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Do the Oscars Really Matter? The Politics of the Academy Awards

February 16, 2011
By

May 16, 1929. German actor Emil Jannings needed to catch a flight back to Europe. On his way out of town, he swung by the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood to attend an informal dinner party thrown by the newly formed Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, an organization founded in 1927 by MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer as a way to unite the major branches of the film industry. They were giving out some awards, one of which belonged to Jannings for his performances in The Way of All Flesh and The Last Command. The award was for Best Performance(s) by an Actor from August 1927- August 1928. Janet Gaynor won the Best Actress award for her performances in Seventh Heaven, Street Angel, and Sunrise. For the first and only time in the history of what has become universally known as The Oscars, two films were deemed Best Picture: Wings and Sunrise, which was given the now defunct honor of Unique and Artistic Production. The winners were pre-announced and the whole event lasted 15 minutes.

January 25, 2010. Reigning Best Supporting Actress winner Mo’Nique and Academy President Tom Sherak stand in front of dozens of journalists, the Hollywood elite, and live cameras that are piped into millions of homes via numerous networks and the Internet. After months of speculation, fan and “Oscarologist” blogs, and up to the minute commentary, a hush falls over the room as the first step in making someone’s dream of Oscar become a reality.

And the Nominees Are…

Actors want them. Studios crave them. The public obsesses over them. But what do they mean? Do they bring clout? Do they equal a higher paycheck? Do they bring more work?

The phrase “Academy Award Winner” is a moniker that is forever tacked onto the front of an actor or director’s name mostly to remind Academy voters around Oscar season that they have liked them before so please like them again. You can always tell when a film is being touted for awards because the trailer will include these not so subtle reminders. (“Halle Berry, in her best and most shattering performance since her Oscar winning Monster’s Ball…” Frankie and Alice) This title also gives credence to films that may seem subpar, but have an Oscar winner attached so they must be great (see Anthony Hopkins latest The Rite, Radio starring Cuba Gooding Jr, Things We Lost in the Fire again with Ms. Berry and Benicio del Toro, or any M. Night Shyamalan movie after The Sixth Sense for a visual aid).

Will Oscars make you rich? It is clear that a nomination piques an interest in your film. Just look at the climbing box office of 127 Hours. And Nicole Kidman’s paychecks have certainly benefited from her win, much to the detriment of the studios backing her; Kidman’s return rate for their investment is a mere one dollar. And yes, Oscar nominees and winners Will Smith, Sandra Bullock, Reese Witherspoon, and Johnny Depp are among the highest paid in the business, but did an Oscar nomination help them do it? Hardly. They are movie stars, tabloid sensations. Julia Roberts became a box office sensation after Pretty Woman (coincidentally netting her an Oscar nod) but it was her killer smile and girl next door persona that cemented her in our hearts (and our pocket books) long before she played Erin Brockovich. Tom Cruise’s biggest moneymaker (the Mission Impossible franchise) has nothing to do with his powerful turns in Born on the 4th of July and Magnolia and everything to do with being sexy and ridiculously famous.

The same could be said for Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Meryl Streep, touted as the world’s greatest living actress with 16 Oscar nominations and two wins to prove it, not to mention 30 years in the business, never ended up on a list of highest paid actresses until she started doing more lightweight films like The Devil Wears Prada and Mamma Mia, making her a box office success. It is to Streep’s credit — and the Academy’s love for her — that she turned a box-office hit into an Oscar nod for Prada. If this isn’t enough proof, look at these Forbes inductees with nary a nomination between them: Ben Stiller, Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Lopez, Sarah Jessica Parker, Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore, and Daniel Radcliffe.

What about more work? Immediately following a win, there is a buzz about you, making you the hot new thing of the moment. Studios want to capitalize on your success, hoping to be attached to another nomination or win, giving themselves credibility. But having or not having an Oscar doesn’t necessarily secure you a job or keep you from working. Jennifer Aniston will always have an audience regardless, even if she makes flop after flop after flop, because people will always love her (you should be sending Angelina Jolie an annual gift basket, Ms. Aniston). And look at the people who have an Oscar and don’t work or only work in horrible projects (Mira Sorvino, Helen Hunt). And of course, there is the almost endless list of amazing people who have never won or shamelessly never even been nominated, which I will touch on later.

