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The Oscars Need a Jolt, but It Isn’t a Popular Movie Category—It’s a Breakthrough Performance Award

The Academy Awards wanted to change things up this year before it got cold feet and backed down. But there are better ways to warm up an aging awards show.

Ringer illustration

We’ve entered the awards season distortion field. It’s a soft launch, with three months until the Academy Awards, but as the critics’ awards are slowly parceled out, the dissonance is becoming loud. For months, the Oscars conversation has revolved around films like Black Panther, A Star Is Born, and anticipated but largely unseen big-ticket releases like Mary Poppins Returns. But that is not what this time is for.

Instead, this period is a preliminary bulwark against the favorites. None of the aforementioned movies were recognized by the esteemed New York Film Critics Circle, which handed out its Best Film award to Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, a presumptive favorite, but also multiple awards to Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, as well as prizes for Regina Hall’s hard-won and little-seen performance in Support the Girls, Bo Burnham’s precocious debut, Eighth Grade, and an animated Spider-Man movie that 99.9 percent of the world hasn’t seen yet. What a time to be alive and voting. Why this happens is obvious — the Oscars are an overmanaged TV show driven by vanity, history, and a broad coalition of disparate insiders. Critics awards, like NYFCC’s and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s, as well as the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Golden Globes, are agreed upon by considerably smaller groups with more esoteric end games motivated by specialized impulses. The composite results of those bodies, along with the Screen Actors Guild, the Directors Guild, the Producers Guild, the voters logging ballots for the Independent Spirit Awards and the BAFTAs, and schnooks like yours truly and their hopelessly idiosyncratic Look at me! year-end top 10s, would reveal absolutely nothing. Sure, there are consensus builders like Roma and A Star Is Born, the two dominant films of the season, which flatter different aspects of the awards process. But Hall’s award from the NYFCC, for example, could be the last one she receives for the next three months, no matter the merits of her performance. It’s a fascinating contradiction: the hunt for unanimity, for the highest achievement in movies, often results in evidence of the wonderful, ever-burgeoning diversity in movies. Last year the NYFCC gave Lady Bird its Best Film award. Lady Bird didn’t win Best Picture at the Oscars. But it was nominated all those months later, and more people saw it for that reason. Awards season isn’t a race — it’s an ecosystem. Its oxygen is statuettes.

Which is why last summer’s premature announcement by the Academy about a “Popular Film” Oscar was such a blunder. It undermined not just the entire premise of the Oscars — that the Academy knows better than anyone (including the public) what constitutes greatness in the medium, and it is their duty to historicize with an awards show that airs on television — but it betrayed the sanctity of the process. The months and months of narrativizing, campaigning, and golf-clapping that happens during the season — to say nothing of the actual, you know, making of the movies — is what provides the unique thickness of our Oscars stew. It is covered like sports because it evolves like sports — it is a literal season, with back-to-back games (consecutive award shows), injuries (attack campaigns), and a grueling schedule finally leading to a championship (the Academy Awards). And like sports, as soon as it’s over, it starts all over again. When the 90th Academy Awards aired on March 4 of this year, Black Panther had already captivated America, earning $450 million, and captured the critical conversation. And here we are still talking about it. The season is long, complex, and exhausting. But, I would argue, it’s essential. The popular film category sought to demean the long tail of Black Panther, and perhaps movies like Get Out or The Dark Knight or Jurassic World or A Quiet Place or Inside Out — however you define your preferred “popular” movie. It wanted to demarcate and disassociate. It was a mistake, and shouldn’t be resurrected for 2020, or ever.

But that doesn’t mean the Academy Awards should exist in amber. The awards evolve because the art form evolves, and the business with it. There have been 15 discontinued categories in Oscars history. Of the 24 existing prizes, only seven were handed out in the very first ceremony recognizing the films of 1927 and 1928. At that same ceremony, just three films were nominated for Best Picture, then called Outstanding Production. Six years later, there were 10 nominees. Eleven years after that, the field was limited to five films. Sixty-five years later, the pool expanded back to 10. For 26 years, they gave out a prize called the Academy Juvenile Award to performers under the age of 18 for “outstanding contributions to screen entertainment.” That stopped in 1961. In other words: The Oscars change. And they always should.

I have an idea for a change. It’s a small one, but fun: Breakthrough Performance. This is a purposely loose designation, one that requires no definition. Could it be a first-time performer on screen? Yes. A journeyman’s long-awaited leap? Uh-huh. A young director’s incredible debut? Also, yes. A cinematographer working on a mediocre film with extraordinary photography? Sure. A dog? OK.

Why do we need to do this? We don’t; everything is fine. But if the Oscars want to start messing with expectations, futzing with the levels to create a new kind of noise, I suggest something that is frivolous but also not insulting to the whole conceit of the show. At the risk of making this the Academy’s version of Rock ’n’ Jock Basketball’s 50-point shot, it’s the silliness of this that makes it. Think of the value proposition: It gets you the press release, the announcement you want; it introduces an entirely new collection of nominees, many of whom got to audition their speeches at the early-season awards and galas; and it destabilizes an increasingly bland operation.

There are complications here, of course. Yalitza Aparicio, the star of Roma, is a first-time performer who will almost certainly be nominated for Best Actress. It’s the same conundrum of the Popular Film Oscar: Would it be better for her to be nominated for Breakthrough Performer or the historically bigger prize of Best Actress? I don’t know. Maybe she could campaign in both categories. Or not. In a year in which Lady Gaga and Glenn Close are on a collision course for the prize, perhaps Aparicio would be best served to run in another election, and win a new district.

But gerrymandering minutiae aside, what Breakthrough Performance provides is a new vernacular — it creates a new tension in movies, that arriving on the scene should be praised, loudly. Twenty-eight-year-old Elizabeth Debicki is not new, per se. Widows is her 13th film. She has already appeared in a Marvel movie, an AMC miniseries, two memorable mega-flops (The Cloverfield Paradox and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) and voiced an animated rabbit. But Widows is something new, the first time casual viewers asked Who is that? Her work in the movie is extraordinary — developed, lived-in. Only she could have played it that way, her long grace and porcelain complexion shading a simmering power. It’s the thing we always look for at this time of year; it’s worthy. It probably won’t nab her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. But Breakthrough? I don’t see why not. There are other worthies, lots, in fact. Ben Dickey’s out-of-nowhere command of the screen in Ethan Hawke’s Blaze springs to mind. The preternatural Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade. Constance Wu in Crazy Rich Asians? Certainly. Brady Jandreau in Chloé Zhau’s The Rider? He gets my vote. Better yet, think of past winners we missed out on: Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out. Margot Robbie in Wolf of Wall Street. Eminem in 8 Mile. Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense. Imagine the possibilities, the way this award could have fractured the structure of Oscars history. Maybe Marisa Tomei positions herself as a breakout for My Cousin Vinny in 1993, resulting in a win for Joan Plowright for Enchanted April. OK, maybe that isn’t so significant. But it’s fun to ponder.

I know what you’re thinking: “This is already an actual award handed out at the MTV Movie Awards.” Oh, but things change, even for the MTV Movie Awards. This year was the first since that show’s inception in 1992 in which Breakthrough Performance was not given out. It was renamed the “Next Generation” award, and converted to a category voted on by fans. MTV has moved off its corner. Breakthrough Performance is there for the taking. Will it solve the vanishing audience for live television events? No. Will it expose more movies to a wide audience without demeaning history? Yes. Will it make the long wind-up to the Oscars feel just a little more harmonious? Couldn’t hurt. And it’d pave the way for the next new category.