5 Reasons The Academy Awards are Pretty Much Worthless

Originally posted at Cracked.com 03/2010

The Academy Awards are like the Super Bowl for geeks. The betting pools, the bean dip, the coma-inducing length, it’s pretty much the same silly spectacle, but with a couple significant differences 1) The spectators are wearing stained couture purchased from TFAW.com instead of Eastbay.com 2) The Super Bowl actually has worth as an indicator of quality.

In an effort to shade the pageantry with a modicum of perspective, I present some of the greatest Oscar fuckups in the past 25 years. This is a gentle reminder to you, the discerning reader, that if you treat the Oscars as some sort of authority on what makes a film great, you’re doing it wrong. Why look to the Academy for any sort of validation of your tastes when it’s constantly doing shit like the following:

The Circle of Ineptitude: Best Actor (1974, 1992, 2001)

In 1974, Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson were in their prime, and turned in two of the most iconic performances in the history of American cinema—Nicholson as J.J. Gittes in Chinatown, Pacino as Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II. It’s the acting equivalent of Magic vs Bird in the 84 NBA Finals.

But your prime is not necessarily a good place to be in the eyes of the Academy. The Academy might only hand out one “lifetime achievement award” each year, but where you are in your career, and how “due” they think you are (more on this bullshit later) seems to matter just as much as your work in the movie tattooed on the base of the goofy gold dildo you win for “Best At Being in Movies.”

That’s why the 1974 Academy Award for Best Actor went to Art Carney for playing an old fart on a cross country trip with his cat in Harry and Tonto, a movie you’ve almost definitely never seen.  This is the acting equivalent of giving the MVP in 1984 to Kurt Rambis even though Bird and Magic are standing right fucking there.

Carney was a good guy, who’d had a solid career on stage and screen. But he probably would have been just as happy being featured in the “Dead Famous People We Love More Than Dead Key Grips” slide-show they do every year.  We wouldn’t begrudge him his moment of recognition if The Academy didn’t operate in something I call “The Circle of Ineptitude.”

See, skipping Pacino in 1974 meant that come 1992, he was “due.” So 18 years after the initial transgression, the Academy gave Pacino the Oscar for doing a Yosemite Sam impression in Scent of a Woman. This in turn screwed over Denzel Washington in Malcolm X, who they ended up rewarding in 2001 for the Wayne Brady inspiration he became in Training Day.

The problem is that actors, and the people who direct and write for them, tend to take Oscars seriously. These days, Pacino shouts every line of dialog in an inexplicable Cajun accent, because that’s what they finally gave him the statue for. When the barometer for artistic success in your industry doesn’t even really care if you’re all that good at what you do, then why should you? It’s no wonder the two best actors of a generation would end up lazily goggling at each other in shit like Righteous Kill.

Genre Snobbery: Best Picture 1981, Best Actress 1986

Everyone remembers the slick bit of larceny that opens Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indy leaves a bag of sand on a podium and yoinks a golden statue in its place. That year at the Oscars, Chariots of Fire pulled the same trick, snaking the statue out from under Spielberg, leaving him looking all sad panda with a sack of sand in his hand. This theft is a good example of the genre snobbery that makes phrases like “Oscar Bait” even possible. All anyone really remembers from Chariots of Fire is the scene where a bunch of dudes in John Stockton shorts sprint along the edge of a beach. If that’s all it takes to win an Oscar, where’s the Best Picture for Rocky III? If it can’t even legitimately win the Oscar in the category “Best Homoerotic Coastal Track Meet,” how the hell does it end up winning Best Picture over what is arguably the finest example of pure cinema Spielberg ever created?

