There's a word going around Hollywood to describe this year's Oscars, and that word is "low-wattage". The films nominated for Sunday night's awards have somehow failed to get anybody's juices flowing, much less find a mass audience. Essentially, it's a contest between second-rate Martin Scorsese, who has never won anything, and third-rate Clint Eastwood, who has probably won more often than he deserved.
In other words, it is all about two old guys who have seen better days, most of them long before the target television audience for the Academy Awards ceremony was even born. Sounds more like nostalgia night at the local bingo club than the greatest show on earth.
All that might still have been forgiven if the Oscars could be counted on to serve up a slew of glamorous hot young stars for America to ogle, but they aren't coming out to play in anything like the quantity that Hollywood, with its admitted taste for gaudy excess, usually demands. The industry buzz on Sophie Okenedo's acting talent might be very hot, but nobody in Kansas has ever heard of her. Worse still, quite a few of the big names slated to adorn the occasion are doing so on behalf of films that almost nobody has seen. (Who can confirm first-hand that Annette Bening is even in Being Julia?)
It's been an odd year for the movies. The critics have had their darlings, of course, but almost none of them has been nominated in the major categories, because they were either made by foreigners or else just too wacky for Academy tastes. Pedro Almodovar's Bad Education - absent. Michel Gondry and Charlie Kauffman's strangely affecting bag of magical tricks about love and loss, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - acknowledged only for its screenplay and Kate Winslet's acting. Zhang Yimou's double helping of artistry and martial arts, Hero and House of Flying Daggers - absent except for a single nod for cinematography.
America's two most talked-about films of the year, Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 and Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, have also found themselves sidelined, perhaps because, in their diametrically opposing ways, they were considered too hot to handle, too divisive, too prone to cast Hollywood in either an excessively liberal or an excessively conservative light.
People in Hollywood are beginning to wonder if there isn't something fundamentally wrong with the Oscars themselves. Has the whole thing gone too far? Are there perhaps way too many accolades handed out each year to the same boring, repetitious list of films and performers? Does anyone really want to waste a perfectly good Sunday evening in late February sitting in front of the television screen, only to watch movie stars mumble incoherently between the tears about their lawyers, their agents and their mothers for hours on end?
Such heretical thoughts begin, as everything always does in Hollywood, with questions of money. The ratings for awards shows are down - way, way down - and for that reason the big advertisers, whose megabucks have always been the poles holding up the Oscars tent, are starting to get distinctly nervous.
Ten million fewer Americans tuned into the Golden Globes this year than they did in 2004, representing a drop-off of almost 40 per cent. The viewership for the Grammys, which aired earlier this month, was down almost 30 per cent. The Oscars themselves have been in freefall since their pinnacle in 1998, the year that Titanic swept the board and Celine Dion became the background musak to the entire planet. Seven years ago, a staggering 87 million people - 30 per cent of the country - tuned in to watch James Cameron proclaim himself the King of the World. Last year by contrast, when a similar sweep by the last instalment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy led only to interminable thank-yous to what seemed like the entire population of New Zealand, the viewing figures were down 50 per cent, at 43.5 million.
What happened? The best guess, at this early stage of diagnosis, is a multiple case of awards-show inflation. Inflation in the sheer number of awards, for a start - in addition to the Oscars and the Golden Globes, we now have television broadcasts of the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the Critic's Choice Awards, the Golden Satellite Awards, the People's Choice Awards, the MTV Movie Awards, the Gotham Awards, the BaftaAwards... and the list, like Celine Dion's heart, just goes on and on.
Then there is Oscar-night inflation - a show that, to borrow a cricketing metaphor, would be best served as a one-day limited-over affair but too often comes to resemble a five-day Test match. Two years ago, the show ran to a bladder-bursting four hours. Last year, it was more restrained at around three, but three hours of non-stop Hobbits and Peter Jackson's dogged refusal to pay the slightest attention to his bodily appearance got old extremely quickly.
What all this feels like is the lifespan of the television show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, which became so successful in the United States - as it had previously been in Britain - that it came to be broadcast no fewer than four times a week. Now it may be true that in certain contexts you can't go broke by under-estimating the taste of the American public, but Millionaire was an exception to the rule. Not only is it off the air, every single prime-time quiz show is off the air too, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a single executive willing to predict a comeback for the foreseeable future.