The most important thing that an Oscar brings someone is respect within the film community. Unlike other “honors” such as American Idol and the People’s Choice Awards, the Oscars are decided by a distinguished group of individuals who must be invited to participate. (If you win an Oscar, you are not immediately a member of the Academy, but you are pushed to the head of the list for consideration). It carries a cache, a history. The Academy Award is the most prestigious honor in film, and save for the Nobel, Pulitzer, Fields Medal, and the Kennedy Center Honors, the most revered and respected award, period; and some people will stop at nothing to get it.

 

Shaking Hands and Kissing Babies

Every year, we are inundated with ads in Variety, the Village Voice, USA Today, The Hollywood Reporter, local papers, commercials, websites, and individually distributed postcards proclaiming grand statements about films and their participants: (“A Knockout Punch. The Quartet of Actors Deserve a Group Oscar,” The Fighter; ”If there’s any justice, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams will both earn Oscar nominations for their raw, arresting performances,” Blue Valentine; “When a film is this well received across the board…it goes a long way with Oscar voters,” (The Social Network). Clearly, the loudest – and one could claim – most successful voice in the political game of Oscar is Harvey Weinstein, netting 75 Oscars and hundreds of nominations for his films, including Best Picture champs The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, Chicago, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and eventual winner The King’s Speech. Oscar campaigns have become as important if not more so than the films themselves.

Winning by politics is not a new phenomenon in Oscar history. Mary Pickford, silent screen star and the Julia Roberts of her day, led the first Oscar campaign in 1929, by having the then five member voting committee (one of which was her husband and Academy President, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) over for tea to discuss the merits of her film and her performance. She won Best Actress that year. In 1945, Joan Crawford feigned illness because she thought she wasn’t going to win and ended up with a camera crew at her bedside to film her acceptance speech for Mildred Pierce. In 1960, Elizabeth Taylor won Best Actress for her performance as a prostitute (one of the Hollywood’s favorite roles for women) in Butterfield 8 because she was recovering from throat surgery. And how can we forget Kate Winslet’s pleas on late night TV on how desperately she wanted an Oscar? The Academy listened and gave it to her for playing one of their other favorites, a Nazi, in The Reader.

How to Win an Oscar

 

Just having a good campaign isn’t enough. First you have to get nominated and there are a few simple guidelines to follow in order to get the Academy’s attention.

1) Acting over spectacle

 

The way voting works within the Academy is that each category votes for itself. For example, make-up artists vote for other make-up artists, writers vote for other writers, etc, except for Best Picture, which is voted on by the entire Academy. The largest and most influential branch of voters is the acting branch. As the Academy has grown over the years, the number of actors has been the largest group to multiply given their breadth in the industry and the fact that 20 nominees and 4 winners are seriously considered for inclusion each year. If you look at the winning films over the past decade or so, they tend to be movies heavily reliant on acting (The Hurt Locker, No Country for Old Men, The Departed, Crash, Million Dollar Baby, A Beautiful Mind, American Beauty, Shakespeare in Love).

2) Don’t make them laugh

Unfortunately, The Academy does not possess a sense of humor. In its 83 year history, it has awarded a comedy Best Picture only 7 times: It Happened One Night (1934), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Marty (1955), The Apartment (1960), Tom Jones (1963), Annie Hall (1977), and American Beauty (1999) if you consider that a comedy.

Comedic performances are equally as rare for Best Actor or Actress totaling 13: Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, It Happened One Night; James Stewart, The Philadelphia Story; Judy Holliday, Born Yesterday; Ernest Borgnine, Marty; Lee Marvin, Cat Ballou; Richard Dreyfus, The Goodbye Girl; Diane Keaton, Annie Hall; Cher, Moonstruck; Frances McDormand, Fargo; Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt; As Good As It Gets; and Kevin Spacey, American Beauty.

