In 1927, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented the first annual Academy Awards in a ceremony lasting about five minutes. The goal of the fledgling Academy was not only to honor the previous year’s best work, but also to increase awareness of and interest in high profile pictures. Last year, in a ceremony lasting four hours, the Academy presented its 72nd annual awards, with the same goals. However, this show was a far cry from the first. There were more spectacles, more glamorous fashion statements, and more long-winded speeches than Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks could have imagined. And more competition for attention than ever before.
While still viewed as the pinnacle of Hollywood’s accolades, the Oscars are no longer the only showcase for excellence in an industry — entertainment — that has gone awards crazy. The original goals of the Academy seem to be fading as a media-savvy public tunes in to these shows to assess the show’s entertainment value, rather than celebrate the evening’s winners.
Nowhere is this trend more evident than in the 43rd Grammy Awards, to be presented February 21 (8pm EST, on CBS). While the Grammys honor the best in music, as opposed to film, they nevertheless represent one of the problems with awards shows. This year, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences will present a whopping 100 awards, of which only a handful will be presented during the live telecast. The rest will be presented off-camera before the telecast begins. Viewers, however, will see a variety of live performances from artists as diverse as Destiny’s Child and Dolly Parton. If, as the Academy maintains, all the awards are equally important, the musical numbers would be scratched and the time would be used to honor more artists in front of the television audience. But that doesn’t attract viewers. What attracts viewers is the opportunity to see bad-boy Eminem get in people’s faces and Madonna bump and grind in her new cowgirl chic ensemble. Both CBS and the Academy are aware of this fact, which is why their promos for the Grammys feature Madonna’s tongue-in-cheek promise to “behave” during her performance. Even were she to keep this promise, Madonna’s public definition of good behavior is considerably more liberal than the average person’s, so the possibility of controversy, with vast amounts of free publicity for both star and show, is ever present. And so, the awards themselves get second-billing in the chase for big ratings.
One reason the Grammys must work so hard to attract viewers is that they occur in the middle of the annual awards mania. Already this year, we have had a multitude of awards shows, honoring film, music, and television. And there are more awards shows to come, climaxing with the Academy Awards, the crème de la crème of the awards circuit, which means that by April, the public will be in full-blown awards show overload.
Such overload is aggravated by a number of factors. First, awards are passed out by every group imaginable. Your favorite stars may not be blessed with one of this year’s Oscars, but that doesn’t mean they will go home trophy-less. There exists the opportunity to receive, among others, a Golden Globe Award, People’s Choice Award, MTV Award, Blockbuster Entertainment Award, Golden Satellite Award, Genie Award (Canada’s version of Oscar), or Independent Spirit Award. And don’t forget the numerous international, national, and local film critics and their awards, or the multitude of awards handed out at film festivals throughout the world. For some members of the filmmaking community, there are specialized awards, honoring the accomplishments by African Americans, Latinos, gays and lesbians, women, Christians, children, senior citizens, students, and animals, not to mention the awards that honor specific branches of the film community, including actors, directors, cinematographers, editors, producers, costume designers, and hair and makeup artists.
That’s just film. Television has the Emmys; music, as mentioned previously, presents the Grammys; and theater, specifically Broadway, gives out the Tonys. And each set of awards has its own spin-offs: the Emmys alone have spawned five separate sub-category awards shows, Primetime, Daytime, Sports, News, and International. This glut of awards can be confusing. Most people could no sooner name last year’s Oscar winner for Best Director (Sam Mendes) than they could the winner of the Grammy for Best Polka Album (Brave Combo). Nor do they want to. With different awards being broadcast regularly on TV and film ads screaming, “On 30 Top Ten Lists! Winner of 6 Cinematography Awards!”, there is no possible way for anyone but the most avid awards fan to keep it all straight.
With all these awards theoretically sharing the same purpose — to honor the best — one might expect some repetition and consistency among the winners. Not so. This brings us to the second problem: the subjective nature by which the winners are selected. In 1981, the New York Film Critics Circle selected Reds as the best picture of the year, while the Los Angeles Film Critics and National Board of Review chose Atlantic City. The Golden Globes selected On Golden Pond (Best Drama) and Arthur (Best Comedy), and the Oscar went to Chariots of Fire. Best Actress honors were divided between Meryl Streep, Bernadette Peters, Marilia Perea, and Katherine Hepburn. Burt Lancaster, Dudley Moore, and Henry Fonda split the Best Actor awards. Which group was right?