A little bit more of that genre snobbery, mixed with some patronizing grandstanding to look “understanding:  Marlee Matlin turned in a great performance as a feisty deaf janitor who gets boned by William Hurt in Children of a Lesser God, but what Sigourney Weaver did with James Cameron’s ALIENS is nothing short of a miracle. Think about what Ripley was on the page after Cameron was done with her—A strange riff on Rambo (which he’d just rewritten) as a repentant mother looking to redeem herself as a parent. He stuck this characterization into the middle of a movie about drooling, fanged penis monsters that shit eggs with face-raping catchers mitts inside of them. And Weaver made it one of the single most influential performances in the last 25 years, obliterating the restrictions on what a woman can do in a movie, and paving the way for characters like Sarah Connor, Buffy Summers and Beatrix Kiddo, among many others.

Anti-Balls Bias: Best Picture (1990, 1994) Best Actress (2000)

There seems to be an unwritten rule in the Academy that says roughly this: “The statue we’re giving out doesn’t have any balls – neither should the movie we give it to. Therefore, if your movie is oogy, icky, yucky and potentially grody, you can forget winning best picture.” Even though some of the most powerful and beautiful films in American cinema are ruthlessly violent, physically and emotionally (Raging Bull, which lost to Ordinary People, which is a very good film but is also pretty fairly summed up as Mary Tyler Moore is Mean: The Movie) The Academy would rather your film have all the edge of a fucking doily.

In 1990 the Academy rewarded a boring love letter to the Noble Savage fallacy, Dances With Wolves, snubbing Goodfellas, and making Martin Scorsese wait another 16 years in the Circle of Ineptitude to finally collect his little gold man for The Departed. Whereas Goodfellas is a major influence on a multitude of directors and arguably the finest mob movie ever filmed, Wolves has all of two lasting contributions to cinema: Mary McDonnell’s performance/presence, and a basic plot James Cameron stole for his 3D fetish-porn movie. Afterwards, Costner completely lost his fucking mind, bringing us both Waterworld and The Postman, leaving the rest of his filmography looking like the latter’s post-apocalyptic wasteland. His broken, pockmarked career is small consolation in the face of this injustice.

I don’t give too much credence to the IMDB top 100 list. Those rankings are created by the same people who get in fights in YouTube comments sections over whether Team Jacob could beat up Teen Wolf. But for the longest time, the #1 movie on that list was The Shawshank Redemption, and even snobby, elitists like myself had to admit, you can make an argument for it. But it’s hard to say it’s the best film of all time when it might not even be the best film of 94. Pulp Fiction didn’t just deconstruct genre filmmaking, it obliterated it in a coke-fueled fury, stabbing convention in the chest with a giant needle, rebuilding the noir as a candy coated cyanide pill cut with cayenne pepper, attached to a ball-gag and fitted to your unsuspecting head.

Of course, neither movie won Best Picture – that went to Bob Zemeckis’ Boomer-friendly fantasy film with all the bite of a bowling ball, starring Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump, the living personification of Hollywood’s favorite Oscar-Bait cliché: The Magic Simpleton.  It’s hard to imagine such a saccharine turd could have been shat onscreen by the same guy that brought us Used Cars, but not only did it happen, he won Best Picture for it. Excepting Cast-Away, he never made a decent movie again.

By the year 2000, Julia Roberts made a lot of people a lot of money in Hollywood, but she’d somehow missed out on winning a Best Actress award since her breakout in Pretty Woman. But the film she was in, Erin Brockovich, was like cutting the crusts off Silkwood and cooking it in an Easy-Bake Oven with the heat set to “feel-good.” Her main competition, Ellen Burstyn, already won her statue back in the 70’s for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, so it was safe to snub her portrayal of Sara Golfarb in Requiem for a Dream. Didn’t matter that Burstyn turned in the performance of her fucking life:  Not only was Roberts “due,” but Requiem was about ugly people, doing gross things, not pretty people smiling like someone shoved a carrot up Mr. Ed’s asshole.

