Oscar, we don’t believe you

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Stuart Elliott recently reported that advertisers are treating the February 24 broadcast of the Academy Awards like the Super Bowl, spending about $1.6 million for a 30-second ad. But there’s a major difference between the Oscars and the Super Bowl: while the quality of the Super Bowl has gradually improved, Oscar ain’t living up to his brand promise to honor “outstanding film achievements.”

Let’s look at a few examples of how superhype, sentimentality, and flat-out bad judgment have damaged the authenticity of the Oscar brand:

1974: Art Carney defeats Al Pacino for Best Actor. It’s hard to find fault with Art Carney’s endearing portrayal of the wayward senior citizen Harry Coombes in Harry and Tonto. But Pacino’s Michael Corleone in Godfather II was one of the greatest performances in modern film history, one that reveals layers of complexity on repeated viewing. (However, decades later, Pacino would return the favor by robbing Clint Eastwood for Best Actor — read on for more on that).


1981: Chariots of Fire defeats Raiders of the Lost Ark for Best Picture. After the Pacino debacle of 1974, Oscar regained respectability throughout the rest of the decade . . . but then came the 1980s. While most critics question Ordinary People beating Raging Bull for Best Picture in 1980, I’d like to highlight Raiders of the Ark losing to Chariots of Fire. Let me just ask you this: how many times have you seen Raiders over the years? Now, how many times have you loaded Chariots of Fire into your DVD player?


1990: Best Picture again creates a cringeworthy moment. Oscar tarnished himself by even recognizing Ghost as a nominee for Best Picture, and things went downhill from there, with Dances with Wolves defeating Goodfellas. For marketers, 1990 is an instructive year: we learned how superhype (Oscar’s crush on Kevin Costner) can cloud judgment. Dances with Wolves is sweet and noble and all that . . . but Goodfellas is a fascinating look inside a (criminal) subculture that looks more authentic with repeated viewing.


1992: Al Pacino defeats Clint Eastwood for Best Actor. Evidently Al learned his lesson in 1974: Oscar favors the cloyingly sweet, sentimental performances over the dark and violent. Having said that, I was recently channel surfing and stumbled upon Scent of a Woman. I must say his performance is so hammy, so replete with “hoo-hah!” that I could not stop watching this car wreck onscreen. Meantime, all Clint Eastwood did was reinvent the modern Wesern with a stark and brutal essay of a man defeated in Unforgiven. My theory is that Clint failed to give Oscar what Oscar wanted: another emotionally gratifying Man with No Name or Dirty Harry, who emerges victorious in the end. By the way, check out this interesting examination of the good/bad Al Pacino.


1994: Forrest Gump defeats Pulp Fiction for Best Picture. Pulp Fiction changed the way movies are made. But Forrest Gump had Tom Hanks, everyone’s darling. Here we see another example of Oscar falling in love with a star — no, not just falling in love but having an unhealthy Fatal Attraction fixation. Just remember, Mr. Hanks: one false movie, and Oscar will turn on you like a Glenn Close scorned (Kevin Costner learned this lesson the hard way following his success with Dances with Wolves).


1995: Nicolas Cage defeats Sean Penn for Best Actor. Nicolas Cage’s downtrodden alcoholic in Leaving Las Vegas had absolutely no arc to his character. How hard is it to drink yourself to death? But, Oscar loves the loser, the underdog, and the physically or mentally challenged. So Cage got the nod even though Penn did the impossible by making us feel empathy for a brutal killer on death row in Dead Man Walking. But Penn would get revenge eight years later when he robbed Bill Murray of a Best Actor win.


1997: Helen Hunt defeats Judi Dench for Best Actress. Helen Hunt is a marginal actress who delivered a perfectly ordinary performance alongside the sadly overrated Jack Nicholson in As Good as It Gets. Judi Dench created a sensitive, complex interpretation of Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown. But Oscar is a sucker for feel-good movies, and the hype for As Good as It Gets (an awful film) spilled over into the Best Actress category. At least Ms. Hunt wasn’t nominated for her clumsy caricature of an alcoholic in the pathetic Pay It Forward.


