private Ryan when Harvey Weinstein’s studio Miramax spent an unheard-of $15 million on an Oscar campaign.

Money, however, does not buy cultural significance, or lasting appeal. Who cares about Shakespeare In

Love today?

The golden age

So the Oscars have more than their fair share of problems – and it’s hard

to argue that the awards, as a whole, have something consistently significant to say about the world, culture

and society.

However, that doesn’t mean individual Oscar-winning films aren’t important. Many speak directly about society’s big issues, the problems confronting the world and the changing shape of culture. When the Academy gets it right – which isn’t often – it gets it very right.

The seventies is a good era to explore – after all, it’s the golden age of modern cinema. In 1979, Kramer vs Kramer swept the boards, winning five Oscars including Best Picture. It stars Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, and tells the story of their divorce. The film focuses a lot on their child, Billy, caught in the middle.

Billy was a symbol of generation X – the first generation to grow up with divorce normalised. The film explores gender roles – who should raise a kid and why? – women’s rights, fathers’ rights, the growing demands of corporate careerism, work-life balance and single parenthood. Kramer vs Kramer was socially astute and culturally ahead of its time.

That same year Apocalypse Now won two technical Oscars – Cinematography and Sound. Today, it’s Francis Ford Coppola’s film which has stood the test of time much more than Kramer vs Kramer.

Divorce is no longer a zeitgeist subject, but Apocalypse Now continues to say something culturally significant: that Western power is dangerous. Often it is films which are nominated for Oscars, but don’t scoop the Best Picture award, which make the most interesting cultural statements. In 1980, the academy basically replicated what happened the year before – it gave four big gongs to another family drama, Ordinary People.

However, Raging Bull – hailed as one of the greatest movies ever made, and a film which has easily outlasted its Oscar rivals – only won two awards, including Best Actor for Robert De Niro as the boxer Jake LaMotta. It was a study in “toxic masculinity” decades before the term was coined.

Sometimes, though, the academy just goes a bit mad – like in 1976 when it gave four Oscars to Network but still handed the Best Picture award to Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky. Network is a brutal, brilliant satire, which still says something culturally significant about the media and society.

War: where it all began

If we go right back to the first Oscars, in 1929, we see the Best Picture winner, the war film Wings, struggling to make sense of the First World War. The US Library of Congress has listed Wings, which starred early screen idol Clara Bow, as a film of “cultural significance” because it was a real pioneer in the industry.

The following year, 1930, saw cinema still wrestling with the aftermath of war and looming danger in Europe. All Quiet On The Western Front was the big winner. After protests by the Nazi Party in Germany, the film proved its cultural significance by promptly getting banned.

The Second World War profoundly affected the Oscars as neutral America tilted towards Britain. Gone With The Wind – although racially unsettling today – made clear that war was monstrous. It beat The Wizard Of Oz to the Best Picture award in 1939. Oz, though, summed up better the sense of dislocation, confusion, fear and nostalgia sweeping a world facing global conflict.

In 1942, British and American culture fused when Mrs Miniver – which tells the story of an ordinary English housewife during wartime – took six Oscars, including Best Picture, Director and Actress (for Greer Garson). Casablanca won Best Picture the following year with a clear message about America’s attachment to Europe: we’ll always have Paris.

The big issues

As the years march on, we see that so many Oscar nominees were commercially successful but artistic non-entities. The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, anyone?

Still, a few of the Best Picture winners stand out, capturing perfectly the spirit of the times in which they were made. On The Waterfront, which won Best Picture in 1954, looks at life from a uniquely 20th-century working-class perspective. West Side Story in 1961 used the cover of a musical to tackle immigration.

In 1962, though, To Kill A Mockingbird – a film fuelled by the US civil rights movement – lost out to Lawrence Of Arabia. David Lean’s epic is a visual delight, but it’s a clunking and colonial take on the Arab world.

In The Heat Of The Night, the 1967 drama starring Sidney Poitier as a black detective in the Deep South,

won Best Picture and put African-Americans front and centre. In 1969, homosexuality was explored in Midnight Cowboy, although the film is critiqued for homophobia today.