The supporting categories are much more willing to award comedic roles, awarding 22 performances, clearly an indication of their sub-stature and comedy itself as less of an art form: Charles Coburn, The More the Merrier; Josephine Hull, Harvey; Jack Lemmon, Mister Roberts; Walter Matthau, The Fortune Cookie; Goldie Hawn, Cactus Flower; Tatum O’Neill, Paper Moon; George Burns, The Sunshine Boys; Lee Grant, Shampoo; Maggie Smith, California Suite; Melvyn Douglas, Being There; John Gielgud, Arthur; Mary Steenburgen, Melvin and Howard; Angelica Huston, Prizzi’s Honor; Kevin Kline, A Fish Called Wanda; Jack Palance, City Slickers; Marisa Tomei, My Cousin Vinny; Dianne Wiest, Bullets Over Broadway; Mira Sorvino, Mighty Aphrodite; Cuba Gooding Jr, Jerry Magiure; Chris Cooper, Adaptation; Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine; and Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

The only comedic performances nominated this year are Annette Bening and Mark Ruffalo in The Kids are All Right who will lose to Natalie Portman for Black Swan and Christian Bale for The Fighter, respectively.

The easiest way for a comedian to get attention is to play a dramatic character: Robin Williams (Good Will Hunting), Dan Akyroyd (Driving Miss Daisy), Eddie Murphy (Dreamgirls), Mo’Nique (Precious) know this best. However, this doesn’t always equal a pay-off. Jim Carrey toned down his crazy slapstick for The Truman Show and Man on the Moon, two wonderfully complex, moving performances that both won him Golden Globes, but no recognition from the Academy. Then there are the iconic comedic performances of Cary Grant in films like The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, and The Philadelphia Story that went unnoticed, yet they nominated him for two melodramas (Penny Serenade, None But the Lonely Heart). Charlie Chaplin received a single nomination for his acting work in The Great Dictator where he played, yep, Hitler. Jerry Lewis; nothing. Marilyn Monroe; nothing. Steve Buscemi; nothing. And the biggest slight of all, Steve Martin for his hilarious work in The Jerk, Little Shop of Horrors, and All of Me, the latter of which shows up every now and then on lists of the Biggest Oscar Snubs.

3) You Gotta Have a Gimmick

It’s not enough to just turn in a beautiful, layered performance. You need something extra, an edge, to make you stand out or hide the fact that your acting isn’t great (I’m talking to you, Ms. Hudson).

The most reliable tropes are characters who:

a) Suffer from a mental Illness/disability

Ingrid Bergman, Gaslight; Harold Russell, The Best Years of Our Lives; Joanne Woodward, The Three Faces of Eve; Jon Voight, Coming Home; Marlee Matlin, Children of a Lesser God; Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man; Daniel Day-Lewis, My Left Foot; Kathy Bates, Misery; Al Pacino, Scent of a Woman; Holly Hunter, The Piano; Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump; Jessica Lange, Blue Sky; Geoffrey Rush, Shine; Angelina Jolie, Girl, Interrupted

b) Sing or Dance

Bing Crosby, Going My Way; George Chakiris and Rita Moreno, West Side Story; Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady; Julie Andrews, Mary Poppins; Barbra Streisand, Funny Girl; Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli, Cabaret; Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chicago; Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls; Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart

 

c) Hit the Bottle

Ray Milland, The Lost Weekend; Claire Trevor, Key Largo; Elizabeth Taylor, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; Nicolas Cage, Leaving Las Vegas

d) Participate in/Survive the Holocaust

Vanessa Redgrave, Julia; Meryl Streep, Sophie’s Choice; Roberto Begnini, Life is Beautiful; Adrien Brody, The Pianist, Kate Winslet, The Reader; Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds

e) Being a Woman of Ill Repute

Helen Hayes, The Sin of Madelon Claudet; Vivien Leigh, A Streetcar Named Desire; Jo Van Fleet, East of Eden; Dorothy Malone, Written on the Wind; Elizabeth Taylor, Butterfield 8; Jane Fonda, Klute; Jodie Foster, The Accused; Mira Sorvino, Mighty Aphrodite; Kim Basinger, L.A Confidential

f) Make a Physical Transformation, Particularly Attractive to Hideous

Robert De Niro, Raging Bull; Linda Hunt, The Year of Living Dangerously; Halle Berry, Monster’s Ball; Nicole Kidman, The Hours; Charlize Theron, Monster

