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Why the Academy Needs to Give ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ the Best Picture Oscar

If AMPAS wants to save the Oscars, it can start by handing a trophy to Tom Cruise

It probably won’t happen. It probably shouldn’t happen. But a lot of people — myself included — are really hoping it happens. Because the only way for the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences to save this year’s Oscars is to make sure the Best Picture award goes to “Top Gun: Maverick.”

No, it wasn’t the best movie released in 2022, or even the best action movie. (That prize, in my humble opinion, should go to the woefully underappreciated “Bullet Train.”) But “Top Gun” did accomplish something this year that definitely deserves some sort of award: It defibrillated a near-dead theatrical industry.

When it came out last May, many Americans were still wearing masks and movie theaters were still almost entirely empty. It looked at the time as if COVID had dealt such a lethal blow to the film business that the audience, which had been safely tucked at home with Netflix for two years, would never return.

But then Tom Cruise zoomed onto screens in an F-14 Tomcat, and suddenly Hollywood was saved. The picture grossed $719 million in the U.S. and another $770 million overseas. It was proof that big, dumb, super-fun tentpole action movies could still pack theaters.

And now, for its next miracle, “Top Gun” needs to save the Oscars. Because, boy, do they need saving. Last year’s show pulled in just 16 million viewers. That’s better than the 2021 broadcast — the lowest-rated in history, with just 10 million viewers — but still only about a third of the audience that the ceremony used to draw not so long ago (like, say, 1998, when 58 million people tuned in).

This year’s show is so far shaping up to be yet another potential dud, at least judging from the lackluster list of likely contenders. “The Fabelmans” has a great director and a great story — Steven Spielberg, reminiscing about his teenage years as a film geek — but no stars. “Tár” has a great star — Cate Blanchett — but no story and a director, Todd Field, so indifferent to audience-pleasing that he opens his film with the closing credits. “The Banshees of Inisherin,” “Women Talking,” “Everything Everywhere All at Once” — whatever else they are, they’re not crowd-pullers.

Let’s just say nobody is going to be madly adjusting their TV antennas — or logging onto ABC.com — to catch a glimpse of Judd Hirsch on the red carpet.

Clearly, what the Oscars desperately need right now is a gigantic, bigger-than-life, jumbo-size movie star. The sort of old-fashioned marquee idol who can still, even today, in a world of fractured audiences and a zillion streamers, entice the multitudes to the same screen at the same time. And there’s only one of those left on planet Earth these days. His name rhymes with Shmom Schmooze.

Of course, the likelihood of “Top Gun” winning Best Picture — Cruise would accept as a producer of the film, as well as its star — is roughly the same as a fighter pilot swooping through impossibly narrow canyons while dodging gun turrets and successfully dropping a missile on a target no bigger than a mini fridge (without crashing into a mountain). Academy voters generally aren’t wild about action movies; aside from technical and sometimes music awards, films of that ilk are almost always snubbed at the Oscars.

After all, this is the same group of snooty cinephiles who gave 2021’s Best Picture award to “Nomadland,” the film in which Francis McDormand pooped into a bucket.

Still, in Hollywood no mission is impossible. And there are indeed signs of budding momentum for “Top Gun.” The picture managed to elbow its way onto the American Film Institute’s unranked, alphabetized picks for the 10 best films of 2022 (squeezed between “Tár” and “The Woman King”). The National Board of Review went even further, naming “Top Gun” as its No. 1 pick for movie of the year. Even the New York Film Critics Circle showed it some love, giving “Top Gun” DP Claudio Miranda its best cinematography award.   

Hopeful harbingers, to be sure, even if the Oscar odds for “Top Gun” remain decidedly long.

Honestly, though, if the Academy has any chance of pulling itself out of its current ratings nosedive and winning its audience back, it needs to do something it’s never done before. Something it’s had multiple opportunities to do over the years but for some reason just hasn’t got around to. Something that could now save its hide.

It needs to give Tom Cruise a trophy.