As Millionaire was for the television industry, it may transpire that awards ceremonies are the crack cocaine of the film industry. In the short term, they are extraordinarily alluring because they have been so successful in generating publicity for films, adding box-office dollars to the bottom line and fetishising movie stars so they become even more profitable on their future ventures. Over the longer haul, as we are now seeing, it could be that they actually serve to trivialise the industry, failing either to bring prestige to the most noteworthy artistic endeavours (which are rarely nominated and even more rarely win), or to celebrate the biggest box-office successes of the year (which, these days, tend to be sequels or remakes or are geared too young for the cautious tastes of the Academy).
What people forget is that the Oscars have been at least a little bit fusty for almost all of their 77 years, and that the Oscar-mania of the past decade and a half has been an aberration, not the natural order of things. The awards show craze of the 1990s was fuelled by two things, both of which may now be burning themselves out.
The first was the explosion of cable television in the United States, and with it the realisation that movie stars, either on screen or off, make for easy audience ratings. And the second was the brilliance of Harvey Weinstein of Miramax, who figured out how to exploit the Oscars as a marketing machine for his quirky, low-to-medium budget output.
Miramax films like Pulp Fiction, The English Patient and Shakespeare in Love did not just owe their financial good fortune to the fact that they were nominated for multiple awards. They also became part of a Hollywood subplot, in which the endlessly conniving Harvey would repeatedly stick it to his rivals in the major studios and beat them to the punch on Oscar night by means fair or foul.
Almost every year, the Oscars became a soap opera unto themselves, as publicists for and against Miramax would get down and dirty and badmouth each other's nominated films. Did Hurricane, the biopic of the unjustly condemned boxer Ruben Carter, play fast and loose with the facts? Was A Beautiful Mind, about the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash, a veiled apologia for anti-Semitism? Such questions were almost always outrageous, and the answers didn't matter nearly as much as the audience interest they generated for the Oscars telecast.
That moment, though, has clearly passed. The Hollywood establishment grew tired of the destructive games-playing, and the Oscars producers issued a new code of conduct two years ago essentially banning the more flamboyant tactics of Miramax and its rivals.
The changing times are nothing but a monstrous headache for the men - they are almost all men - in charge of running the Oscars ceremony itself. Some would say they are part of the problem, that Gil Cates, the veteran producer, and Frank Pierson, the president of the Academy, are much too allergic to surprises or controversy to know how to fight for their dwindling audience.
Cates, for example, is well known for his unforgiving approach to acceptance speeches, warning successful nominees they had better wrap up in 45 seconds flat if they know what is good for them.
To be fair, though, the Oscars chiefs know they have a problem, and are attempting to address it, which is why the comedian Chris Rock, a man known for forthright opinions and even more forthright language appealing to teenagers, has been picked as this year's emcee. Rock was quoted recently calling the Oscars "idiotic", and said no self-respecting black American would ever sit through such a lot of nonsense. Rock will almost certainly be a draw, especially for his opening monologue. But it is unlikely he can save the day on his own, however brilliant he turns out to be.
Out in the cinemas, high hopes are riding on the box-office prospects of a new teenage horror film called Cursed, from the Scream team of Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven. It used to be that Oscar weekend was regarded as box-office poison, because every movie-lover in the land would be at home watching the stars on television. This year, though, quite a few executives are betting the movie-goers would rather be where they belong - at the movies.
AND THE NOMINATIONS ARE...
Million Dollar Baby
Martin Scorcese: The Aviator
Clint Eastwood: Million Dollar Baby
Taylor Hackford: Ray
Alexander Payne: Sideways
Mike Leigh: Vera Drake
Don Cheadle: Hotel Rwanda
Johnny Depp: Finding Neverland
Leonardo DiCaprio: The Aviator
Clint Eastwood: Million Dollar Baby
Jamie Foxx: Ray
Best Supporting Actor
Alan Alda: The Aviator
Thomas Haden Church: Sideways
Jamie Foxx: Collateral
Morgan Freeman: Million Dollar Baby
Clive Owen: Closer
Annette Bening: Being Julia
Catalina Sandino Moreno: Maria Full of Grace
Imelda Staunton: Vera Drake
Hilary Swank: Million Dollar Baby
Kate Winslet: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Best Supporting Actress
Cate Blanchett: The Aviator
Laura Linney: Kinsey
Virginia Madsen: Sideways
Sophie Okonedo: Hotel Rwanda
Natalie Portman: Closer
Foreign Language Film
As it is in Heaven
The Sea Inside