Monday, November 15, 2010

The politics of the Academy Awards

The Politics behind the Academy Awards
Once a year, Hollywood’s elite gather to honor the film makers that they deem worthy of recognition. Many have had the dream of standing in front of their peers giving a tearful acceptance speech. Very few have achieved that dream. On the surface the Oscars are simply a way to give the best of the best their due. However, if the surface layer of the Oscars is taken off, layers of politics are revealed that are as convoluted as the average presidential election. This is not to say that the Academy Awards are necessarily corrupt, it is more like a popularity contest. The best do not always win. In fact the Academy Awards are very political.
To truly understand how the Oscars could possibly be so political, one must understand how they work in the first place. It begins with the nominees being chosen. In a 2010 article John August explains the process. “I got a…catalogue of all the eligible choices for Best Picture. I had to pick and rank my top 10 films” (August). He continues explaining that as member of a certain branch of film making “The Writers Branch” (August) he can only vote for certain Oscars as opposed to all of them. “I’ll be casting votes for Original Screenplay, Adapted Screenplay, and Best Picture” (August). Members can only vote in fields that they directly participate in. However, everyone votes for Best Picture. He also says that though he ranks his choices, “it’s not a weighted Ballot” (August). The voters rank their ballots so that the Academy gets a better picture about what the voters feel about the nominated films. This applies for every category. Once all the members of the Academy have voted, the ballots are sent to
PriceWaterhouseCoopers LLP to be counted. “The Academy had hired Price Waterhouse and Co…to count the ballots and ensure secrecy” (Osborne 66). The nominees are usually announced roughly a month before the ceremony after all the ballots have been mailed. As of 1940, all the winners are kept a secret “to avoid any embarrassing press leaks as had occurred in the past” (Osborne 66). Before 1940, the press received the names of the winners on the night of the Oscar ceremony.
When the night of the Academy Awards finally arrives, the competitions are split into two different categories. There are the smaller Oscar categories such as Best Documentary, and Best Live Action Short, and then there are The Big Five. The Big Five are Best Picture, Best Actor, best Actress, Best Director, and either one of the screenplay Awards. To date only three films have won all five major awards: It Happened one Night in 1934, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975, and The Silence of the Lambs in 1991 (Osborne 36, 233, 309). The fight for the Big Five Oscars makes up the most political part of the Oscar races.
Academy Awards yield more than just winning a golden statue. They often help to either jumpstart or revitalize a career for a film maker. An example is Christoph Waltz, who won Best Supporting Actor for playing the villainous Colonel Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino’s latest film Inglourious Basterds. Thanks to this win he will have his pick of films to act in during the next few years. Before Basterds, he was an actor in small unknown German films. Furthermore winning an Oscar helps anyone no matter what part of the film industry they belong to. James Brooks, the director of the 1983 Best Picture winner Terms of Endearment, noted after winning, ““The Oscar gives you the right to make whatever film you want next”” (Levy 306). Also, if a film wins an Oscar that hasn’t come out on video yet, then the film’s total gross increases significantly. For instance, after Million Dollar Baby won multiple Academy Awards for 2004, including Best Picture and Best Actress, it saw its total gross for the film increase 56% (box office mojo). Considering all of these benefits that a film maker receives from winning an Oscar, doesn’t it make sense that they would fight tooth and nail for votes?
Film makers employ many tactics to try to garner votes from their peers during voting time. The most popular tactic is getting the production company to campaign for your film. “Orion had set aside a $350,000 promotional budget for The Silence of the Lambs” (Holden 470).Obviously, the bigger studios have the most effective campaigns. That is simply because they have the most money to campaign with. Another prominent, yet clandestine, type of campaigning is the smear campaign. A smear campaign occurs when a studio or an individual opposed to a certain movie or film maker publishes something that paints the movie in a negative light. “The New York Times published an article saying “Social activists are worried that the movie will send the wrong kind of message to people with spinal injuries”” (Setoodeh). The article was referring to the controversial ending of the 2004 Best Picture winner Million Dollar Baby. For a more recent example, the producer of The 2009 Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker, Nicholas Cartier made backhanded comments about one of the other nominees, Avatar. He said “If everyone tells one or two of their friends we will win and not a $500M film, we need independent movies to win like the movies you and I do.” What he was doing was telling all his friends to tell all their friends to vote for The Hurt Locker and not for Avatar which was the 500M dollar film he was referring to. Although despite some of the potential truth that smear campaigns carry, they often have little to no effect on the results. When asked if he thought smear campaigns were effective, professional film critic Tony Macklin said “Not really”. Also, according to Ramin Setoodeh’s 2010 article about smear campaigns, their effectiveness is limited. His article shows that most of the films and film makers that are the victims of smear campaigns end up winning anyway.
Sometimes no amount of campaigning will help a film maker’s cause. Oftentimes no matter what happens beforehand, certain films will almost definitely win because of the connections the filmmakers have. Tony Macklin noted “The actors who vote have a major, often decisive, influence. They vote for one of their own when an actor directs: Redford and Ordinary People, Costner and Dances with Wolves, Gibson and Braveheart, Eastwood and Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby” However, this seems to apply exclusively to men. Actresses who have directed Best Picture nominees continually get snubbed. The most famous example is Barbra Streisand the iconic actress who won Best Actress in 1968 tying for the award with Katherine Hepburn. During her career, she directed two smash hits Yentl and The Prince of Tides. However, she was not nominated for Best Director for either of them something that shocked Hollywood. Yentl didn’t even get a Best Picture nomination and The Prince of Tides lost out for Best Picture. “The Directors Branch chose to repeat their Yentl snub of eight years earlier by failing to nominate Barbra Streisand” (Holden 457). However, the Academy did attempt to make it up to her. It was no coincidence that Barbra Streisand announced Kathryn Bieglow as the first woman to win Best Director.
