I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that Looper and The Dark Knight Rises were utterly ignored by the Academy this year. Whether you agree with the nominations or not, however, I think we can all agree on one thing: the Oscars are seriously overrated. Mark Juddery shares a few reasons why. (Geek Alert!)
The Greatest Show on Earth (Really?)
When critics want to show how ludicrous the Academy Awards really are, the film that they most frequently pick on is The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), directed by Cecil B. DeMille, about a group of touring circus performers. It had an all-star cast, including James Stewart in clown makeup and Betty Hutton as an emotional trapeze artist. It is not quite as awful as critics suggest, but it isn’t anything exceptional either. But it somehow managed to win the Oscar for best picture in 1952. A bad year for movies? Actually, it was the year of Singin’ In the Rain (which won nothing, and wasn’t even nominated for best picture), High Noon, and The Quiet Man, films that are now considered by critics and others to be “all-time classics” (whatever that means). (pp. 85-86)
Clueless Is As Clueless Does
Most members of the Academy [of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences] are as clueless as anyone else. I interviewed one in 2001 – the late actor Ron Randell, then eighty years old and unable to remember most of his career. The Oscars had been awarded a week beforehand, and I noticed that he had video copies next to his television of many of the nominated films, sent to him by the studios.
He revealed that he had never seen any of these films, didn’t know anything about them (and didn’t even know how to operate his video player), but voted anyway. For whom? He couldn’t remember. Did he vote for his fellow Australian actor, Russell Crowe (who had won that year for Gladiator)? He frowned: “Russell Crowe… The name rings a bell. I might have voted for him.”
There are many other stories, at least some of which are true (like the one above). Henry Fonda’s widow once said that he always let the maid fill out his Oscar ballot. Dancer-actor Ann Miller seriously considered not voting one year because of the “sloppy appearances of the actresses” who were nominated. (pp. 86-87)
Of course, voters might well be influenced by the campaigns. Harvey Weinstein, as founder of Miramax Films, was often blamed for turning the Oscars into a political election, since his studio began its aggressive lobbying for films like The Crying Game, The Piano, and Pulp Fiction, promoting these films as art house masterpieces. (None of them were named best picture, but they all did rather well at the Oscars.) Miramax finally won a best picture award for Shakespeare in Love, which also won a best actress trophy for Gwyneth Paltrow. To show how much of a political contest this had become, Miramax had engaged in the kind of negative campaigning that would make U.S. elections seem nice, attacking Paltrow’s competitors (including Emily Watson, Fernanda Montenegro, and especially Cate Blanchett) for the terrible crime of not being American.
While Weinstein might have had them down to a fine art, Oscar political campaigns have been going on since at least 1930 (the second year that the awards were presented), when the powerful actor-producer Mary Pickford invited the voting committee to an exclusive party at her mansion. The result: she was named best actress for Coquette. (p. 87)
How Important Is It?
Well, an Oscar can boost your career greatly, but it won’t necessarily save you from obscurity. Remember F. Murray Abraham, named best actor of 1984? (Amadeus was the movie.) Remember that the first actress to win two Oscars (in subsequent years, no less) was not Katherine Hepburn or Bette Davis, but a woman named Luis Rainer? No, I didn’t think you did.
Hopefully, voters are swayed by quality, not hype. Then again, these are the people who decided that The Greatest Show on Earth was “better” than Singin’ In the Rain. Fortunately, in the history of cinema, we remember more than just Oscar winners. (p. 88)