The Academy Awards Have Always Been Terrible
Awards are stupid. The recent Golden Globe nominations reminded me of this. Some people, mostly on the Twitters, screamed with outrage regarding the overlooked films, filmmakers and actors. Others, however, claimed they cried with joy because the films, filmmakers and actors they wanted nominated were nominated.
There’s a reason my all-time Saturday Night Live sketch was William Shatner pleading with Trekkies to get a life. This cycle of outrage and joy will repeat itself again the next time there are nominations, then winners, announced for an awards show. I was, of course, guilty of participating in the cycle of outrage and joy myself for an embarrassingly long time.
I distinctly remember watching the Academy Awards in early 1983 and crying when Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi won Best Picture over Steven Spielberg’s E.T. I was a sad, bitter 11 year old. I had no Twitter to amplify my angst to an unsuspecting world, but the sour taste of defeat still resonates 35 years later. I was very very upset. In retrospect, perhaps I’m a hypocrite for making fun of people who are so invested in awards shows.
Then again, I was 11.
Hollywood producers originally founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the 1920s as a reaction to the cries for unionization in the age of 20-hour workdays. The producers thought at the time the Academy would function as kind of a house union, but it never worked out that way. Instead, the Academy, while functioning now as an important champion of film preservation, is primarily known for its annual awards ceremony.
And for 90 years, they’ve awarded the wrong films and creators pretty consistently. To catalog all the mistakes would require days. Most of the best picture winners alone for nearly a century have been the wrong ones, with long-forgotten films winning out over films that have become classics. Some examples would include 1941 when How Green Was My Valley won over Citizen Kane, 1959 when Ben-Hur defeated Some Like It Hot, and 1979 when Kramer vs. Kramer beat Apocalypse Now. It is only the exception when the best picture actually wins Best Picture.
The nadir, however, was the winner of Best Picture of 1932-1933. Not only did Frank Lloyd’s Cavalcade win over all the other nominees, it won over all other pictures released over a 17-month period. In 1934, the Oscars were awarded for the first time to films released during a calendar year. Previously, they were awarded to films released between August 1 and July 31, so to mark the transition, the ceremony held on March 16, 1934 honored films released between August 1, 1932 and December 31, 1933. Cavalcade beat out other Best Picture nominees I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, 42nd Street, A Farewell to Arms, Lady for a Day, Little Women, The Private Life of Henry VIII, She Done Him Wrong, Smilin’ Through and State Fair, not to mention perennial classics that weren’t even nominated such as Trouble in Paradise and King Kong.
There are literally hundreds of examples of foolhardiness, and here are some other examples of when the Academy got everything spectacularly wrong. One of the very first was the award for Best Actress for 1929, which went to the legendary Mary Pickford for Coquette.
It took only until the second-ever Oscar ceremony for an undeserving winner to win. Pickford, the silent-screen legend who is perhaps the most important actor-producer figure in early American cinema, appeared in this, her first talking picture in 1929, and she was terrible. Granted, most early talking pictures were terrible as actors had to acclimate themselves to the new sound technology, but poor Mary, trying so hard with her Southern accent to act and act big, is a sad mess. Her later speaking roles would show improvement but this award, the second-ever Best Actress prize, set a long-standing precedent for awarding an actor for their overall career achievements rather than the role for which the award was given.
One of the least-deserving Best Picture awards went to a film for that very reason: Cecil B. DeMille’s 1952 film The Greatest Show on Earth beat out Singin’ in the Rain, universally recognized as the greatest American musical ever produced. DeMille’s epic circus movie starring Charlton Heston was characteristic of the veteran director’s penchant for creating overlong and dull movies with terrible dialogue that were somehow still entertaining because of their hokey sincerity and visual spectacle. DeMille, an old pro whose first movie was produced in 1914, was clearly given this award for career achievement, one that would have been better applied to his final film The Ten Commandments in 1956, a classic that still airs on broadcast network television every Spring. Oscar was impatient to award the old man. It just can’t do anything right.
Speaking of not getting anything right, often times a split vote is the culprit. Art Carney won Best Actor for his role in the 1974 film Harry and Tonto.
Never heard of Harry and Tonto? Don’t worry. No one else has either. But I imagine you’ve probably heard of Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II and Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, both made that same year? They represent two of the great performances of the 1970s were beaten by Art Carney in this relatively forgettable film. It is one of the more notable cases of how a dark horse won an Oscar because the two favorites split the vote. Not to say anything terrible against Art Carney. He was a fine actor whose character Ed Norton in TV’s The Honeymooners was one of the great comedic performances, but this award was a dud.
In the later era, the two most notable Best Picture winners which have long been considered mistakes: Robert Redford’s 1980 film Ordinary People and Kevin Costner’s 1990 film Dances with Wolves.
Poor Martin Scorsese. These two films – while fine films by themselves – beat out Scorsese’s masterpieces Raging Bull and Goodfellas, respectively, which in hindsight seems outrageous. Both topped most critics’ polls for the greatest films produced in their respective decades and clearly represented a peak for the New York filmmaker. He would win the big award for 2006’s The Departed, but that award smacked of a rather weak apology.
Speaking of apologies, one of the more transparently inept ones was the Best Actor award to Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman. First of all, the old cliché is that to win a Best Actor award, one has to portray someone with a disability. Here, the cliché’ seemed to work for Pacino, here portraying a blind man. Unfortunately, Pacino won this after not previously winning any Oscars for far more deserving roles such as Michael Corleone in The Godfather films and Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon.
The Academy here, again, attempts to rectify past mistakes, but this one is a supremely bad choice. Pacino’s role as Frank Slade is one of those times in which he elects to shout most of the time, and it lacks the subtlety and power of his great roles in the 1970s. This was one of the more cynical awards the Academy has ever given as a kind of a career achievement award for one of Pacino’s worst roles.
The last 20 years as well have seen some spectacularly poor choices, chief among them the 1998 Best Picture for Shakespeare in Love. One of the most historic unspoken Oscar rules is not to let a filmmaker win too often in too short a time span. That’s the only possible explanation for this pretty-looking period piece with Gwynyth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes topping Steven Spielberg’s extraordinary World War II film Saving Private Ryan. Produced only five years after his Oscar-winning Schindler’s List, voters must have thought Spielberg didn’t deserve to win Best Picture twice in five years, because they couldn’t have actually seen both films and reasonably compared them. In fact, Spielberg did win Best Director, which seems doubly insulting. How can you be the best director, but your film is not the best film?