Hollywood's 800-lb. Golden Gorilla

It is the magic phrase that brings luster to any career, sells tickets at the box office, moves millions of DVDs. It’s the gold standard for the film industry, pop culture’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize. Get one, and when you die, the headline on your obit will proclaim OSCAR WINNER.

Every year, the movie industry’s glamourati assemble in all their red-carpet glory at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles for the annual awards bash of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Hundreds of millions of people around the world tune in as prizes are doled out to films most of the TV viewers haven’t seen. They watch in part because the laying on of statuettes is meant to signify the designation of supreme cinematic quality. The best-picture winner will be able to claim parity with such enduring masterworks as The Greatest Show on Earth, Around the World in 80 Days, Marty, Oliver!, Ordinary People…Wait a minute. Those stuffed turkeys and middling domestic dramas won best picture? Yes, they did. All right, we’ll try again…with such enduring masterpieces as King Kong, The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, Psycho, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Raging Bull…Oops, sorry again. None of those films won the top Oscar, and half weren’t even nominated for best picture.

But what about the acting categories? Surely Hollywood has recognized its most potent performers. Not always. If 2009′s nominated actors want to join the exalted ranks of Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Cary Grant, Peter O’Toole, and Barbara Stanwyck, they’d better hope they lose, since none of these luminaries received a competitive Oscar.

So is the Academy Award a long-term guarantee of a film’s quality, a leading indicator of acting excellence? Not really.

Sometimes Oscar’s taste is validated by history. There are five best-picture winners among the top 10 honorees on the American Film Institute’s list of the all-time best movies: Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, Lawrence ofArabia, The Godfather, and Schindler’s List. It’s also true that the world’s best-grossing film of any decade has usually won best picture: Gone with the Wind in the ’30s, The Best Years of Our Lives in the ’40s, Ben-Hur in the ’50s, The Sound of Music in the ’60s, Titanic in the ’90s, and the final Lord of the Rings film this decade.

Too often, though, the Academy has rewarded films at the high end of mediocrity, operating within a narrow band of reassuring realism. They’re called “movies of quality,” which really means movies of piety-stories of cozy spiritual uplift (Mrs. Miniver, Going My Way) or, more recently, of superior damaged creatures (Rain Man, A Beautiful Mind). And they’re often chosen over edgier fare. Thus, in 1977 the softhearted Rocky beat four superior films (All the President’s Men, Bound for Glory, Network, and Taxi Driver), and in 1982 another inspirational sports movie, Chariots of Fire, won out over Reds and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Oscar also ignores pictures deemed too weird (i.e., modern) or infra dig (i.e., genre films). In judging movie acting, the Academy is often slow to notice the arrival of talent ready to shake up or reshape a staid industry.

Citizen Kane is the definitive litmus test, and Oscar failed it. At the top of nearly every critics’ poll as the best film of all time, Orson Welles’s debut movie was praised to the skies when it opened in 1941. But the resemblance of Charles Foster Kane to  William Randolph Hearst cued a campaign to suppress the movie, and Kane flopped in its initial release. In addition, many in the industry rankled at Welles’s boy-genius rep and may have resented the freedom this first-timer was given by his studio, RKO. Under these circumstances, it’s probably a miracle that the film received nine Oscar nominations, including three for Welles as actor, director, and coscreenwriter. In the end, it won only for the screenplay, and John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley took best picture. That study of Welsh family values is a film of intelligent sentiment, but, as has been said about many a movie since—it’s no Citizen Kane.

No Business Like Show Business. The Kane quandary illustrates some of the problems with the Academy Awards: political pressure, suspicion of outsiders, resistance to innovation. But the main and abiding limitation is the people who pick the Oscars. We’re not saying that the Academy members are ignorant, that they don’t know their business. That’s the problem: they all know that movies are a business. And they’re a part of it. The people whose names are on the ballot may be their friends or their enemies or their potential employers. In addition, lobbying in Hollywood at Oscar time is as pervasive as it is in Washington anytime. Harvey Weinstein was so expert at campaigning when he and his brother Bob ran Miramax Films that, the prevailing wisdom has it, he cajoled his way to a best-picture prize for the modest Shakespeare in Love over Steven Spielberg’s odds-on favorite, Saving Private Ryan.

Since the great majority of the voters live or work in the Los Angeles area, there is little motive to reward foreign-language films. Few movie lovers would deny that some of the medium’s greatest works have been in tongues other than English. Yet no foreign-language film has ever won the top Oscar; only eight have been nominated—and one of them was directed by Clint Eastwood. That’s less than 2% for the best films from the rest of the world.

The Academy membership, which now numbers about 5,800, is by definition insular and aging. It takes a while to build a career, in the movie business like anywhere else, and by the time film folk become members of the Academy, they are usually much older than the people they are making their movies for. The advanced average age of the voters—and the gradual conservatizing of their tastes—is one explanation for the films they give prizes to. They not only wouldn’t give an Oscar to, say, a Judd Apatow film, but probably haven’t seen one.

An Apatow movie like The 40 Year-Old Virgin or Knocked Up would labor under another handicap: it’s designed to make people laugh. The top Oscar has gone to a handful of comedies (including It Happened One Night and Annie Hall), but generally the Academy prefers to be edified.

The year of Citizen Kane, 1941, was also the year of Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve, today regarded as one of the great American comedies, with Stanwyck and Henry Fonda brilliant as a cardsharp predator and her millionaire prey. None of them got even a nomination for this supreme farce.

