The Oscars should be taken seriously on a few levels. Sometimes they actually reward and encourage great work. At other times, they at least call attention to work that might otherwise be ignored. They can jumpstart a stalling career (or in the case of Best Supporting Actress, apparently begin the death process) or begin a new successful one.
But it’s good not to take them too seriously. They are not quite as silly as the Golden Globes, which admittedly have moved from the ridiculous (voters in the past seemed to be able to be bought by a few peanuts and a free drink) to the occasionally interesting. They lean European, of course, which makes sense considering that the group behind them is the Hollywood Foreign Press. That helps bring a little balance to the Oscars, which of course tend to skew American.
When we look over some of the more laughable Oscar wins in its history (does anyone seriously want to remember Renée Zellweger’s Cold Mountain award with fondness and pride?), it’s helpful to know what is really going on under the surface. Occasionally, a best “something” actually gets an award for that best work. Marion Cotillard for La Vie en Rose is a case in point. Yes, a foreign language performance, and it was the best of many a year. Also, Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, etc.
But many times, we are giving a career reward for someone the Academy hasn’t bestowed its golden man on at this point. Julianne Moore’s award for Still Alice was given for a wonderful piece of acting, and a great chance to give an “overdue” artist her award. (See also the Best Actress awards for Nicole Kidman for The Hours and Kate Winslet for The Reader, both of which could/should have been in the Supporting Actress category) Or the great performance was the year before, when someone else got the award, and this year, if you put in a good one, you’ll get the Oscar for that, even though we all know it’s a year-later consolation prize.
Perhaps the two most prominent actors receiving the consolation award were Bette Davis and James Stewart. Davis had reportedly come in second with a write-in vote for her work in 1934’s Of Human Bondage –meaning she wasn’t even officially nominated. Of course this was the year of the first five-award sweep (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay) for It Happened One Night. If you look at Davis’s performance now in comparison with the other nominees, hers sails above them, even Claudette Colbert’s solid work in It Happened One Night. In a more perfect world, Grace Moore and Norma Shearer should have been out, and Myrna Loy should have been nominated for her stellar work in The Thin Man (which earned her film partner William Powell a nomination.)
In any event, it was generally recognized that the Academy had blown it big-time with their failure to nominate Davis. So she got the next year’s award for Dangerous. There was no real standout that year, so her win made some kind of sense. (She also won three years later, deservedly so, for Jezebel.)
But the James Stewart award mix-up may well have stemmed from the same year. Clark Gable won Best Actor for his good work in It Happened One Night, which meant that he wasn’t going to win for 1939’s Gone with the Wind, an admittedly stronger performance and probably the best of his career. For some reason, the Academy lost its head for a moment, passing over Stewart’s work in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (which still stands up) for Robert Donat’s in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, which really doesn’t as much. (That film is more remembered now for introducing us to the lovely Greer Garson than for Donat’s performance).
So what to do? Well, we’ll give it to Stewart for a perfectly fine but not special performance in The Philadelphia Story, over Chaplin in The Great Dictator, Olivier in Rebecca, and horror of horrors, over the man who should have won, Henry Fonda for his powerful work in The Grapes of Wrath. Fonda would have to wait until the 1980’s for his “he’s going to die, let’s quickly get him an award” award for On Golden Pond. (Fortunately, there was no performance for the ages among the nominees in that category, so why not give it to Fonda?)
Then there is the “if only they had waited a few years” element. For instance, Marlon Brando should have won Best Actor for his work in 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire. No other performance in that very strong year had the impact and influence of that work. But it was time to reward Humphrey Bogart for his career and oh, yes, his work in that year’s African Queen. He was great in that film, but the award should have gone to Brando. It gets confusing, though, in 1955 (for the year’s previous films). That was the year that Brando finally did win his first Oscar, for his titanic work in On the Waterfront. That too was impacting and influential. But Bogart did fine work in The Caine Mutiny, and might have won for that if he hadn’t won a few years earlier. To confuse matters more, there were predictions that Bing Crosby was going to win for his dramatic (and best film) performance in The Country Girl, which dwarfed his Oscar-winning work in 1944’s Going My Way. Brando’s win makes sense, but it could have gone those two other ways for “other reasons” than giving the best performance.
Which leads us to…the personal affection factor. Speaking of The Country Girl, the lovely and well-liked Grace Kelly gave a solid “against type” performance in that film. And she won the Oscar. But it was over Judy Garland’s work in A Star is Born, which is wholly different, to be sure, but which still towers over the other nominees that year. Garland had caused a lot of problems for MGM in the late ‘40s, and wasn’t winning any new friends with how she and her producer husband were handling aspects of A Star is Born. People were tired of her antics, and Kelly had also done some solid work in Dial M for Murder and even better work in Rear Window the same year. So Garland lost. Shouldn’t have happened.
