Tonight, they will hand out the Oscars for best actor, actress, supporting actor, supporting actress and best picture.
And not one will be from the top 10 movies we watched last year.
Americans flocked to see “Rogue One — A Star Wars Story.” It earned over a half-billion dollars to lead the 2016 box office.
Not one major nomination.
Same holds for “Finding Dory,” the second-most popular film of last year. Or “Captain America: Civil War,” which was No. 3, or “The Secret Life of Pets” or “The Jungle Book,” which round out the top five.
Far more people saw “Suicide Squad” than “La La Land,” the film that is predicted to clean up tonight in the big awards.
More than twice as many people saw talking hot dogs in “Sausage Party” than saw Casey Affleck — the favorite for best actor — in “Manchester By The Sea.”
And if either Meryl Streep (“Florence Foster Jenkins”) or Isabelle Huppert (“Elle”) win for best actress, they’ll do so knowing many more Americans saw the women of “Dirty Grandpa,” “Barbershop: The Next Cut,” “Bad Moms” and “Boo! A Madea Halloween” than saw them in their award-winning turns.
This is not new. More and more, the Oscars tend to celebrate films that leave the viewers saying, “How did we miss that one?”
Perhaps the hashtag should be changed from #OscarsSoWhite to #OscarsSoElite.
Or do we, the masses, just have no taste?
Dissecting the disconnect
It’s the latter that is believed to be true in Hollywood. Tentpole movies like the Marvel superheroes, or another Jason Bourne, “Star Trek” or “Ride Along” installment are counted on to excite the masses with thrills, action, special effects or predictable laughs — and to bring in big money.
That big money then allows studios, directors and actors to go off and make small, artistic movies for a fraction of the cost. Actors who demand $10 million to put on a cape will happily work for next-to-nothing if they can play a hardship role that might win them a statue.
But why the disconnect? If these films are so great, the performances so stellar, why aren’t we rushing out to see them? And if so many people are loving the big films, why are they not considered award-worthy?
This wasn’t always true. In the 1960s, for example, most of the best picture winners were in the top five box office, and many of them — “West Side Story,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Sound of Music,” “My Fair Lady” — were No. 1 for the year.
So what happened? Well. There is no scientific study to reference. But I have a few suspicions.
First, as technology enabled films to dazzle us with special effects, acting became less important than flying and dialogue less important than explosions. An actor who spends most of his time wired up in front of a green screen isn’t viewed as doing award-winning work.
Second, we’ve fallen in love with two types of films: superheroes and cartoons. The 10 top-grossing films last year were one or the other. So studios, hedging their bets, sink most of their money into marketing and distributing those films, leaving the “art” films to scream for attention — or to reach many screens.
And then there’s the critics.
Something to ponder
There seems to be a correlation between high box office and low critical marks: more of one, more of the other. (This is not always true, to be fair, as “Rogue One,” “Jungle Book” and even “Deadpool” were critically praised.) But often, the thinking goes, if it’s popular, it can’t be that good.
On the other hand, if it’s small, dark, depressing, introspective, controversial or deemed socially important, you can count on rave reviews. This ultimately has an effect on those in the industry, which, no matter what they say, read these reviews, and may in turn consider them in the nominating process and even the voting.
Consider that four of the last five years, the Best Picture winner could not crack the top 60 in box office, despite the publicity that winning the golden statue brings. These were fine films — “Spotlight,” “Birdman,” “12 Years A Slave,” “The Artist” — but also disturbing, dark and not family friendly. (“The Artist,” you remember, was a silent movie. Not gonna be a huge audience for that.)
By the way, this phenomenon is not limited to films. Books that win the Pulitzer Prize or the National Book Award are rarely ones many people have read. You’ll never see a John Grisham or Stephen King in the bunch. Critics in that industry won’t even deign to review certain authors (James Patterson, for example) that regularly top bestseller lists.
It seems strange to be constantly told that the movies we most choose are not the good ones, that the books we read are not really the best. Are we all dumbing down, or are the judges turning elite?
Something to ponder tonight as you try to figure out if “Lion,” “Elle” and “Moonlight” are that great, how come you never heard of them?
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.