Not every year is as divided as 1981, but rarely is there any clear consensus of whom or what was “the best.” It’s important to remember that awards given are merely a statement of one group’s opinion, and opinions are influenced by moods and experiences. Thus, a conservative or liberal organization will be more likely to honor films reflecting that group’s point of view. The religious critic would naturally be more drawn to Chariots, with its devoutly Christian protagonist, than to Atlantic City, which contains erotic footage of Susan Sarandon bathing her breasts with lemon juice. Despite the biases, an overview of awards history would indicate that there are basic criteria that winners must meet. All of the many awards shows have rules and guidelines that dictate who is eligible for consideration, but often these guidelines are so broad that most films, including such “masterpieces” as Porky’s and Dude, Where’s My Car?, can be submitted for Best Picture consideration. Therefore, voters often rely on critics’ responses and trade-paper press to help determine those worthy of nomination.
However, through the power of the dollar, the average film-goer does have some influence over potential nominees and winners. While a huge profit does not guarantee awards consideration, films that are box office failures are generally excluded from end-of-the-year awards, regardless of critical reception. The Oscar hype surrounding last year’s Snow Falling on Cedars was considerable upon the film’s release; however, after the film went nowhere at the box office, the hype faded quickly. Films that show some level of financial success can anticipate being included if they fall into one of four categories: The Clear Choice, The Consolation Prize, The Promising Star, and The Fluke. The Clear Choice is the person or film so deserving of the award that it would seem foolish to give it to any other nominee. In 1977, it would have seemed unthinkable to give the special effects awards to any film other than Star Wars. Jessica Lange would have been the clear choice for Best Actress in 1982 for Frances had it not been for Meryl Streep’s sweep of Best Actress awards for Sophie’s Choice. The New York critics decided they still wanted to honor Lange, so they demoted her lead performance in Tootsie and honored her in the supporting category.
This brings us to The Consolation Prize, in which a filmmaker is honored for a different film or for a body of work that was previously slighted. Bette Davis believed that her 1935 Oscar for Dangerous was actually a consolation for failing to be nominated the previous year for Of Human Bondage. Charlie Chaplin, long overlooked at the Academy Awards, won his only competitive Oscar in 1972 for the musical score of his 1952 film Limelight. (Why Chaplin won twenty years after the film was released is another awards oddity in itself.)
On the other end of the spectrum is the Promising Star, who bursts onto the scene with such presence that voters are convinced he or she will have a long and brilliant career. Sometimes voters are right. Jennifer Jones, award winner in 1943 for her first major film, The Song of Bernadette, went on to star in such films as Duel in the Sun and Love is a Many-Splendored Thing. Other times voters miss the mark. Tatum O’Neal’s 1973 Oscar for Paper Moon, her first film, was the high point of her short and undistinguished career. Many felt that Madeline Kahn in the same film would have been a more deserving winner. Still, O’Neal’s award wasn’t a total surprise, keeping her from falling into the category of The Fluke, in which completely unexpected nominees take home the awards. Competing against the writers of Raging Bull and Ordinary People, William Peter Blatty won a 1980 Golden Globe for Best Screenplay for The Ninth Configuration, a film greeted with such mixed reaction that it was released directly to cable and video. It seems all groups have made choices that only the voters understand. In the ’70s and ’80s, the Golden Globes excelled in peculiar choices, honoring the “acting” talents of Raquel Welch and Pia Zadora.
In the long run, what do these odd choices, sentimental dividends, and slew of specialized prizes mean to the consumer? The arbitrary nature by which the numerous awards are decided reinforces the idea that the most accurate judge of what is “the best” is the person putting down money to be entertained. If the self-proclaimed experts can’t agree on what “the best” is, why should the money-paying public assign any credibility to their annual declarations? Thus, we have arrived at our current state, viewing awards shows as entertainment and fashion shows, not really caring so much who goes home with an Oscar or Grammy, as which starlet shows up wearing Versace and on whose arm she is escorted. After all, should Madonna or Eminem pick up a slew of Grammys this week, will it really further their careers or alter public perception of them? Likewise, if Steely Dan finally manages to snare a long overdue award or two, they shouldn’t expect a mad dash to the record store by enthused music lovers wanting their CD.
The multitude of awards usually honor products and artists with at least some merit, so people might consider the critics’ choices as mere recommendations. In days past, the public took these recommendations much more to heart than they apparently do today. Last year’s big award winner, American Beauty, did disappointing business when released on video, even though the release came shortly after winning the Oscar for Best Picture. So, we enter the office betting pool, pop the popcorn, and curl up on the sofa to see who goes home with The Big Awards. And when the awards season is over, a few of the entertainment industry’s elite will have more hardware for their trophy case, and we might have a couple more films, television shows, and CDs to add to our list. Or a couple to scratch off.
And, really, that is how it should be.