EASTON, Md., February 25, 2012 — On Sunday, the 84th Academy Awards will hand out the Oscars for best actors, picture, director, film editing, and every category in between. It’s no secret that nominees have been waging a campaign to win. It is one that is as intense as the GOP primary, even if the stakes aren’t as high.
Oscar nominees don’t try to persuade us, the general public, that they are the best since only members of the Academy can nominate and vote. Instead they lobby hard and long, including ads, to persuade Academy members that they are deserving of the golden statuette. Of course, buzz helps. Did the public make a nominated picture a box office success? Is there a perennial favorite actor or actress in the race? For lesser-known categories such as make-up artist or sound editing, the nominees are also dependent upon their fellow brethren in that field to vote for them but without all the fanfare.
While Oscar campaigning has always been vigorous, not unlike the Presidential campaigns, it has grown even more so in recent years, again just like the Presidential campaigns. The politics of the Oscars is a fact of life, as are all elections from school boards to union stewards to corporate chairs. There is a saying that all politics is local. It probably would be more apt to say that life itself is one long political campaign from getting a job to wooing the object of your desire to winning an Oscar.
Political Fact #1:
The winner of the first Oscar in May 1929 for the best actor was a dog. Yes, a dog, Rin Tin Tin. However, he never got his paws on the Oscar. The Academy, which consisted of 36 members at the time compared to the 5,783 members today, was a bit taken back by Rin Tin Tin’s win. In fact, they were down right chagrined by their vote. Sure Rin Tin Tin was a big box office draw and beloved by moviegoers, but was he deserving of the very first acting Oscar? So the runner up received the statuette instead, Emil Jannings for “The Way of All Flesh” and “The Last Command,” both silent movies. However, Jannings had already headed back to Germany, picking up his Oscar early, so he missed the Awards dinner hosted by silent screen star and swashbuckler, Douglas Fairbanks.
(A footnote to history: Jannings never acted in talkies here because of his thick accent, but he did spend the Thirties making movies that supported Nazi ideology. Today his Oscar sits in the Berlin Film Museum.)
Political Fact #2:
So if the public can’t vote for their favorites, just who are these people who do? First they must be a member of the exclusive Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. And you can’t just fill out a membership form and join, even if you have your SAG card.
You must have been nominated for an Oscar (even if you didn’t win) or you are elected by two other current members in your field. Actually it may be easier to get nominated than selected the second way. That means it is basically an insiders’ game with heavy hitters like Stephen Spielberg, but also people you never heard of such as producers and set builders. A minority of the Academy are actors or even directors.
The profile of the average Academy member shows he (it’s basically a guys club) is male, white, and about 57. And he has his eye on the next box office hit. He is not apt to like little movies that suddenly leap to the forefront for their artistry much less any controversial themes such as homosexuality. Remember how the big favorite “Brokeback Mountain” lost to “Crash” in 2006?
So that means these conservative, bottom line type guys can make or break a film or an actor’s chances. And these men lobby as hard for their choices as do the public relations flacks do for their actor or director clients.
Political Fact #3:
A popular movie that generates revenue is more apt to win than an artistic triumph. Just look at some of the films that have walked off with Oscars leaving such gems in the dust: 1933 - “Cavalcade” over “I Was A Fugitive From the Chain Gang” or “Private Life of King Henry VIII”; 1941 – “How Green Was My Valley” over “Citizen Kane”; 1952 – “Greatest Show On Earth” over “High Noon”; 1965 – “Sound of Music” over “Dr. Zhivago”; 1966 – “A Man for All Seasons” over “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”; 1989 – “Driving Miss Daisy” over “My Left Foot”; and more recently “Shakespeare in Love” over “Saving Private Ryan” in 1998.
Ten to one you could make up your own aggrieved list of great films that never made it or actors from Glenn Close to Orson Welles who never took home an Oscar for Best Actor. Just keep in mind that dollars are more likely to decide who or what gets in the winner circle.
The big question this year is whether “The Artist” a movie that defied the usual film making rules, will be able to hold on to its loyal following or will “The Help,” a very popular film in 2011, become the film of the year. Keep in mind there is more to the Oscars that Billy Crystal riffs and the red carpet.
If you thought the GOP primary is primal politics, you should have seen what was going on behind the scenes leading to the Oscar extravaganza. So watch and enjoy it but with a savvy eye this year.
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