HOLLYWOOD, CA - MARCH 04: (L-R) Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke, and Danai Gurira attend the 90th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on March 4, 2018 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Dan MacMedan/WireImage)
© Dan MacMedan/WireImage

Poor old Oscars. The venerable Academy Awards just can’t seem to do anything right. After the #OscarsSoWhite scandal about lack of diversity a couple of years ago, Hollywood was then hit by the truck named Weinstein. This year’s ceremony showed signs of earnest repentance on both fronts, with record numbers of non-white and female nominees and presenters. It was even in danger of getting a bit solemn: thank goodness for the wonderful presenting duo of Maya Rudolph and Tiffany Haddish, who reassured the audience that there were still plenty of white men around — backstage.

This week, the Academy was facing fire again when it announced a new category for the 2019 awards, for achievement in “popular” film. The Twitter storm that followed was surely predictable — to make a distinction between “popular” and simply “best” is asking for all kinds of trouble.

What’s more, the announcement came without any details of the new category — no definition, rules or rubric — so it’s been open season for ribbing by critics. Words like “desperate” and “pathetic” popped up. Actor Rob Lowe proclaimed the death of the film industry (they’re an emotional bunch, these stars). There were accusations that the Academy will be so embarrassed if Black Panther doesn’t scoop the Best Picture statuette that they’ve created a new award specially for it. A second-class category. Or would that be — ouch — a category that’s separate but equal?

One snappy commentator simply said: “There is already an award for popular films. It’s called money.”

True enough. The definition of the new category, even though the Academy might wrap it up in pretty euphemisms, is likely to be the magic $100m mark. To scoop that sum in US domestic bums-on-seats is a pretty good indicator of popularity. Black Panther made $700m at the box office, while this year’s Best Picture winner, The Shape of Water, made hardly a tenth of that.

Yet there have been plenty of winners that ticked the Oscars’ quality box and brought joy to the accountants as well: Titanic, in 1997, was one; The Lord of the Rings (2003) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008) are other recent examples.

Money, of course, comes into it more fundamentally. The viewing figures for the live Oscars telecast have been steadily falling since their late Nineties high — the same period when Shakespeare in Love became a Best Picture winner, a film that was popular as well as profitable (and benefited, too, from an aggressive awards season campaign masterminded by one H Weinstein). But this year’s audience tally fell to a miserable 26m, the lowest yet, and with it, presumably, the advertising income.

Something had to be done. People want to tune in to see their favourite stars on the podium, not the makers of critically acclaimed but relatively small-scale movies such as 2011’s The Artist or 2014’s Birdman.

So the call has gone out. Bring on the superheroes. Or, as the ribbers have it, dumb that thing down. No, further down. Further.

The word “popular”, when applied to any kind of art, is always problematic. A term usually bandied around approvingly, “popular culture” nevertheless contains an inescapable niggle since its opposite is, of course, elite culture. And no one wants to get caught seeming elitist.

We all know what we mean by popular, but we’re usually hard put to define it. A lot of people like it and it has a chance of making money? Yes, but beyond that?

What’s interesting, perhaps, is that a look back at the winners’ lists of previous decades suggests that a separate “popular” category just wouldn’t have made any sense. The 1950s, for instance, has an astonishing Best Picture roll-call: Gigi, An American in Paris, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Ben-Hur, From Here to Eternity, On the Waterfront and more.

Two musicals. A thumping war movie. An action spectacular. A classic romance. A crime drama that introduced a towering new talent. But all of them among the greatest and most memorable films of the century. Which of them, I wonder, would now be considered “popular”?

No, I don’t envy the Academy its task, in coming up with a definition. So I thought I’d help it out, and have a go myself.

In popular art, I’d say, entertainment is an absolute good. In visual forms, figuration always trumps abstraction. In the performing arts — film included — there is a strong narrative, with plenty of dramatic event, however unrealistic. Characters are larger than life and exceptional in some way (looks, prowess, depravity, misery, whatever). They have an exaggerated emotional range that we can nonetheless relate to. No one shies away from sentimentality. There are few intellectual demands. Escapism is certainly allowed, but the drama is resolved in a way that doesn’t challenge accepted social norms. And possibly even has an embedded moral message. The whole thing appeals to a sense of shared values and uncompromising notions of, for instance, good and evil, beauty and ugliness. And therefore makes people feel good because it reinforces their preconceived ideas.

Hmmm. Wait a minute. What I seem to have been describing is opera.

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