All award ceremonies are suspect

The Oscars are all about promoting the image of ultimate glamour and LA as the world's movie capital
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The Independent Online

And the award goes to... anyone who can remember a week when there wasn't an award ceremony clogging several hours of television? A week when a stick-thin female wasn't staggering down a length of red carpet acting surprised to see 200 men with cameras on either side of it? Forget Christmas, the movie award season inspires a frock-shopping frenzy of epic proportions. Even Giorgio Armani left his home in Milan for Paris the other day to show a collection of evening gowns in time for them to be selected by those "lucky" enough to attend the Academy Awards in Hollywood on Sunday 27 February.

And the award goes to... anyone who can remember a week when there wasn't an award ceremony clogging several hours of television? A week when a stick-thin female wasn't staggering down a length of red carpet acting surprised to see 200 men with cameras on either side of it? Forget Christmas, the movie award season inspires a frock-shopping frenzy of epic proportions. Even Giorgio Armani left his home in Milan for Paris the other day to show a collection of evening gowns in time for them to be selected by those "lucky" enough to attend the Academy Awards in Hollywood on Sunday 27 February.

Once awards were for being the best. Now there are so many of them, the Academy Awards seem somewhat devalued. Try as I may, I can't lose any sleep over the fact that Brit nominees Imelda Staunton and Kate Winslet may lose out to Hilary Swank, the star of Clint Eastwood's much acclaimed film about a female boxer, Million Dollar Baby. Imelda's PR people are furious with me because I dared to criticise her masterwork Vera Drake in our sister paper. I merely said Imelda's acting skills were phenomenal, but that Leigh's portrait of working-class London (at a time and place I know intimately) just didn't ring true. But Mike Leigh, as I have discovered to my cost, is not someone you can ever dare voice a dissenting opinion about - it's just not politically correct. Now he's delighted to be nominated for an Oscar as best director, so I must be wrong!

But the fact remains, the Academy Awards are a deeply flawed way of honouring the best in the film industry. They are voted for by just 6,000 members (you can only join by invitation), and huge advertising campaigns are run by the biggest studios to ensure that their movies get nominated. Last year this degenerated into a lot of name-calling, with the Academy bringing in new rules to try to curb the more excessive abuses. Although the Academy screens the contenders, videos and DVDs are sent to Academy members by everyone trying to get a nomination, a huge expense in itself, to ensure they don't have to get off their backside to decide what have been the best movies all around the world.

Apart from the staggering cost of staging the live event (never less than four to five hours of television) and the gala dinner, there have to be perks a-plenty to get those celebs on board. Anyone lucky enough to be chosen to present an award will be given a free goody bag, the contents of which are said to be worth well over £10,000. Some guests will be employing special "bag-minders" on the night. So the whole event is about product placement - most of the men and women nominated will be dressed by leading couturiers for nothing, for the free exposure. They will have their hair and make-up done by stylists gratis. They'll be dripping in free diamonds and pearls, and shadowed by security men from the leading jewellers.

It's all a means to an end - the Academy Awards are about promoting the image of ultimate glamour and reinforcing Los Angeles as the movie capital of the world. But scratch below the surface and it's apparent that the Academy and it's members only want a certain kind of movie and a certain kind of star to shine forth on their night of nights.

Fascinatingly, two of the most popular films in the world in the last year appear nowhere in the Oscar nominations: Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, and Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. Earlier this month, however, at the 31st Annual People's choice awards in Pasadena, California, this unlikely twosome struck gold. Gibson's film was judged best drama and Moore's best film overall. The nominations for these awards are not quite as democratic as they sound - a panel chosen by editors at Entertainment Weekly magazine selects the long-list of nominees. But then an astonishing 21 million votes were cast on-line to arrive at the winners.

Mel Gibson's film company Icon has spent very little money promoting or advertising his film, although he did send out DVDs to Academy members and put on special screenings for churches and religious groups. To date The Passion of the Christ, a film which Hollywood refused to invest in or distribute, is a massive international success, grossing £322m worldwide.

Likewise shunned by Hollywood until Harvey Weinstein came to his aid, Michael Moore used his website to entreat people to vote for Fahrenheit 9/11. Then leading Republicans took whole-page ads in USA Today and Variety denouncing the film and ensuring that many Academy members would not rock the boat. The bottom line is that the Academy, like the movie star who is governor of its home state, is firmly Republican. And a movie which many of the Jewish faith find distasteful was never going to play well among those who run Hollywood, where Jewish men are in the majority.

In Britain, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards have been moved forward to 12 February, becoming part of the big Oscar build-up, which started with the Golden Globes - another weirdly small group of insiders (the Hollywood Foreign Press Association) who wield enormous influence over the film industry. Voting for a Bafta award is just as arcane. It costs £195 a year to belong to Bafta unless you live more than 60 miles from its headquarters in Piccadilly. With only 4,000 members, it is strongly biased towards the BBC and the middle classes. There are three rounds of voting, when films are whittled down to 15 , then five and then the final winner.

Now it includes films that haven't even been released in Britain yet, which are sent out by their producers and distributors on DVDs or specially screened - both expensive. Once again, The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11 are nowhere in the best film category.

Even more irritatingly, there's the Best Film and the Best British Film, as if we poor Brits have to be helped along by including a category we know we can win. Unsurprisingly, Vera Drake is up for both awards, making a mockery of the phoney division. And in a time of tax concessions, foreign investors and so on, what makes a British film? More than ever, it would seem to be good luck. Mike Leigh has always had loyal foreign investors and Gordon Brown's unhelpful cutting of the tax incentives for film-makers meant a 40 per cent drop in the number of films made in Britain last year.

I've long regarded all awards ceremonies as deeply suspect. The only time I ever won a Bafta occurred because the category was in the gift of the executive as a "special" - for creative achievement. I'd never have got through on a vote with that membership! And when the TV opera I produced for the BBC was runner-up to Dudley Moore's dreary series about the orchestra at the Emmies in New York, I'm afraid I showed myself to be an appalling loser. When the winning producer came up and said, "Sorry, I really think you should have got it," I snapped back, "so do I."

In the circumstances Messrs Moore and Gibson do deserve a little better, but I'm sure that if the Brits triumph on 27 February and Vera Drake scoops an Oscar, we'll conveniently forget about the unfairness of the system, and bask in a collective moment of patriotism.

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