 

4) Gay for Pay

Hollywood has never been known for accepting homosexuality. Closet homosexuals and multiple Oscar nominees Rock Hudson, Montgomery Clift, and James Dean knew this well. Heartthrobs of their day to swooning women (and quiet men) everywhere, these men kept their true identities to themselves to further their careers. The same could be said for numerous actors currently in Hollywood. However, when a known straight person signs on to play a homosexual, every type of praise is heaped upon them from the community for their “bravery”: Annette Benning, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sean Penn, Hilary Swank, Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhall, and Felicity Huffman to draw just from the last ten years. The only openly homosexual actor to glean recognition from the Academy (Jodie Foster not withstanding) is Ian McKellan with two nominations for his work in Gods and Monsters (1998) and The Lord of the Rings (2001). What works in his favor, besides being a highly distinguished Shakespearean actor, is that he is old and not a sexualized male, gracing the pages of US Weekly.

5) Embrace Your Stereotype

As of 2011, five black women and eight black men have won Oscars for their performances. Of those twelve, two were athletes, two were welfare mamas, one was a mammy, three were military personnel, one was a cop, one was a handyman, one was a charlatan, and two were entertainers. That just about covers every conceivable stereotype for black people in cinema. If you look through the list of the other forty-five (forty-six, if you count Hailee Steinfeld, which apparently Wikipedia does), nine of them are entertainers, five of them are in the military or politics, five of them are some type of servant, six of them are criminals, three are athletes, and nine of them deal with “the struggle” of being black in America. Of the remaining seven only two are successful, financially secure, eloquent characters devoid of stereotype: Beah Richards in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and Marianne Jean-Baptiste in Secrets and Lies (1996).

And if you are a black director, make sure you make a film that illustrates these clichés: the only two African-Americans to be nominated for Best Director are John Singleton for Boyz in the Hood (1989, at 24, the youngest person, black or white, to be nominated) and Lee Daniels for Precious (2009).

6) Play a Real Person

Actors love nothing more than to watch their comrades chew the scenery, which is most commonly found in characters based on real people. Observe:

Charles Laughton, The Private Life of Henry VIII; Joseph Schildkraut, The Life of Emile Zola; Paul Muni, The Story of Louis Pasteur; Spencer Tracy, Boys Town; Gary Cooper, Sergeant York; James Cagney, Yankee Doodle Dandy; Anthony Quinn, Lust for Life; Maximilian Schell, Judgment at Nuremberg; Peter Ustinov, Spartacus; Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, The Miracle Worker; George C. Scott, Patton; Sissy Spacek, Coal Miner’s Daughter; Maureen Stapleton, Reds; Ben Kingsley, Gandhi; F. Murray Abraham, Amadeus; Martin Landau, Ed Wood; Judi Dench, Shakespeare in Love; Hilary Swank, Boys Don’t Cry; Marcia Gay Harden, Pollock; Julia Roberts, Erin Brockovich; Jennifer Connelly, A Beautiful Mind; Jim Broadbent, Iris; Cate Blanchett, The Aviator; Jamie Foxx, Ray; Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line; Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote; Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland; Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose; Sean Penn, Milk; Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side

 

And these are just the winners! I have not taken into consideration the dozens more who were simply honored with a nomination.

An Honor Just to be Nominated

“That movie was crap? Why did they nominate that?” “Seriously, what does she have to do to get nominated?” “That Academy is just biased against super hero movies.”

