“Life is disappointing,” says the Emcee in Cabaret, a movie that should have (and likely would have) won the Academy Award for Best Picture, if it hadn’t been for a little thing called The Godfather. As disappointments go, few things are more reliable than the Oscars, which have been letting us all down since Mary Pickford won the second Best Actress award for Coquette back in 1928.
At the time, Pickford was as famous as anyone has ever been — you could make a case for her as the woman who invented “stardom” as we know it, and who used her fame to gain total artistic control and real industry power. Those are the things she won for, because in Coquette she delivers a performance of astounding badness; she’s like Shirley Temple playing Scarlett O’Hara, minus the charm. That same year, the legendary Jeanne Eagles was nominated as a vicious murderess in The Letter, a high-wire act that 86 years later can still raise the hairs on the back of your neck. But then, Eagles was a drug addict… and more importantly, a stage actress. An outsider. Artistically, Pickford’s win is a sick joke, but in terms of industry politics, the concept of Mary Pickford winning an Oscar just as her era was ending is one of the most right things that ever happened.
That award set the precedent and the template for the Academy Awards: they’re only coincidentally a record of artistic achievement, but they’re a pretty reliable indicator of the history of Hollywood power, popularity, and groupthink. Put the details of the individual winning movies and performances aside, and the patterns come into sharper focus. There are lots of awards like Pickford’s, basically career achievement awards that certify the artist’s high standing with the industry and the public, and have little to do with the actual acting in question. Katharine Hepburn won three of them, in fact. They’re for three of her least impressive performances, as is her first, but the fact that she won four leading actress awards seems very right, and its a record one hopes will never be beaten. She’s Katharine Hepburn, for God’s sake. She should have four Oscars, even if they’re the wrong four.
One of the most consistent awards is the one for “seriousness,” with the examples too numerous to cite. They’re the Big Important Movies that grapple with some significant social issue… racism, alcoholism, anti-Semitism, the trauma of war, the evils of slavery. Many of these movies look pretty dull now, not just because being lectured is tedious, but because we’ve already gotten the point and moved on. Nothing dates faster than a previous generation’s idea of a moral lesson.
Actors vote for these things, so there’s a preponderance of Academy Award performances about one lonely soul’s journey against all the odds toward a state of grace. Matthew McConaughey is up for one tomorrow night, and he’ll probably win it — not as much for the performance, which is solid, as for his own journey from shirtless mimbo to serious Act-tor. Unless Chiwetel Ejiofor wins for his journey from obscurity to fame in one film, and for the Academy congratulating itself on learning to pronounce his name.
McConaughey also benefits from the I Transformed Myself Physically factor, which always helps you win acting awards, starting way back when beefy proletarian Paul Muni put on a beard and a pince-nez and won for playing Louis Pasteur (lonely soul cures rabies). Sometimes the results are phenomenal, like Charlize Theron playing Aileen Wuornos (lonely soul kills people), but would a chubby, homely actress — there must be a couple besides Lena Dunham — have won that Oscar? Probably not. There’s also the Leopard Changes its Spots award, for a performer who does something unexpected, like sweet Shirley Jones playing a whore in Elmer Gantry. The shock value of these performances often wears off fast, leaving future generations to wonder what the fuss was about. Jones is borderline amateurish in Elmer Gantry, but she was never going to win or even be nominated for The Music Man, so what the hell.
Every so often, there’s an Academy Award so perfect and so out of left field that you wonder how it ever happened. How on earth did a movie as awesome as Casablanca win? The Big Serious Oscar-thumping movies of that year were Watch on the Rhine, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Song of Bernadette and Madame Curie, all of them quite unwatchable now. Maybe they cancelled each other out. Casablanca isn’t just a well-made and entertaining movie… it’s a Thing. It’s schlock transfigured into art. It’s magic. These lone examples of timeless perfection intersecting with temporal awards are the real miracles of the Oscars, and maybe more interesting to contemplate than the beautiful losers that are so often cited. Like Citizen Kane or Raging Bull — two movies I find a chore to watch, myself, but which a lot of people find deeply affecting, or whatever. We all have our own lists, right? Mine would include such unlikely items as Kiss Me Deadly, Bonjour Tristesse, I’m Not There, Mysterious Skin, Kim Novak as Best Actress in Of Human Bondage… Hell, Kim Novak in anything — give the woman a goddam special Oscar, will you? If only for trashing that piece of shit The Artist when everyone else in Hollywood thought it was so wonderful. Kim Novak is on a true lonely soul’s journey, but not the kind you get awards for.*
No, the list of Oscar winners is a very corporate, institutional list. It has the safety and solidity, the banal impressiveness, of a government building erected a century ago. It’s an historical record of where we put our money and our faith at different times, so to speak. Like the movies themselves, it’s way more about commerce than it is about art. If you watch the Oscars hoping for actual achievement to be recognized and rewarded, you’re bound to be disappointed.
As you will be if you go anywhere with that kind of attitude, Mister. So, life is disappointing? Forget about it! In here, life is beautiful, and Roberto Benigni is climbing over the seats to get onstage to get his award for playing a clown during the Holocaust.
* A few hours after this was written, Kim Novak appeared at the ceremony. Kim fucking Novak, the only survivor among the great 1950s goddesses. If it had been Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly or Audrey Hepburn up on that stage, the crowd would have gone nuts. Novak, who had the bad taste to keep on living, got excoriated for a bad facelift and was generally treated like a leper. Hooray for Hollywood.
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