Another significant type of politics is the Domino Effect. This describes something that happens over a number of years. The first example happened between 1938 and 1941. In 1938, Robert Donat was the forerunner for Best Actor for his performance in The Citadel. Surprisingly, Spencer Tracy won for his role in Boys Town. So, seemingly to apologize for the loss, they gave it to him the next year for Goodbye Mr. Chips. However, Jimmy Stewart was considered the obvious winner for his role in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Therefore, the next year, the award went to Jimmy Stewart for The Philadelphia Story. “Jimmy Stewart’s Oscar was considered a gold plated apology for being robbed of last year’s Mr. Smith goes to Washington” (Kinn/Piazza 57). However, as with before, many believe he was not the most deserving candidate. The forerunner in 1941 was Henry Fonda for The Grapes of Wrath. Unfortunately for Fonda, the Domino Effect stopped there and he didn’t win until 1981 for On Golden Pond. Nevertheless, people often win Oscars in later years as an apology robbed of their chance at receiving an Oscar in the past. Whoopi Goldberg won Best Supporting Actress in 1990 after being robbed for Best Actress in 1985. “Goldberg got her revenge for The Color Purple fiasco” (Holden 438). In fact, she only lost because Geraldine Page had seven failed nominations behind her before 1985. “Many thought the timing of this award was more of a career tribute than recognition of her touching performance” (Kinn/Piazza 245). The Academy decided to give Geraldine Page an Oscar because she hadn’t received one for her previous work.
Additionally, many of the films that win Best Picture reflect the troubles of the times. Currently the Iraq war rages in the Middle East and a film about the Iraq War, The Hurt Locker, just won Best Picture. While America was involved in World War II, three films about World War II won Best Picture. Oftentimes though, the films don’t even deal with war. When On the Waterfront won in 1954, McCarthyism was running rampant. On the Waterfront tells the tale of a dock worker who must decide whether or not to give information about his friends and mentors
who are part of the mob to the law. To strengthen the connection, the screenwriter for the movie was blacklisted, proving that the Academy will often pick films for Best Picture with which they can relate. When Mrs. Miniver was released in 1942 it effectively portrayed the hardships of the civilians living through World War II, On the Waterfront showed the moral dilemmas of blacklisting and inspired people to do what was right no matter the cost, The Best Years of Our Lives showed the hardships of soldiers returning home after enduring World War II, and The Hurt Locker gave a powerful account of the Iraq War.
Moreover, people vote for the movies that show their particular ethnicity or beliefs in a powerful manner or in a good light. A prime example is the 1993 Best Picture winner Schindler’s List. Tony Macklin states, “There is a strong Jewish contingency in the academy”. Schindler’s List effectively portrayed the horrors of the Holocaust so that people today could see what it was like and maybe understand what the Jewish people went through. However, even portraying the Holocaust so effectively didn’t help Schindler’s List win any 1993 acting awards. Liam Neeson was considered a definite winner for his portrayal of Oskar Schindler but he lost to Tom Hanks. “There is a bloc of gay individuals in Hollywood” says Macklin. Arguably, this played a huge role in helping Tom Hanks win over Neeson for his role of Andrew Beckett, a homosexual dying of AIDS, in the movie Philadelphia. Macklin also says “Last year’s politics probably decided that Sean Penn won for his role as gay activist Harvey Milk…Mickey Rourke was the surprise loser”.
Over the course of the Academy’s 82 years, many people have felt the anticipation of a “guaranteed” win for an Oscar and then the crushing disappointment when they lose to a surprise winner. No one seems to have experienced this more than the legendary director, Steven Spielberg. “It was an impromptu wildly entertaining party for everyone except Steven Spielberg, humiliated by his 0-11 shutout for his first grownup movie The Color Purple” (Kinn/Piazza 244). The Color Purple didn’t win even one of its 11 nominations, becoming only the second film to ever lose that badly. The humiliations didn’t stop there for Spielberg. An article by Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune says “Ever since Harrison Ford opened the envelope to name the Best Picture of 1998, people have quibbled over whether Shakespeare in Love really deserved to beat Saving Private Ryan.” He also asks, “Was it resentment of Steven Spielberg’s whole charmed career?” It isn’t unlikely. Spielberg has been the director of a Best Picture nominee six times with Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., The Color Purple, Schindler’s List, and Saving Private Ryan (Osborne 234,246,268,280,316,344). Supposedly by the time he started making films that were Best Picture worthy, people tired of him.
There have been moments, though few and far between, where someone’s name has been announced and they do the unthinkable, they decline it. This has only happened twice in the history of the Oscars. George C. Scott declined Best Actor for his role in Patton in 1970 and Marlon Brando followed suit in 1972 by declining for his role in The Godfather. “George C. Scott shocked the world when he declined his Oscar for Patton” (Levy 280). George C. Scott never made it a secret as to why he declined it. He said, “The Oscar is a meat parade, barbarous and innately corrupt” (Levy 280). Brando’s refusal became even more famous and controversial than Scott’s. When Liv Ullman and Roger Moore read the name of Marlon Brando as Best Actor for his role in The Godfather, a young woman in traditional Native American clothes named Sacheen Littlefeather came up to the podium and read part of a speech written by Brando protesting the unfair treatment of Native Americans in film to a stunned crowd. Some people praised Brando for his move while others criticized it. Whatever people said about it, it shocked everyone.
From the very beginning politics have influenced who receives the Oscar. Whether the Academy honors someone for their career as opposed to them actually deserving it for the best film making of the year, some form of bias, or dislike of a worthy candidate, the Oscars have always been politically influenced. When asked about whether or not he thought this would always be the case, Tony Macklin said “Life is Political”. Right or wrong, it seems politics will continue to remain an innately present aspect of Hollywood’s biggest awards.

