um, critics have nothing to do with making Oscar nominations or picking Oscar winners…

A few commenters in yesterday’s Oscar nominations thread seem to be under the misapprehension that film critics are actually involved in the Acadamy Awards — voting for nominations and wins — and it suddenly occurred to me that this might be a more widespread belief. So I figure it’s worth promoting my response to them as a post of its own.

Film critics have nothing whatsoever to do with the Oscars, except as observers, just like regular movie fans. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is made up of people who work in the industry as actors, writers, directors, costume designers, cinematographers, etc. There are no critics among them. And not everyone who works in Hollywood is a member of the Academy. AMPAS is not like the unions. For example, it’s a virtual certainty that anyone you see with a speaking role in an American film or television show is a member of the Screen Actors Guild. (I’m not privy to all the arcane rules and regulations of SAG, so there may be a few rare exceptions. And I think SAG may have a reciprocal agreement with BAFTA, the British actors union, so that their members can work on projects overseen by the other union, but still — the point remains.) But the Academy is an exclusive group within Hollywood: you have to be sponsored by current members to even be considered for membership. And you have to be involved with actually producing movies.
Now, of course the Academy members who nominate and vote may be swayed by the awards they see critics’ groups giving, but that is the extent of any influence critics have over the Oscars. And when it comes to, say, Sandra Bullock’s Best Actress Oscar nomination for The Blind Side, obviously there was little influence at work there at all. (I think only the Broadcast Film Critics Association gave Bullock their Best Actress award.) It’s a sure bet that many critics are shaking their heads over that nomination just like many serious film fans are.

Here’s the key thing: If and when individual critics declare now that Bullock is the frontrunner for the Best Actress Oscar this year, it doesn’t mean that we suddenly changed our minds and no longer think that, oh, Carey Mulligan in An Education or Meryl Streep in Julie & Julia didn’t actually turn in great performances or don’t deserve to be recognized as the year’s Best Actress… or even that we’ve reconsidered and now believe that Bullock’s is the best performance this year. It means we’re resigned to the fact that Bullock is extremely likely to win, because the Oscars are frequently not about honoring the actual best of anything but, instead, about the stuff that the members of the Academy are excited about honoring. Bullock’s status as frontrunner has little to do with her performance… or, at least, not in comparison to the other nominees this year. Academy members — who are, remember, Bullock’s peers, her friends and coworkers, in many instances — will reason that this is Bullock’s best performance ever (it is) and because she’s not exactly an artiste, there may likely never been another chance to give her an Oscar. (They’ll be comparing Bullock’s work here to her previous work, not Bullock’s work here to the work of her fellow nominees.) And they want to give her an Oscar because they like her, they really like her. When Bullock wins that Oscar, it will be for sentimental reasons.

Film critics are only acknowledging that, not approving of it. But perhaps some critics could do a better job of explaining that.

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