The Unbearable Whiteness of Being on the Academy: Best Picture (1989, 2005)

Accusing the Academy of making decisions for political reasons isn’t necessarily a critique. Movies are cultural events, and if the zeitgeist makes an “issue movie” more potent, there’s no reason that factor should be removed from the equation. The problem is how bad the Academy tends to fuck up the math.

Do The Right Thing is generally considered one of the most potent American films about race. It’s one of only five movies ever to have been selected by the United States Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry during its first year of eligibility.

The film’s climactic race riot came three years before the entire city of Los Angeles followed suit. At the time of it’s release, Spike Lee’s film was a wakeup call to a pop culture landscape that spent the ’80s convincing itself that racial tensions were a thing of the past. Sure, racism still existed in ’80s movies, but only as a setup for snappy one liners from the darker half of a buddy cop duo.

The Academy’s choice for Best Picture in 1989 was Driving Miss Daisy, an ode to the quiet dignity of a black servant (Morgan Freeman) who spends the majority of his life eating the shit shoveled 24/7 by a wrinkled sack of racism in a sundress. Daisy was 48 Hrs. for the arthouse set—which means the film has less pulse than a bowl of oatmeal. Daisy got the award for being a palatable examination of race, an issue that was on people’s minds that year. It just happened to be on people’s minds because a much better movie had sounded the alarm.

Regardless of the issues, Do The Right Thing is a better looking, better edited, and better acted film. Even if Lee’s movie had never existed, Daisy was still worse than Born on the Fourth of July and My Left Foot, two nominated movies that hurt themselves by splitting the “sentimentally handicapped” vote. However, Daisy had no such problem since Do The Right Thing wasn’t even fucking nominated.

The Circle of Ineptitude extends to issues as well as actors. In 2005, the Academy finally proved they were willing to reward a movie that acknowledged the issue of racial tensions. Of course, Best Picture winner Crash was a ridiculous (and insulting) fairy tale about race relations in Los Angeles that most people had already forgotten by the time the Oscars rolled around. Two far better and more politically relevant movies, Brokeback Mountain and Capote, were both overlooked, presumably for splitting the gay vote.

The Clusterfuck of Dunces: Best Picture (2001, 2003)

All the previously listed fuckups combined like some sort of Voltron made out of dipshits to make the 2001 and 2003 Academy Awards completely irrelevant. Witness the 5 car pile-up of idiocies that occurred when the ballots were cast: Ron Howard was “due” after Oscar favorite Apollo 13 lost to underdog Braveheart, which the Academy decided had just the right combination of historical inaccuracy and treacly romance to overcome the Anti-Balls Bias. This snub put Howard in the spin-cycle of the Circle of Ineptitude, which finally spat him out  in 2001, when his movie A Beautiful Mind was up against another 3-hour epic, The Fellowship of the Ring, a stirring film about emotionally vulnerable little people with funny accents stabbing each other in sweeping green pastures. Fellowship was, in hindsight, the best of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and would have been considered the favorite for Best Picture were it not for the rule of Genre Snobbery.

It didn’t matter that Howard’s version of The Magic Simpleton was a badly bowdlerized adaptation of a profoundly complicated man’s life, nor that said adaptation was written by the unrepentant hack who shit out Batman and Robin. Opie got his statues, leading to the 3rd Hobbit movie—the one with the 30 minute pillowfight—sweeping everything it was nominated for in 2003 as a make-up move.

And that’s a perfect microcosm of why you shouldn’t give a shit about what movie wins an Oscar. The passage of time reveals a movie’s true quality, not the number of gold statues it won. Citizen Kane didn’t need the Best Picture, neither did Raging Bull, or Dr. Strangelove, or Rear Window, or Star Wars.  I’m not saying don’t watch—absolutely do! It’s entertaining, it’s fun… but it’s calorie-free froth. Just keep that in mind while you’re watching the circus, and you’ll have a better time all around.

Published in: on 12/04/2011 at 5:53 pm  Comments Off on 5 Reasons The Academy Awards are Pretty Much Worthless  
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