Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Become a sustaining member and you could win a trip to Barbados!

What The MTV Movie Awards Get Right That The Oscars Don't

Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart accept the MTV Movie Award for Best Kiss (really!) at the 2010 ceremony.
Christopher Polk
Getty Images
Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart accept the MTV Movie Award for Best Kiss (really!) at the 2010 ceremony.

I admit it's a bold statement, suggesting that the most glamorous and prestigious awards ceremony Americans watch all year could learn something from an event that once had a category called "Biggest Badass Star." Certainly, I wouldn't want to see the Oscars replaced with the MTV Movie Awards, given that the first Twilight movie won five of them.

At the same time, there's something to be said for these loose, largely fan-voted awards that dispense with awards like Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay (fans are not great at knowing what elements of a movie come from the director versus the screenwriter anyway) in favor of awards like ... Best Kiss. Best Fight. And in some years, Best Scared-As-S--t Performance. (I kind of love the fact that last year, they nominated Ryan Reynolds in Buried in that category, because no, that movie isn't great, but it's creepy, and yes, he is scared.) And this year, they're giving out Best Dirtbag. Well — it's actually Best On-Screen Dirtbag. It's probably easier to get somebody on stage to accept an award if the chyron doesn't just say "Best Dirtbag: [Your Name Here]."

While the Oscars are great at recognizing movies that have certain admirable qualities – distinctive and energetic acting, say, or beautifully stylized dialogue – they have never been nearly as good at recognizing the value of the entertainment side of moviegoing. They have been reticent to acknowledge on an institutional level that people go to the movies, much of the time, to experience something exhilarating. They go to laugh, to weep and swoon, to look at beautiful places, to be scared and excited and surprised. They don't always go in order to see the most skilled artists at work. Sometimes they just want to be made to react.

That is not, by any means, a complete explanation of the art of film, any more than it would be a complete explanation of any other kind of art. And if the Oscars, while overlooking the value of entertainment, were particularly great at recognizing the actual best – in the sense of most artistically sophisticated – films, they might be more inured to criticism. But in fact, they have a weakness for the maudlin and the familiar that often means they reward neither the best films nor the films that people really love.

Don't misunderstand this as an endorsement, exactly: the MTV Movie Awards certainly have a history of rewarding films of questionable artistic merit. To give just one example, this is likely to be four years in a row for the Twilight franchise winning Best Movie, and in one of those years, it defeated High School Musical 3, among others. (The passing of that franchise will do these awards a world of good, even if it is likely to simply be supplanted by The Hunger Games. In fact, because of the structure of the nomination period, THG is up against the penultimate Twilight movie this year and might even eke out a surprise victory, I suppose.)

At the same time, this outfit also has a history of rewarding the kinds of films that are overlooked at the Oscars and not only greatly loved by the public but also highly regarded critically. They have recognized some of the Harry Potter movies for Best Movie (which they also call Movie Of The Year), and they've recognized The Dark Knight, and The Hangover, and The Matrix, and The 40 Year Old Virgin, and Iron Man. Last year, they nominated Emma Stone's great work in Easy A for Best Female Performance, and while they don't give out their Best New Filmmaker award anymore, in 1995, they gave it to Steve James for Hoop Dreams, which is more than he got from the Academy, for which he got only a nomination for editing.

And while I may not agree with their Best Kiss nominees (Channing Tatum and Rachel McAdams in The Vow had an almost complete lack of chemistry, which was only one of that terrible movie's many problems), the idea of rewarding a Best Kiss from the year's movies makes some sense. People remember great kisses. The same is true for Best Fight, a category that this year includes Harry Potter vs. Voldemort and the meticulously choreographed multi-level parking-ramp battle that was the best part of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. I remember both those scenes; I remember thinking about the MI:GP scene while it was happening that whatever else I believed about the movie, that? That was cool. It was fun. It was a great time. A great time isn't the only thing you get from the movies, but it's part of why people come in the door, and there's no reason not to reward it. Not with every honor, but with some honor.

Another thing these awards have going for them is a sense of their own lack of importance. There's no sense that anyone is making the most significant possible declaration of greatness. Sometimes, they just add categories or drop them — for a couple of years, they had a category for Best Transatlantic Breakthrough, won on one occasion by Martine McCutcheon for playing Hugh Grant's cute-as-a-button assistant in Love Actually. There's something freeing about treating awards as the bauble distribution party they ultimately are.

There are other nicely rescued performances in this year's nominees that were largely ignored elsewhere. Their Breakthrough Performance category found the one thing about the largely shrugged-at Super 8 that even its detractors often acknowledged: the stunning performance from Elle Fanning. That Dirtbag category finds a place for Jon Hamm's delectably revolting bad boyfriend in Bridesmaids, which is a chance to recognize him for the other half of his career that's emerged alongside Mad Men, as an enchantingly game comedic performer.

And while it's pretty dopey to make him go up against Channing Tatum in The Vow, there will be a lot of people very happy to see Ryan Gosling nominated in Best Male Performance for Drive, a film that the Oscars largely blew off.
Again, you wouldn't want to have this instead of the Oscars. These are not, on the whole, the best movies or the best performances. This would make a horrifying set of awards if it were the only ones we had. Whatever the limitations of the Oscars are in recognizing high-quality blockbusters and comedies, these absolutely have their own awful limitations, like a total lack of interest in independent film and a hesitation to engage stories about anyone over about 35.

But they're not the only ones we have; they're an add-on that's quite worthwhile. Once we all look at the history of awards and agree that nobody, ever, has been any good at finding what are actually the finest movies of the year and reliably rewarding those and those alone, it becomes clear that there's a place in the world for an honor that can let Apollo 13 and Clueless compete against each other for Movie Of The Year, as they did in 1996.

They both lost, by the way, to David Fincher's Se7en – thirteen years before Fincher's first Oscar nomination.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.