The Academy Awards: A Popularity Contest or a Reward for Serious Artistry?

Ticket to the 29th Annual Academy Awards
Ticket to the 29th Annual Academy Awards

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.

David Niven (right) and Cantinflas share a hot air balloon in "Around the World in Eighty Days." The film was selected by Oscar voters as the best film of 1956.
David Niven (right) and Cantinflas share a hot air balloon in “Around the World in Eighty Days.” The film was selected by Oscar voters as the best film of 1956.

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.

Paul Newman (right) with Jackie Gleason in Robert Rossen's "The Hustler" (1961). Twenty-five years later, Newman won an Oscar for reprising his role in the Martin Scorsese quasi-sequel "The Color of Money."
Paul Newman (right) with Jackie Gleason in Robert Rossen’s “The Hustler” (1961). Twenty-five years later, Newman won an Oscar for reprising his role in the Martin Scorsese quasi-sequel “The Color of Money.”

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.

Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron during the balletic climax of "An American in Paris." The film was named by Oscar voters as the best film of 1951. Today, it's Kelly's next film, "Singin' in the Rain," which audiences remember.
Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron during the balletic climax of “An American in Paris.” The film was named by Oscar voters as the best film of 1951. Today it’s Kelly’s next film, “Singin’ in the Rain,” which most audiences remember.

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.

Incomprehensible as it may be to modern viewers, "How Green Was My Valley" beat out "Citizen Kane" to be named by Oscar voters the best film of 1941.
Incomprehensible as it may be to modern viewers, “How Green Was My Valley” beat out “Citizen Kane” to be named by Oscar voters the best film of 1941.

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’.

Edward Dmytryk's "Crossfire," a gritty investigation of anti-Semitism in the United States, lost the Best Picture Oscar to Elia Kazan's "Gentleman's Agreement." Thematically similar but tonally different, the latter film explores the 'country club' bigotry eschewed by "Crossfire."
Edward Dmytryk’s “Crossfire,” a gritty investigation of anti-Semitism in the United States, lost the Best Picture Oscar to Elia Kazan’s “Gentleman’s Agreement.” Thematically similar but tonally different, the latter film explores the ‘country club’ bigotry eschewed by “Crossfire.”

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.”

Works Cited

“The Trade: Grand Illusion.” TIME. 25 April 1969.,9171,840086,00.html.

Smith, Nigel M. “‘Theory of Everything’ Star Eddie Redmayne Knows How to Play the Oscar Game.” Indiewire. 22 October 2014.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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John Wilson is a B.A. Honours student in the English and Professional Writing program at York University. When he is not pursuing his studies, you can find him at the movies.

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  1. Nicole Williams

    Now this is a question that demands to be answered!

    I often find myself wondering about this sort of thing when I watch any sort of awards show, especially the Oscars, which is pretty notorious for its questionable methods.

    Who hasn’t asked themselves why Leonardo DiCaprio has yet to win an Oscar? He seems just as deserving as the other nominees, as he has done an incredible job acting in quite a few of the films that he’s been in.

    It makes me wonder if perhaps he is not as popular among his peers as he is with the American public.

    • An interesting idea. I have wondered if DiCaprio’s lack of Oscar wins has to do with his environmental/political activism, but that theory was put to rest when the equally politically active Ben Affleck won for “Argo”. My guess is that DiCaprio is not interested in campaigning for these trophies, which seems to be required of the winners these days.

  2. No amount of awards, justified or not, will make me want to sit through a two-hour movie I had no intention of seeing upon release. The Oscars have become irrelevant the same way Miss Universe is now only watched in Third World countries…

  3. Bailey Bolt

    My my. Hollywood is the only institution – and show biz in general – where they make up never-ending excuses to give themselves awards and self-congratulate themselves.

  4. Sometimes, like total eclipses, art & business coincide, but mostly they don’t. How many Best picture winners would you count as favorites, or even good films?

    • Definitely. Even Casablanca is basically a naff money maker well carried out!

  5. The true giants of the acting world tread the boards; they don’t pussyfoot around doing seventeen takes of one scene and rely on an editor to tell the story.

  6. Interesting analysis.

  7. Ordonez

    To watch and vote on films, best job in the world!

  8. battleroye

    As Robert Downey Jr.’s character expressed so eloquently in “Tropic Thunder”: You never go full retard.

  9. fortner

    I suppose we have to take them moderatly seriously, because they add such a lot of business to a films now DVD extended shelf life. After all Hollywood lest we forget is a profit generator, like any other business, & simply blows its own trumpet.

  10. Lockett

    we shouldn’t take the Oscars seriously at all. Mainly because they rarely award the right film.

  11. Joe Manduke

    The Academy seems to generally focus on their own preferences or what its so popular that they cannot ignore it.

    • Ryan Errington

      Very true. In knowing the Oscar winners are decided by a small committee, who are never held accountable, makes one question the Oscars’ integrity.

  12. Susanna Princivalle

    A brilliant article, very well critically put! I’m glad it conveys the exact thoughts I had when I posted this topic. And I’m glad you grabbed it!

  13. Cadeem Lalor

    Great article, I always wondered about the correlation between popularity and Oscar wins myself. Although there are examples to the contrary I think you’ve done a good job of showing a relation between the two here. I would also be interested in examining the impact of favouritism or racism in the Oscars.

    • Thanks for your feedback. Absolutely, there are many instances of Oscars going to films that truly, artistically deserve them. It is simply my position that the right films are not necessarily awarded frequently enough to warrant the continued attention the Academy Awards generate.

      There is a good article waiting to be written here about racism in Oscar history. You might consider suggesting that as a topic.

  14. Clicker

    Oscars function to generate talk, & that makes us see films because they are good, shallow venial creatures that we are & we thus perpetuate Oscar by ringing the registers, bringing it back to the high & black art of making money.

  15. Let’s see what gets the most attention next year in Holy Wood.

  16. Aaron Hatch

    Great article, and you got me interested in some of these academy award nominated movies. I would not necessarily say that Oscars are made for popularity contests. That’s what the fan choice awards are for. If Oscars were a popularity contest, we would see films like Captain America 2, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes up for nominations. I love those films too, but we film buffs need to remember that all films are suggestive. Some people my be happy that Birdman got Best Picture, but some may have wanted Whiplash to win instead. In the end, we should just ask ourselves if the Best Picture winner was good on its own.

  17. ThaoBarrow

    How about not taking the Oscars to seriously because film actors can’t hold a candle to those that perform live on stage.

  18. It was never about artistry. If it were, articles as such (see: ) would never be written

  19. Diego Santoyo

    I feel like the academy awards is a mixture between both popularity and really honoring artistry.

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