It was Sid Ganis, the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who threw the cat among the pigeons, on February 2. The 69-year old industry veteran announced to an assemblage of 112 of Hollywood's best and brightest talents at the annual Oscar Nominee's luncheon, that this year's awards ceremony would be "truly different!". Ganis, the producer of Big Daddy and Deuce Bigelow, then turned to the dutifully gathered glamour pack (including Kate Winslet, Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke) and added, ominously, "All of you guys. You're in for a big surprise!"
Naturally, nobody at the luncheon, bar Ganis and his brave new Oscars telecast director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls), had any idea what these surprises would entail (the Best Actor nominee Richard Jenkins recently told me that few people in all of Hollywood, in fact, know what's exactly going to change on the night). But it was a smart move, and a savvy marketing volley that has helped create interest once again in a ceremony that has, over recent years, and despite the lavish claims to the contrary, seemed increasingly irrelevant to the whims of our modern entertainment industry.
Last year, of course, was a low point of the Oscars. The telecast was watched by only 32 million people in the US, the lowest viewing figures since records began. The films awarded at the ceremony were darkly violent and moribund efforts such as No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood - films that found only modest audiences in home cinemas and faded in the face of that year's real populist champs such as Transformers, Shrek the Third and Spider-Man 3. The show was also marred by a lacklustre performance from the host, Jon Stewart, whose political jibes were less polished than usual.
"Oscar is 80 this year!" he began, sliding straight into some election year banter. "Which makes him now automatically the front-runner for the Republican nomination." The award recipients were gracious, polite and unfailingly dull compared to the fiery polemicists of yore (in the past, the likes of Vanessa Redgrave, Susan Sarandon and Michael Moore have livened up Oscar night by having something other than "thank you" to say).
Naturally, the rumours about this year's upgrade have been manifold, and include a knockout opening song and dance routine from the new host Hugh Jackman (a former stage singer and dancer), a narrative thread that weaves a mini-drama throughout the entire night ("Oh no! He's stolen my Oscar! I hope I get it back by the closing curtain!"), and regular spots by Jackman in the full guise of his X-Men character, Wolverine.
And yet, beneath the question of what went wrong last year and beyond the promises to make it right again this year, remains the sneaking suspicion that the Oscars simply don't matter anymore. The practical evidence within the industry reminds us each year of just how useless an Oscar win can be. Halle Berry and Gwyneth Paltrow are classic examples of the award's false promises, as the stock of both actresses plummeted following their Best Actress wins for Monster's Ball and Shakespeare in Love, respectively. Paltrow went on to star in flops such as Duets and Bounce, while Berry eradicated all of her remaining credibility by starring in two popcorn blockbusters (Die Another Day and X2) and one egregious career bomb (Catwoman).
Similarly, Adrien Brody became the toast of the month after winning a Best Actor Oscar for The Pianist. Yet Oscar gold could do nothing to save him from his own dreary follow ups, including The Jacket and Hollywoodland, both commercial failures. Brody, in fact, hasn't had a hit since 2005's King Kong, where he fought valiantly for screen time with a computer-generated gorilla. Even as far back as 1986, after winning her first Oscar for Hannah and Her Sisters, Diane Wiest soon noticed, "All I've done since the win is three days on Bright Lights, Big City as Michael J Fox's mother. That's what an Oscar does for you!"
This year, typically, the crowd of heavy-hitting nominees hardly needs any career help from small gold statuettes. Not including the character actor Jenkins, the Best Actor category is a veritable who's who of male screen icons - Brad Pitt for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Sean Penn for Milk, Frank Langella for Frost/Nixon and Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler. These seasoned professionals are vying tooth and nail for an award that ultimately means nothing, and will have little long term affect on their lives. And, increasingly, as the years pass and as the entertainment industry continues to diversify into gaming, 3-D, and online revenue streams, the idea of a standard of excellence for screen acting becomes more archaic and quaint rather than modern and mainstream.
So why is it that, despite evidence to the contrary, the Oscars still hold a huge allure for the movie faithful who flock to them and the audiences that continue to watch them at home? The answer can be found among the list of this year's nominees, and specifically in their most popular contender. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button carries 13 nominations, one less than the all-time record set jointly by All About Eve and Titanic. It is the only traditional big studio picture among a raft of smaller, more interesting, edgier fare. It is a safe film about great epic ideas of romance, sadness, and time travel, and it is surrounded by movies about child poverty (Slumdog Millionaire), civil rights (Milk), revisionist Nazi history (The Reader) and difficult American politics (Frost/Nixon). And, if previous years are anything to go by, it might just sweep the boards (Titanic, anyone?).
Button is, in other words, the perfect Oscar movie. Made within the studio system for enormous amounts of money - the budget was $150 million (Dh550m) - and starring the most glamorous A-list stars available (Pitt and Cate Blanchett), it has a direct cultural connection - unlike all the other Oscar contenders - to past classic Hollywood products such as Gone With the Wind, The Sound of Music, The Searchers and Rear Window.
It is, in short, the reason why the Oscars exist, why we watch them, why we go to them, and why they matter. For in that one single ceremony we are promised a continuity between Hollywood past and present. The countless montages of movies through the ages remind us of this. The sombre In Memoriam sequence does, too, reminding us of the talent that the industry has lost in the last 12 months. And the lifetime achievement awards renew our faith in the patriarchs and matriarchs that lead this imagined community into a greater age.
Of course, being Hollywood, it's all illusion. There is no community anymore, just a business struggling to find its feet amid a global meltdown and a dangerous digital revolution. But the promise of that glamorous community, and the sublime grandeur that movies like Benjamin Button promise, is enough to bring us back to the Oscar ceremony year after year. With or without the surprise revamp.