Prior to the Academy Awards, dozens of film and media organizations give out their annual awards, which have always served as a progenitor for Oscar nominations if not triumphs. Yet with only a limited number of spots, some people will inevitably be left out, sending shockwaves and uproar through the film community and fan boys alike. Recent jaw dropping moments include Scarlett Johansson for Lost in Translation (2003), Paul Giammati for Sideways (2004), and Academy stalwart Clint Eastwood’s supposed last leading man role in Gran Torino (2008). This year is no exception. Leonardo DiCaprio, heralded as the best actor of his generation, was considered a shoo-in early on in the race for one of his two lead performances in Shutter Island and Inception, but both were shut out by exceeding love for Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network and Javier Bardem in Biutiful (Thanks, Julia Roberts).

The biggest Stop the Presses/Crossing Your Arms While Pouting “slight” went this year to Christopher Nolan, three time Director’s Guild of America nominee, yet never a final contender in the Oscar derby. Showing up on numerous year-end guild and film society ballots, Nolan was considered a given to be recognized by the Academy, but at the last minute, Academy favorites Joel and Ethan Coen, moseyed in with their mediocre Western, True Grit to take the 5th slot. To be clear, I feel no sympathy for Mr. Nolan. Should he have been nominated over the Coens? Perhaps. Is he on par with Best Director losers Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock as he is oft-compared? Hardly. His films reach for depth and greatness, but still play to the lowest common denominator, spelling out every nuance as if the audience was in the 5th grade. And where a director can’t be blamed for a bad script (unless of course you wrote it, Christopher!), he can be blamed for choosing the material and allowing an actor to make terrible choices (did you really think Christian Bale’s Batman voice was a good idea?). If you want to make pop art a la Michael Bay and James Cameron, that’s fine. But that doesn’t mean you should stand in the company of David Fincher and Darren Aronofsky.

Christopher Nolan aside, there is a shocking handful of directors never nominated for an Oscar and an even more disgusting list of ones who struck out more than once:

Never Nominated:

Spike Lee
Sam Peckinpah
Lars von Trier
Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Wim Wenders
Werner Herzog
F.W. Murnau

Never Won (a competitive Oscar for Best Director):

Robert Altman (0/7)
Alfred Hitchcock (0/5)
King Vidor (0/5)
Stanley Kubrick (0/4)
Sidney Lumet (0/4)
Ernst Lubitsch (0/3)
David Lynch (0/3)
Charles Chaplin (0/1)
John Cassavettes (0/1)
Akira Kurosawa (0/1)
Orson Welles (0/1)
Howard Hawks (0/1)
Cecil B. DeMille (0/1)

Then there are the actors.

Never Nominated:

Steve Buscemi
Mia Farrow
Steve Martin
Donald Sutherland
Edward G. Robinson
Vincent Price
Joel McCrea
Peter Lorre
Bruce Willis
Myrna Loy

Never Won (a competitive Oscar):

Peter O’Toole (0/8)
Richard Burton (0/7)
Thelma Ritter (0/6)
Deborah Kerr (0/6)
Glenn Close (0/5)
Irene Dunne (0/5)
Albert Finney (0/5)
Julianne Moore (0/4)
Annette Bening (0/4, sorry, Annette but you will lose this year)
Barbara Stanwyck (0/4)
Ed Harris (0/4)
Montgomery Clift (0/4)
Greta Garbo (0/4)
Agnes Moorehead (0/4)
Rosalind Russell (0/4)
Mickey Rooney (0/4)
Johnny Depp (0/3)
Leonardo DiCaprio (0/3)
Angela Lansbury (0/3)
Cary Grant (0/2)

Not all beloved actors and directors must fall prey to these statistics. There are of course the hand-full of winners who prevail more for their body of work than any individual performance. Paul Newman’s win in 1986 for The Color of Money made up for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Hustler, Hud, Cool Hand Luke, Absence of Malice, and The Verdict. Geraldine Page beat out two amazing performances by Anne Brancroft in Agnes of God and Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple because she had lost 7 times before. Humphrey Bogart won in 1951 for The African Queen in large part because he had lost for Casablanca and wasn’t even nominated (!) for two of his and cinema’s best performances in The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, shutting out Marlon Brando’s iconic performance in A Streetcar Named Desire. It also didn’t hurt that Bogart had cancer at the time. Jeff Bridges’ win last year made up for his other 4 losses and represented the general admiration he has within the Hollywood community. The most obvious We’re-Sorry-It-Took-So-Long Oscar went to Martin Scorsese in 2006 for The Departed. Where it is not a bad film, this win was an apology for losing to Robert Redford in 1980 for Raging Bull and Kevin Costner in 1990 for Goodfellas, not to mention his inexplicable snub for Taxi Driver.

