Oscar Plays The Joker Card

By Jere Hester
|  Monday, Jun 29, 2009  |  Updated 9:01 PM PDT
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Heath Ledger notched a posthumous Oscar for his portrayal as The Joker in "The Dark Knight." But the movie didn't get a Best Picture nomination.

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The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ recent decision to double the number of Best Picture nominees to 10 ultimately could make for a lot more disappointed folks on Oscar Night – and not just filmmakers.

The apparent ploy to boost ratings and counter film industry snobbery could backfire, raising and dashing the hopes of the crowd the gambit is aimed at: average moviegoers.

With a larger field, there’s a danger that votes will be split and viewers will be left scratching their heads over some odd and undeserving winner – rather than applauding a popular, quality favorite – as the show's closing credits roll. The “real” Best Picture 
competition will come in the Best Directory category where the will of the Oscar voters will be exercised.

Credit the Academy, though, with at least taking some action after “The Dark Knight,” which grossed $1 billion worldwide, didn’t even  make the Top-5 nominee list for 2008.

Box office success doesn’t necessarily translate into Oscar-worthiness – the Academy could expand the Best Picture nominee field to 20 and you probably wouldn’t see any tuxedo-clad Transformers at the Kodak Theatre on March 7.

But “The Dark Knight,” brimming with complex characters, moral ambiguity – and butt-kicking action sequences and special effects – 
clearly deserved to be in the running. The snub reflected the Academy’s snobbery when it comes to hero-driven adventure pictures that effectively use digital technology to tell a story. (It took Oscar voters three tries, after all, to properly acknowledge “The Lord 
of the Rings” trilogy.)

There’s perhaps an even greater prejudice against comedies. The classic “Some Like it Hot” didn’t get nominated. “Annie Hall” was the 
last real comedy to win the top award (sorry, we’re not counting 1998’s “Shakespeare in Love” as a comedy).

The Oscar chiefs note that the new system harkens back to the Academy Awards’ early years, when as many as 12 movies battled it out. The five-nominee cap wasn’t instituted until 1944.

But the good old days weren’t always so good: “Citizen Kane” was among the nine losers in 1941. The winner, “How Green Was My Valley,” is a fine film – but it’s no “Citizen Kane.”

Another pitfall of more contenders is that the public will get burned out on hype. If you thought the presidential race was interminable, 
just wait until producers of every movie given a decent ride by the critics switch on the Oscar buzz machine.

The Academy Awards show should be for the moviegoers – not the moviemakers. So we'll put it you, film fans: What do you think about 
the new 10-nominee scheme? What are some of your favorite flicks that got snubbed by the Oscars?

Use the comments section below to play critic.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.

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