Heroes and Villains. If one actor could encapsulate the limitations of the Oscar mind-set, it would be Stanwyck, who in the early ’30s all but created the movies’ image of the tough broad, surviving and thriving in the Depression through a wily, earthy cynicism. Stanwyck was sensational in grimy melodramas, from Illicit and Night Nurse to the immoral, immortal Baby Face. But she didn’t get an Oscar nomination until 1938, when she broke from her normal screen character to play the nobly sacrificing mother in Stella Dallas. Seven years later, when she was a finalist as the rotten femme fatale of Double Indemnity, she lost to Ingrid Bergman, whose husband is trying to kill her in Gaslight. Oscar chose the wanly victimized wife over the fabulously victimizing one.

Time and again, given the choice between an actor who does great work as a meanie and another who does good work as a cutie or victim, Oscar went for the latter. Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski in the 1951A Streetcar Named Desire is one of the major revolutionary performances in movies; it announced the arrival of the Method actor and the sexy brute in one galvanizing package. Yet Brando lost to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen. The Academy went for old style over new, as it did in withholding Oscars from Brando’s more sensitive brethren, Montgomery Clift and James Dean. Both were multiple nominees; neither won. And like the late Heath Ledger—who in Brokeback Mountain gave a bold, pioneering performance—neither Clift nor Dean lived long enough to be given an honorary award.

At least Clift, Dean, and Ledger had the luck to be making serious dramas from Oscar-winning directors. Anyone who worked in other kinds of movies ran into the wall of the Academy’s genre snobbery. Crime movies (later known as film noir) had a dark glory, a stinging postwar fatalism, but flew under the Academy’s radar and beneath its contempt. Of the hundreds of westerns in the ’50s, some were superb, like Ford’s The Searchers and Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, but even those A-list directors could not interest Oscar in their oaters—zero nominations for those two great films—or in John Wayne’s towering performances in them.

Wayne, of course, was an old-fashioned star. Today we may be in Hollywood’s first poststar era. If you judge movie stardom by the actors who headline the biggest hits, then the top stars of 2007 include Tobey Maguire (Spider-Man 3), Shia LaBeouf (Transformers), Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) and Gerard Butler (300). Each of these films took in more than US$200 million at the domestic box office, or more than three times as much as the political comedy Charlie Wilson’s War, with a cast headed by Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts. Among actresses in the year’s releases, the big star was Ellen Page, whose low-budget Juno made US$138 million domestically. Doesn’tshe deserve an eight-figure contract for her next film? No, because even studio bosses know that, appealing as Page may have been, what drew crowds to Juno was story and attitude.

Meanwhile, star vehicles keep tanking. Hollywood still has a guy whose movies are sure-shot smashes: Will Smith. But Oscar voters have usually dismissed his sort of vehicles, science fiction and horror films, as candidates for best picture—from the 1933 King Kong (just a trick movie) to Psycho (just an exercise in sadism from a director, Alfred Hitchcock, who should know better) to 2001 (what was that about?). Jaws and Star Wars did get best-picture nominations but didn’t take the top prize. See, these weren’t people movies; they were simply the sum of their monster or sci-fi special effects.

The ’70s brought a new breed of director, steeped in movie lore and movie love, making smart films that were huge hits—and for the longest time, Oscar ignored them too. The Godfather won best picture, but its auteur, Francis Ford Coppola, was not named best director. (He won for The Godfather, Part II.) Nor did the Academy give Spielberg an Oscar for Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, or E.T. (He had to wait till 1994, when Schindler’s List took best picture and best director.) Martin Scorsese, by general acclamation the most intense and gifted director of this talented bunch, wasn’t even nominated for Taxi Driver, then suffered a generation of indignity as his work on Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, and The Aviator lost out to that of other, lesser directors. (He finally copped the Oscar in 2007, at 64, for The Departed.) And yet they all have the edge on Hitchcock and Hawks, who never won a competitive Oscar.

Now the kids with beards—as Billy Wilder called them—are graybeards, and a younger generation is getting its turn. Look at the directors of the movies nominated for best picture of 2007. Paul Thomas Anderson, writer-director of There Will Be Blood, was nominated at 37. Jason Reitman, whose Juno was the only US$100 million box-office hit of the five 2007 best-picture finalists, was just 30. That left those two sassy outsiders—Joel Coen, 53, and his brother Ethan, 50—in the mainstream, though their entry, No Country for Old Men, carried the double-whammy genre curse of being a kind of western-horror movie. The other competitors were Michael Clayton, with George Clooney agonizing handsomely in a story about nasty business ethics (a favorite Academy theme, which explains why it was nominated), and Atonement, which fit the old tradition of quality, as a period romance in which beautiful people get horribly victimized.

All five films had their charms, or their poignancy, or their political message, or their steely fury, elements Oscar had often rewarded. None would have shamed the Academy by winning. The winner, No Country for Old Men, returned the Coen brothers to their best emotional territory of Fargo and Miller’s Crossing, a place where comic innocence and unmediated violence explosively coexist.

It was among the worthiest winners of the best-picture award in the 80 years of Oscar.

But it was no Citizen Kane.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was formed in 1927 and first awarded the Academy Awards of Merit in May 1929. The honored categories have varied over the years, but best picture, actor, actress, and director have been awarded since the beginning. Awards for supporting actor and actress were added for the films of 1936 and best foreign-language film for 1947. The ceremony is generally held in the early spring of the year following the release of films under consideration; the latest Oscars were awarded 24 Feb 2008 in Los Angeles. Award: gold-plated statuette of a man with a sword.

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