Then of course there is the single Oscar for screenplay for Citizen Kane, a film that should have cleaned up at the Oscars. But Orson Welles was a rather arrogant and obnoxious fellow, so it’s not surprising that things got personal—aside from the fact that not all that many folks recognized what a groundbreaking film it was.
Then there is the split vote (or I must confess, what I assume is a split vote). For instance, 1951’s An American in Paris won Best Picture. It’s a great film, but my guess is that A Streetcar Named Desire and A Place in the Sun (both great, serious, black-and-white classics) split the vote. The year before, the funny and talented Judy Holiday won Best Actress for Born Yesterday, an admitted comic classic (at least her performance, anyway). But this was the year that Anne Baxter insisted on being in the Best Actress category for All About Eve instead of Best Supporting (which she may well have won) with co-star Bette Davis, who gave the performance of her career. Also competing was silent film star Gloria Swanson, giving a classic performance in a great film, Sunset Boulevard. Davis should have won, but with all the vote-splitting going on, Holiday came out on top.
Perhaps the most egregious example is for 1935’s Mutiny on the Bounty. Since the Best Supporting category didn’t appear until the next year, there were three—count ‘em, three—nominees for Best Actor: Clark Gable, Charles Laughton and Franchot Tone. The winner? Victor McLaglen for John Ford’s The Informer. And Montgomery Clift and Burt Lancaster likely canceled each other out for 1953’s From Here to Eternity. But then, the winner, William Holden, was receiving his “we should have given it to you earlier” award. A lot of people thought he should have won for Sunset Boulevard (1950) and instead he won for Stalag 17 three years later.
Then of course there is the sweep factor. Perhaps the worst example of a sweep win was Charlton Heston’s in Ben-Hur. Seriously? He was probably the weakest in his category; the award at least should have gone to James Stewart for Anatomy of a Murder, which was several levels above Heston’s work. And though he was a fresh face and did fine work in 2011’s The Artist, it may well be that the love for that film swept Jean Dujardin into the winner’s circle that year. Oh yes, and Donna Reed in From Here to Eternity. And George Chakiris in West Side Story.
There’s also the career reward. That’s related to the “we should have given this to you for a stellar recent performance,” but not always. Paul Newman for The Color of Money. Jack Lemmon in Save the Tiger. Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman. Denzel Washington for Training Day. Leonard DiCaprio for The Revenant. Robert Duvall for Tender Mercies (fortunately, he also deserved that award). John Wayne in True Grit (though, again, if they’d waited, a more worthy film would have been The Shootist.) Mary Pickford in Coquette. Ginger Rogers in Kitty Foyle. Elizabeth Taylor in BUtterfield 8 (though this was coupled with the “you almost died, here’s your award” factor). Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy (good performance, but really a lifetime achievement award). Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich (sure, a really good performance, but Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream!!! Helen Hayes in Airport. John Mills for Ryan’s Daughter. Don Ameche in Cocoon. Jack Palance in City Slickers. George Clooney in Syriana. The list will go on and on.
The race factor. Hollywood has rightly been criticized, like the rest of America, for its institutional racism, which has denied many a black (or Asian, or whatever) actor or actress the career they perhaps might have had. So every once in a while, they try to balance the scales by honoring performances that perhaps don’t deserve the award. The recent #OscarsSoWhite controversy isn’t new. The first breakthrough came for Hattie McDaniel for a deserving performance in 1939’s Gone with the Wind. Since then…not much. But skipping back a few years, we find that (perhaps) some have won because of their race. I remember that when Denzel was nominated for Training Day, my immediate reaction was “Wow. They really like this guy. Not really deserving, but this is a sign of love. We’ll see who wins.” Well, the momentum began, and the patting on the back came early to Hollywood when there was a non-spoken (or was it?) group decision to favor both major actor categories with black winners. Halle Berry’s work in Monster’s Ball was surprisingly good, and a case can be made for it deserving the award over her competitors. (Unfortunately, she’s done little worthwhile since.) Denzel’s win for Training Day was unfortunate, too. IMHO, he didn’t quite nail the character, and Russell Crowe deserved it for A Beautiful Mind (the phone-throwing incident notwithstanding). In any event, Denzel’s was probably the weakest in the category. But it was Hollywood’s year to congratulate itself again by attempting to make up for its past sins. (See also Sidney Poitier’s award for a “nice” performance in 1963’s Lilies of the Field. Hello? Albert Finney in Tom Jones, or even Paul Newman in Hud?)
Then there is the simple “What the heck were they thinking, or smoking?” award. Best Picture to 1952’s The Greatest Show on Earth can be attempted to be excused as a career award for legendary director Cecil B. DeMille, who never won a competitive Oscar. But what about Around the World in 80 Days? Or The Sting? Or Rocky (over All the President’s Men)? Out of Africa? Dances with Wolves?
Bottom line? The Oscars are based on a huge variety of factors, some of which have to do with the quality of the work. That makes them interesting, important, occasionally silly, and never completely predictable.