1. They’re not worthy-2000 article by Michael Wilmington
2. Behind the Oscar: the secret history of the Academy Awards-Book by Anthony Holden
3. The Academy Awards: the Complete Unofficial History-Book by Gail Kinn and Jim Piazza
4. All About the Oscar-Book by Emanuel Levy
5. 80 Years of the Oscar-Book by Robert Osborne
6. Interviewed Professional Film Critic Tony Macklin
7. Internet article about the voting process by John August
8. (box office mojo is the corporation behind the website)
9. Internet article about smear campaigns by Ramin Setoodeh


  1. Wow, excellent blog Naseby. Quite amusing and imformative. I think yo're right, most of the times the Oscars are ruled by policies, depriving the rightful winner of said honor. I have a question for you here: do you think Colin Firth may win this year for The King's Speech, after loosing last year against Jeff Bridges? I'm thinking that as Bridges had lost many times before and they gave it to him maybe not because he deserved it, but because he had deserved it once before, but now they want to make it up for Colin Firth. Maybe? Anyway, I'm just expeculating, the film hasn't even been released yet...

  2. You hit the nail on the head with most of this. Awesome blog. I have been thinking about writing something like this for a while, but you beat me too it. Great job. Oh well, I have some other ideas. One small error. For Spielberg it was 7 best picture nominees. MUNICH was also nominated for best picture. The funny thing about Brando too had to do with the fact that the woman who came on stage to decline his Oscar for the treatment of Native Americans wasn't even Native American. She was an actor.

  3. Very interesting blog

    All this info just proves what I've always thought, the Oscars are not a reliable judge of quality.

    I think international film festivals are far more interesting...

    I can't believe Tarantino has never one a Best Director award yet, I hope he doesn't end up like Hitchcok or Kubrick, who never one once in their careers...