Mental illness was the theme in

1975 when Best Picture went to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Gandhi in 1982 turned attention to colonialism. Rain Man in 1988 looked at autism – albeit in an exceptionally misinformed way. And American Beauty in 1999 grappled with the crisis in masculinity.


From the turn of the millennium, it is often who the filmmaker is rather than the film they’ve created which makes the biggest cultural statement. The Hurt Locker took six Oscars in 2009 and made history when Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win Best Director. An emotionally astute war film, it signalled the power dynamic between the sexes shifting both in Hollywood and across the west.

Then, in 2016, Moonlight took Best Picture. It’s a film about being black, gay and poor, by a black writer-director, Barry Jenkins, and with an all-black cast. It’s one of those films which crystallised the time in which it was made – in Moonlight’s case right in the middle of Black Lives Matter.

In 2017, the bizarre fairy tale The Shape Of Water won Best Picture. Beneath the surface lay an examination of female sexuality, with all its quirks and wonders laid bare. Its central character, played by Sally Hawkins, may be mute but the story is about women finding their voice in the world of men.

This year’s nominees

So what of tonight’s Best Picture nominees? Do they speak to our times? Certainly some do. Joker is perhaps

the film with most cultural clout.

Some see it as a comment about

the left-behind, gun nuts, socially awkward losers and the alt-right.

That’s mistaken, but even if it were

true it would show a film unafraid of tackling the big social questions.

What Joker really explores is the increasing isolation of modern life, the breakdown of community, the corruption of decency in an amoral world. In the era of social media, hate, and disinformation, Joker couldn’t be more of its time. It speaks directly to the experience we’re all going through right now.

However, it’s unlikely Joker will win Best Picture – though Joaquin Phoenix should be a cert for Best Actor. Joker is too edgy for the academy to give it the top prize.

The most likely winner is 1917. Wartime heroism wins awards – think Schindler’s List and The Pianist. The only thing that wins more awards than wartime bravery is Meryl Streep – nominated a record 21 times.

Sam Mendes’ First World War film does speak of something prevalent in our society – nostalgia for a glorious past. The veneration of the past lurks within the rise of Western populism. That’s not to say 1917 isn’t a good film, it is – it’s just that it says something a little disturbing about our current cultural obsessions.

The gangster epic The Irishman sees Martin Scorsese return not just to form but also old ground as he rummages through the undergrowth of toxic masculinity again. Jojo Rabbit, a dark fairy tale about life in the Hitler Youth, may seem quirky (the Fuhrer is our childhood protagonist’s goofy imaginary friend) but it’s also back on safe Oscar territory: wartime heroism.

Like Greta Gerwig’s multi-nominated Lady Bird in 2017, Little Women (also by Gerwig) continues

the rebalancing of the cultural scales

by telling stories specifically about women and by women. The Netflix movie Marriage Story is essentially a Kramer vs Kramer reboot for millennials.

Ford v Ferrari finds itself in the slot marked “well-made film that no-one particularly cares about”. Still, it had enough star power to ensure nominations. In terms of cultural import, it’s functional. Think The Big Short from 2015 – nominated for five awards, won one. In a decade, few will remember it.

Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is fun, but it’s really just an in-joke for Tinsel Town. For comparison, there’s Robert Altman’s 1992 movie The Player – it too was Hollywood on Hollywood and earned a clutch of nominations. Again, few remember or care today.

Parasite is the oddball in the mix. Firstly it’s foreign – and although foreign films rarely make it into the Best Picture category, the last few years saw things change with The Artist, which inexplicably won in 2011, and Roma, which inexplicably lost to Green Book last year.

Could a South Korean comedy-horror win Best Picture? If we’re judging a film on what it says about culture and society then Parasite should be a leading contender. If you want a movie which explores life’s inequalities and the deadly nature of the rich-poor divide, then pick Parasite.

Who emerges as top dog all depends on whether this is a year when the academy gets it right, and rewards a film which explains where we are right now when it comes to culture and society – or if the academy gets it wrong and just slaps a gold star on what it thinks is an important film, but is in reality just an ephemeral piece of entertaining fluff which says nothing about the world.