The Academy Awards: A Popularity Contest or a Reward for Serious Artistry?
It is Wednesday night, March 27th, 1957 and we are at the RKO Pantages Theatre at the intersection of Hollywood and Vine. This is the night of the 29th Academy Awards ceremony, where comic Jerry Lewis and actress Celeste Holm are the hosts. Five films are nominated in Oscar’s Best Picture division tonight and director William Wyler’s Civil War drama Friendly Persuasion is among them. Gary Cooper stars in the film as the patriarch of a Quaker family in Indiana conflicted over whether they should participate in the violence of the war. The King and I is the contribution from the 20th Century Fox studio to the Best Picture competition, and it comes from the Margaret Langdon novel Anna and the King of Siam which focuses on the relationship between King Mongkut of Siam (Yul Brynner) and his English tutor Anna Leonowens (Deborah Kerr) in the 1860s. Also in consideration for the big prize is Giant, director George Stevens’ epic adaptation of the Edna Ferber novel. The massive supporting cast is headed by Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean in Ferber’s tale of one family’s social evolution over the roughly quarter-century between the early 1920s and the end of World War II. The preeminent American showman Cecil B. DeMille’s directorial swan song is also up for Best Picture — The Ten Commandments is, as the title indicates, a biblical epic featuring Charlton Heston as Moses.
Any one of those films could have won the award for Best Picture, and with the possible exception of The Ten Commandments, each was desrving of the prize. Instead, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) declared the Best Picture of 1956 to be Around the World in Eighty Days. It is interesting to note that of the five films nominated for the Best Picture prize that year, the winner is probably the least-remembered of the bunch. Friendly Persuasion is seldom-seen, though its religious message of tolerance and peace are admirable. The King and I rates as a classic because it captures on film Yul Brynner’s definitive stage role. Giant is noteworthy primarily due to the morbid fascination of it being James Dean’s last film and due to the hints therein that Dean would never have turned into the great actor his defenders claim. Most people have seen bits and pieces of The Ten Commandments through television airings each year around Easter. But who has seen — intentionally, willingly — Around the World in Eighty Days? Anyone? Didn’t think so.
Many people have debated for decades the merits of AMPAS and its established pattern to be swayed by bald and pathetic campaigning over true artistry. Cliff Robertson won the Best Actor Oscar for Charly at the 41st Academy Awards ceremony in 1969; less than two weeks later TIME magazine wrote of Academy members’ unfortunate tendency toward “excessive and vulgar solicitation of votes” and said that “many members agreed that Robertson’s award was based more on promotion than on performance.” It is therefore apparent that Eddie Redmayne was hardly alone when Nigel Smith of Indiewire wrote of him in October 2014 that he knew how to “play the Oscar game,” which refers to the ease with which he schmoozes Academy voters.
Just as there are instances of overt lobbying resulting in Oscar wins, there have over the years also been many times when Oscars have been awarded to individuals to correct previous mistakes on the Academy’s behalf. How else can one account for John Wayne’s Oscar-winning turn as Rooster Cogburn in the 1969 western True Grit, an archetype he had played with far greater subtlety countless times prior. Likewise, Paul Newman won an Oscar for his role in Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money (1986), when in actuality he probably should have received the statuette for his role in Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961), of which the Scorsese film is a quasi-sequel.
There are really innumerable examples of perceived injustices at the Oscars through the decades. How odd, looking back, that the sole Oscar awarded to the uniquely visual Citizen Kane (1941) was for its screenplay, credited not to wunderkind filmmaker Orson Welles but to writer Herman J. Mankiewicz. Doesn’t it seem most unusual to modern audiences that the only Oscar nomination for Singin’ in the Rain (1952) — considered by many to be the definitive movie musical — was for Jean Hagen as Best Supporting Actress; it was star/co-director Gene Kelly’s previous film, the largely neglected An American in Paris (1951), that took home the Academy Award as the Best Picture of its year.
Perhaps it is the passage of time that taints the public perception of past Oscar winners. Certainly there are those who think it is scandalous that John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941) took the Best Picture prize away from Citizen Kane. But to dismiss it outright as syrupy nostalgia is wholly unfair to the serious artistry behind the film. It is important to note that ‘was’ is the operative word of the film’s title, appropriated from Richard Llewellyn’s semi-autobiographical novel of growing up in a Welsh mining community — it is a politically charged story about the forces that threaten and ultimately destroy the protagonist’s family. The film’s win at the Oscars owes at least as much to its own qualities as it does to Hollywood’s resentment of Welles’ thinly veiled fictionalization of the life of media tycoon William Randolph Hearst and his mistress, actress Marion Davies. In that sense, one could certainly argue that awarding an Oscar to the Citizen Kane screenplay was a rather bold act of defiance on the Academy’s part, as a result incurring the wrath of Hearst’s chain of newspapers.
Tackling social issues in the way both Welles and Ford did in 1941 has perhaps never been the Academy’s mission — it speaks volumes that Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement was the recipient of the 1947 Best Picture Award, beating, among others, Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire. Both films dealt with the then-risqué topic of anti-Semitism, but the former seems so sanitized and watered down when compared to the gritty, noir-ish realism of the latter. Interestingly, Dmytryk would shortly thereafter find himself blacklisted in Hollywood owing to his alleged Communist ties and refusing to testify before the decidedly un-American House Un-American Activities Committee, while Kazan was a friendly witness to HUAC and ‘named names’.
Susceptible as they are to campaigning and acts of persuasion, it is actually surprising how often the Academy has honoured deserving films — All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Casablanca (1942), All the King’s Men (1949), On the Waterfront (1954), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The French Connection (1971), Platoon (1986), The Silence of the Lambs (1991). These films all should have won the Oscar for Best Picture, and they did. But it cannot be ignored that with the exception of On the Waterfront each of those films was among the ten highest-grossing films of its year. It is with that fact this article reaches its unfortunate conclusion that, in the words of George C. Scott, one of only two actors to refuse an Oscar (for Patton (1970); the other was Marlon Brando for The Godfather (1972)), the Oscars are “a […] demeaning […] two hour meat parade.”
“The Trade: Grand Illusion.” TIME. 25 April 1969. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,840086,00.html.
Smith, Nigel M. “‘Theory of Everything’ Star Eddie Redmayne Knows How to Play the Oscar Game.” Indiewire. 22 October 2014. http://www.indiewire.com/article/theory-of-everything-star-eddie-redmayne-knows-how-to-play-the-oscar-game-20141022.
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