Of all the Oscar protests – from Sacheen Littlefeather and Marlon Brando in 1973, to #OscarsSoWhite last year, Michael Moore castigating George W. Bush and Richard Gere pleading for a free Tibet – a key one remains that of George C. Scott. His protest wasn’t about diversity, or the war in Iraq, or Hollywood’s treatment of the Native American in westerns. Instead, he hated the whole idea of the Oscars themselves. A “two-hour meat parade,” he called them. “I want nothing to do with it.” He’d refused nominations for his roles in Anatomy of a Murder and The Hustler with politely worded letters and when he finally won the art-deco lump of gold-plated britannium for Patton in 1970, Scott suggested they donate the statuette to a museum.
Isn’t it time we thanked the Academy and consigned the whole razzmatazz circus to a museum as well? It’s telling that since the first Academy Awards in 1929 – a brisk 15-minute affair, tickets $5 – only one Oscar has been refused in such a way. Screenwriter Dudley Nichols refused his in 1936 due to the writer’s strike and most famously Marlon Brando sent the aforementioned Littlefeather to turn down his award for The Godfather in a gesture which was at once political radical and remarkably lazy. But Scott was the only winner to reject the whole idea of treating cinema as a competition with winners picked out. Leave aside how many times the Oscars have failed to recognise genius directors (from Kubrick to Chaplin) – or awarded mediocrity – does even Paul Haggis remember Crash? Russell Crowe as Best Actor for Gladiator?
We know that the Academy is middle-brow and (so) white bread American in its taste. Nothing else could explain how many times a truly limited performer such as Tom Hanks has seized the prize. That’s fine. But it becomes truly infuriating to see films of such diverse range as La La Land, Moonlight, Fences and Arrival pitted against each other. Why not simply decide what genre you prefer? What’s your favourite: comedy or tragedy? Painting or sculpture? Art becomes merely an adjunct of a popularity competition spliced with an all-out marketing campaign. Cinema is now seen through the omnipresent lens of reality TV with selfie-aggrandising and pre-tooled meme-moments. And the artists themselves are co-opted into the compromises.
Viola Davis herself has decided to compete as a Supporting Actress, minimising her own role in Fences because she’s likelier to win in the category. Davis’ character is on the screen for the majority of Fences’ two-hour-plus running time. Anthony Hopkins won the award for Best Actor for 15 minutes as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. Of course, there’s the argument that the Oscars is essentially a commercial enterprise publicising the movies, but one wonders how much revenue is lost for the films when the pirated screeners the studios send to academy members flood the internet the first week of January. Another argument would be that it promotes films and talent. But winning isn’t always winning. Ask Halle Berry. Or Jean Dujardin.
One could also argue that prestigious film festivals such as Cannes, Berlin and Venice also award prizes, but here the differences are telling. For instance, there are usually rules as to the number of prizes a film can win so that the love can be spread. In Venice, the Golden Lion wasn’t awarded for ten years when it was protested as a throw over from Mussolini’s fascist regime. Also, the juries of the festivals are themselves artists and visible. So that a Clint Eastwood jury is obviously going to lean in a different direction to a Nanni Moretti jury. There’s more of a conversation.
The anonymous masses of the Academy usually voice their opinions only via the now annual clickbait article, headlined as an Oscar voter’s ‘brutally honest’ assessment of the line-up. This is almost always a costume designer offering very little insight and doing nothing to reduce the garment industry’s reputation for snide bitchiness. Sunday evening, there will be the speeches, the controversies, the surprises, the winners and the losers. It’ll be entertaining and funny, perhaps. Cinema will survive it. Life will go on. But wouldn’t it be nice if just one person – a winner, a guest host, Jimmy Kimmel himself – stood up and said “This is all bullshit”.