If you fail to net a competitive career win, there is the Honorary Award given to artists as a way to say, “Oops, we goofed. We promise we love you.” Particularly comedians. Observe:

1944: Bob Hope (he would also win subsequent awards in 1952 and 1965)

1946: Ernest Lubitsch

1949: Fred Astaire

1954: Danny Kaye, Greta Garbo

1959: Buster Keaton

1960: Stan Laurel

1969: Cary Grant

1970: Lillian Gish

1970: Orson Welles (after Citizen Kane, long held as the Greatest Movie Ever Made, lost Best Picture in 1941      to How Green Was My Valley)

1971: Charles Chaplin

1973: Groucho Marx

1974: Howard Hawks (after only one nomination in his illustrious career)

1978: King Vidor (who holds the record as having the longest career as a director from 1919-1980; he also lost       5 competitive Oscars)

1982: Mickey Rooney (box office star as a teenager and the only surviving performer who got their start in
silent film and vaudeville; at age 90, he is one of the oldest actors still working today)

1993: Deborah Kerr

1995: Kirk Douglas

2002: Peter O’Toole

2005: Robert Altman

2009: Lauren Bacall, Gordon Willis (esteemed cinematographer who only gleaned 2 nominations over a 30
year career, in which he did not receive recognition for The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Annie Hall, or
Manhattan, films always recognized for their cinematography)

A Year in Film

So what does all this mean for the current Oscar race? It is clear, given the sweeps from every major critics awards group, the DGA, the PGA, the Golden Globes, and SAG, Colin Firth, Natalie Portman, Melissa Leo, and Christian Bale will walk away with the Oscars and, for the most part, deservedly so (Jesse Eisenberg’s subtle performance in The Social Network will be studied by actors for years and will join the ranks of iconic performances such as Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle and Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes, incidentally two performances that also lost the Oscar). And why not? On top of being great performances, this quartet of roles have everything the Academy loves: mental illness, disability, drug abuse, dancing, portraying a real person, and a pretty woman putting on a wig and wearing ugly teeth.

As far as The King’s Speech and Tom Hooper are concerned, this 11th Hour switch in the race is the exact opposite of what happened in 2004. Everyone expected The Aviator, a costumed epic directed by Martin Scorsese based on real people, to come in and take the top prize after winning the PGA, DGA, and the Golden Globe, but along came dark and brooding Million Dollar Baby to sweep the Oscars.

Since The Social Network first hit screens, it has taken out every other film in its path. The film and its director, David Fincher, were locks to waltz out of the Kodak with arms full of gold, but after the last few years of awarding edgy, unsentimental films like No Country for Old Men (2007) and The Hurt Locker (2009), The Academy has decided to return to its old school roots of wealthy, pretty people over coming adversity in beautiful clothes with swelling music and grand sets looming large in the background, a la Gone With the Wind (1939), Amadeus (1984), Out of Africa (1985), Driving Miss Daisy (1989), The English Patient (1996), and Shakespeare in Love (1998). The King’s Speech and Mr. Hooper recently won the top prizes from the PGA and most shockingly, the DGA. It seems the aforementioned power of Mr. Weinstein is clearly, as they say, in full swing.

Out of Touch?

 

Before 1944, the Academy could nominate as many films as they saw fit for Best Picture, ranging from three in 1928 and capping out with twelve in 1934 and 1935. From 1944 until 2008, the race has been limited to five films per year. A large part of the Academy’s decision to extend the Best Picture race to ten films was because of the exclusion of The Dark Knight in 2008. Despite unanimous praise and much love from the general public, the Academy chose to include more traditional Oscar fare like The Reader and Frost/Nixon over what has been dubbed “the best superhero movie,” which in the Academy’s eyes is like saying “the tallest midget.” The general public feels that the Academy is elitist and esoteric and only recognizes arty films that “no one sees.” Obvious examples of The Academy vs. The Masses are Gandhi beating E.T. (1982), Avatar losing to The Hurt Locker (2009), and my personal favorite, Star Wars losing to Annie Hall (1977). This year will continue the trend as The King’s Speech beats box office juggernauts True Grit, Toy Story 3, and Inception.

