What fascinated me the most about Tuesday's best picture nominations is how different they are from most of the top nominations announced by the Recording Academy, which had its big Grammy Awards show Sunday night, earning an astounding 35% boost in ratings, putting the broadcast into "American Idol" territory.
Both the recording and motion picture organizations are made up of respected industry professionals, presumably eager to reward the best work in their respective fields. Yet the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences almost always opts for seriousness over comedy, artistic heft over youthful innovation.
On the other hand, the Recording Academy has increasingly given itself over to mainstream commercial taste. As my colleague Todd Martens pointed out the other day, the five nominees for album of the year, the industry's top award, sold more than 13 million albums. Taylor Swift's "Fearless," the eventual winner, was the year's top-selling album, moving 4.6 million copies.
To be fair, the motion picture academy did make a bold move this year, expanding its best picture nominees from five to 10, which has clearly accomplished its obvious intent -- making room for more commercial pictures such as "The Blind Side." But it's a little too early for the academy to declare victory. If you take "Avatar" out of the mix, the best picture nominees are still heavily weighted toward the kind of serious, high-minded movies the academy, along with the nation's film critic establishment, likes to reward for their artistic ambitions.
Drama over comedy
It is a wonder to see "The Blind Side" get a best picture nomination, as it is exactly the kind of well-crafted, heartfelt film that is usually ignored at Oscar time. Ditto for "District 9," which had an intensity and restless energy that is rarely seen in the Oscar precincts. But the academy still couldn't entirely shed its elitist sentiments. Every year, Hollywood makes a home-run comedy -- this time it was "The Hangover" -- and every year the academy ignores it, foolishly convinced that comedy is somehow easier to do than drama.
The academy also has a tin ear for more adult-oriented comic entertainment (represented this year by "Julie & Julia" or "It's Complicated") that were once regularly nominated in the era of Billy Wilder and George Cukor. And the academy wouldn't dream of nominating well-made films that actually lured millions of young moviegoers to the theaters, whether it was "The Hangover," "New Moon" or "Star Trek."
The Grammys had no such problem. The most striking thing about those awards was the gap between pure talent and Grammy glory. Even though Swift was a big winner Sunday night, she has largely been derided by critics and is viewed as a youthful enthusiasm, not a serious artist. (If you watched the show, you may have noticed that while she has lovely hair, she can barely sing.) Yet the much-vaunted Recording Academy showered her with honors. It would be the equivalent of the Oscars giving Michael Bay the director statuette for "Transformers" or presenting the actor award to Kevin James for "Paul Blart: Mall Cop."
How is it possible that the two most prestigious performing academies can have such radically different attitudes toward awards? My theory is that the Recording Academy, whose industry has already been devastated by a disastrous, decade-long economic tailspin, has been forced to shed any lofty ambitions and reach out for its core fan base. In a sense, the music business has finally embraced the future.
If you watched the Grammys on Sunday night, you saw a show making a naked grab for TV ratings, even borrowing from "American Idol" by having viewers vote on a song that would be performed by Bon Jovi toward the end of the broadcast. It worked beyond the Recording Academy's wildest dreams and puts the pressure on the Oscars to deliver a similar kind of ratings bounce.
It was instructive to notice what didn't get airtime. The Oscars, maddeningly, still insist on giving out every minor award on-air. The Grammys gave out only nine awards in a 3 1/2 -hour broadcast -- everything else was pure entertainment. The industry's legends got short shrift too. Michael Jackson had a lengthy tribute, but one enlivened by performances by commercially viable stars. When it came to honorary tributes, if you blinked, you missed 'em.
Glimpse at the future
So, what can the motion picture academy learn from this? I'm not saying the Oscars have to stoop to conquer, although it would be pretty funny to have viewers vote -- Bon Jovi-style -- on having Robert De Niro and Robert Downey Jr. come out and perform the viewers' favorite scene from a big 2009 hit, like "Taken" or "The Hangover." (OK, OK, just kidding). But the Grammy telecast was a glimpse of the future, not just for the Oscars, but for all awards shows.