Now Batting, Bradley Cooper: How Sports Could Fix the Oscars

The Academy Awards may honor the year's best films and performances, but they don't bother to tell us the stories behind them

Bradley Cooper, Oscar nominee for Best Actor, in 'American Sniper.' Credit: Warner Bros

In one of the first scenes of Foxcatcher, the film's protagonists, wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz, grunt, wheel over a mat in crustacean scuttles and jam into headlocks belied by apish grace.

There's little in the way of dialogue, but director Bennett Miller frames the scene so that it is not simply two men shaped like giant viands rolling around a gym; the grappling registers brotherly love and resentment, competing desires for individuality and intimacy, frustration and hope. The wrestling means something.

And we know this because Miller had neatly telegraphed its significance even earlier in the film, in a scene when Mark speaks to an elementary school about why he wrestles. By way of explanation, he thrusts out his Olympic gold medal, then tells the auditorium that the hunk of metal represents the virtues required to attain it. A young girl tilts her head, bored and baffled. It is not unlike the reactions many of us will have this Sunday while watching the Oscars. "How can a show about films this good be this bad?" we will wonder.

The Oscars ceremony is so widely regarded as a glittering yawn that last year, host Ellen DeGeneres focused a bit around the formalities that drag out the show, pretending to believe the Best Picture award was finally being presented when she still needed to introduce the man who would be presenting it, Will Smith. But the problem isn't just time. As amusing as it may be to watch John Travolta introduce Adele Dazeem, and as much as the Vegas-aspirational décor may shine, the show fails to establish baseline meaning or suspense.

In this respect, the Oscars could learn a thing or two from sports. Televised sports pit extremely gifted athletes against other extremely gifted athletes, much as the Oscars position some of the world's greatest film talents against more of the world's greatest film talents. But whereas sports broadcasts manage to make a ball or puck pinging back and forth wildly engaging – just look at all those face painted people shrieking in the stands! – the Oscars often feel like a sluggish conferral of nominal success. The movie stars are movie stars, and when they win they're movie stars lugging little man-shaped trophies into photo ops.

It's ironic, but despite the Academy's commitment to narrative filmmaking, the show doesn't adequately establish stories within the awards show. Last year, in the lead-up to the skeleton competition in the Sochi Games, NBC assembled a short human interest-style take on racer Noelle Pikus-Pace. It's no easy task ratcheting up the tension in a skeleton race. Mostly, it just looks like a bunch of people cooling their bellies on an ice shaft. But NBC made Pikus-Pace a protagonist, gave us someone to root for. The race was no longer a display of time-keeping acumen, but a testament to the coolest mom alive's ability to overcome injury, doubt and disappointment by throwing herself headfirst down a frozen track.

Rather than padding the Oscars ceremony with performances of "Wind Beneath My Wings" and "Over the Rainbow," the show could benefit from such human interest-style stories. Show us the 4 a.m. camera crew setup. Show us Eddie Redmayne practicing his Stephen Hawking posture. Making a feature film is a prodigious endeavor; Steve Carell's dumpy 1980s tracksuits did not make themselves. So remind us that all the seamless-looking artistry was work, and remind us that there are real people who do it. Give us characters that contextualize the award as more significant than merely a britannium statuette.

If this seems too labor intensive, the Academy could at least show stats on nominees before the awards are presented. There's a distinct, if perplexing, pleasure to parsing numbers to predict outcomes. That's why basketball games begin with figures on star players' points, assists and rebounds. The Oscars, on the other hand, only mention previous wins and nominations after the winner has been announced, during the trek to the stage. This doesn't heighten suspense, as much as it acts as superfluous denouement. It's a little like screaming "Surprise!" right after the birthday candles have been blown out.

To be fair, part of the Oscars' problem is that the nominated films feel fixed in the past because they're already complete. We're not going to find out whether the film wins in the same way that the plot of an athletic victory unfolds before the audience's eyes. Yet there is some immediacy to be gained if the clips shown are editorialized more. Sportscasters deconstruct the elegance, daring and technical facility of players. They don't just make generic comments about how all the players are really, really special (see: every Academy Awards category intro); they hype the specific superb maneuvers an audience may have missed or failed to fully appreciate. During last year's NCAA Championship, Shabazz Napier didn't simply score; Dick Vitale bellowed that he shot "from downtown Fort Worth." There's no reason the Oscars couldn't also include play-by-play commentary about the craft choices made by the artists honored. That, after all, is what the film critic does. And noticing the trappings of a beautifully constructed movie is far more exciting than the awkward would-be banter of two celebrities trying to tag-team an envelope.

The Academy is so concerned with defending the grandiosity of the awards that it neglects to celebrate precisely what makes the occasional film extraordinary: attentiveness to detail, intelligent plotting and characters an audience is compelled to follow. Not every film can be Foxcatcher, but the Oscars could stand to become more of a spectator sport.