The idea that the Academy is “out of touch” is irrelevant. They are a by-invitation-only society that is beholden to no one, least of all the general public. To be fair, if the Oscars were an open forum for the average filmgoer, Twilight would be a Best Picture winner and Shia LeBouf would have more Oscars than he would know what to do with. Giving accolades to films that make obscene amounts of money, which is the best way to gauge public opinion, is why the MTV Movie Awards exists.

In addition to wanting a more positive opinion from the public, another theory for the extension of the Best Picture field is to give potential viewers a film to root for. The Academy Awards is, after all, a television show and if someone’s film is nominated, they will more likely than not, tune in to cheer. (How else can The Blind Side be explained?) Although I doubt The Academy, for all of their politics, could be swayed on something so ridiculous.

Oscar’s Legacy

The problem with awarding a film or a performance that is fresh in the mind, particularly since 85% of the “Oscar” films are released two months before the award show, is that the necessary time to reflect on its “greatness” is impossible to achieve. As important as winning an Oscar can be for an actor or the film itself, what matters is its legacy. Will this film be talked about years from now? How many people watch Vertigo and think that James Stewart must have won Best Actor when the truth is he wasn’t even nominated? There are innumerable examples of Oscar snubs like this that would take pages to fill and be contested just as vehemently as the actual winners.

The most popular, yet most dubious of Greatest Films lists, is the Top 250 on IMDB.com. This list is compiled by Average Joe viewers, clearly of a certain age range and demographic, given the consistency in tone and style of their Top 10: The Shawshank Redemption; The Godfather Part I and II; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; Pulp Fiction; Schindler’s List; 12 Angry Men; Inception; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; and The Dark Knight, only three of which won the top prize at the Oscars.

More credible, yet still greatly biased is the American Film Institute’s decennial 100 Greatest Films List. The AFI’s selections are not simply American films, but American films that capture the American spirits and values: On the Waterfront, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, High Noon, Apocalypse Now, Shane, Jaws, Rocky, American Graffiti, Saving Private Ryan, The Shawshank Redemption, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, In the Heat of the Night, Forrest Gump, All the President’s Men, 12 Angry Men, and Yankee Doodle Dandy. Out of its 100, only 27 won Best Picture, 45 others were nominated, and the remaining 28, including such beloved classics as Psycho, City Lights, and Do the Right Thing, were passed over for other fare.

The most respected list of All Time Greats is the Sight and Sound poll compiled every ten years by critics from around the globe. The current 10 are as follows:

1) Citizen Kane (1941) – lost Best Picture

2) Vertigo (1958) – not a single nomination

3) The Rules of the Game (1939) – predates an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film

4) The Godfather I and II (1972,1974) – both won Best Picture

5) Tokyo Story (1953) – no nominations

6) 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – not nominated for Best Picture

7) Battleship Potemkin (1925) – predates the Oscars

8) Sunrise (1927) – won Best Unique and Artistic Production at the 1st Academy Awards

9) 8 ½ (1963) – won Best Foreign Film

10)  Singin’ in the Rain (1952) – not nominated for Best Picture

Judging from this list and the staggering number of aforementioned films and performances that failed to achieve recognition from the Academy, I think it is safe to say that when it really boils down to it, Oscars are a crap shoot. Do they really represent the “best”? Sometimes. But what does that even mean? When you are comparing apples and oranges, some people will always prefer one over the other. What really matters are the seeds: the work that inspires future generations, the films that tell our story. If the quest for recognition in the form of a little gold statue stretches us to make better crafted, smarter films to try and explain the human condition through cinema, then the Oscars, for all of their pomp and circumstance, most definitely matter.
Jonathon Saia is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles, currently working in television and theater.

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