1998: Roberto Benigni gets nominated for anything — and wins for Best Actor and Best Foreign Language Film. Life Is Beautiful is another sad example of Oscar’s poor taste in foreign movies. I wince when I recall watching Benigni “charm” Oscar telecast viewers by jumping over the shoulders of those unfortunate enough to sit near him as he rushed the stage to accept one of his ill-deserved awards. The stunt was about as convincing as his “happy concentration camp victim” shtick in Life Is Beautiful. Yeah, I know we were supposed to cry a river of tears because his character in Life Is Beautiful was putting on a brave, happy face to protect his son from the horrors of concentration camp life — but Benigni’s performance was too weak, even campy, to pull it off. Meanwhile, Tom Hanks delivered the performance of his career in Saving Private Ryan (but it was a dark role, not the mushy Tom Hanks that usually wins the Oscar), Ian McKlellen owned Gods and Monsters, and Nick Nolte and Edward Norton mesmerized us in Affliction and American History X, respectively. Sorry, guys. Oscar has a soft spot for the happy clown.


2000: Gladiator defeats Traffic and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for Best Picture. Gladiator was a clumsy action movie with bad special effects. Traffic was a complex and harrowing examination of drugs, politics, and American society (ironically based on a British television series). Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was the intelligent action movie that Gladiator wanted to be. But the problem is that Oscar is easily confused — what to do with a genre bending movie like Crouching Tiger? Like Pulp Fiction, Crouching Tiger was just too different to win.


2003: Sean Penn defeats Bill Murray for Best Actor. This is the case of a great actor winning for the wrong movie. Penn completely overacted his way through the weeper Mystic River (“Is that my Oscar in there? Is that my Oscar in there?“) Bill Murray created a sad, wasted, but self-aware Bob Harris in Lost in Translation. I think the Academy was afraid that One of Our Finest Actors would go postal on Oscar if he didn’t win.


2007: Ben Foster fails to get nominated for Best Supporting Actor. His Charlie Prince in 3:10 to Yuma was one of the best screen villains in recent history. Beneath Prince’s psycho demeanor was a blind hero worship — even homoerotic love — for Russell Crowe’s Bill Wade. Maybe Oscar just didn’t “get” Charlie Prince?


If you’ve read this far, no doubt you have your own ideas about famous Oscar injustices, and I’d especially like to hear about your disagreements. Do you marketers out there agree or disagree that Oscar is failing to live up to its brand promise of honoring outstanding film achievements?

0 thoughts on “Oscar, we don’t believe you

  1. Oscar has become more a showcase for successful campaigning by PR and studio reps than an accurate measure of talent or worthiness.

    Many of the more memorable \”snubs\” of the last 15 years or so can be explained by aggressive studio campaigns. I\’l mention just two examples. You mentioned Tom Hanks losing to the deplorable Benigni in \”Life Is Beautiful,\” but the real travesty was \”Saving Private Ryan\’s\” loss in the Best Picture race to the amiable \”Shakespeare In Love.\” I don\’t have problems with \”Shakespeare–\” it\’s endearing and entertaining, but its \’David and Goliath\’ BP victory was largely the result of Harvey Weinstein and Miramax\’s campaign to get the movie\’s screeners in the hands of academy voters and continuous press mentions during the balloting process about how it was such an underdog. In contrast, Dreamworks and Spielberg did little or no campaigning — a lesson that was learned, as \”Gladiator\’s\” win in 2000 was credited to a well-planned campaign by the Dreamworks gang.

    A similar travesty happened two years ago, as unanimous Best Pic candidate \”Brokeback Mountain\” lost to the TV movie-of-the-week \”Crash.\” Brokeback won just about every award possible in the run-up to Oscar, yet Lionsgate sent DVD screeners of \”Crash\” to every member of the Academy AND every member of SAG — unprecedented at the time — which was brilliant, as the movie featured a large acting ensemble and actors compose the largest voting bloc of academy voters. It\’s believed that the acting community put \”Crash\” over the more deserving \”Brokeback.\” \”Brokeback\’s\” producers mounted a subdued campaign, hoping to coast on its run of top-ten list and film-festival awards. It didn\’t.

    There\’s many other examples, but I have to get to work!

    Great article!

  2. The Oscar campaign season is ridiculous, isn\’t it? So is it true that moving the telecast to February — originally done to curtail the campaigns — has made them even worse? Also, I thought of a few more blatant injustices: in 1985, \”Out of Africa\” beat \”Witness\” for Best Picture. \”Witness\” gave us an intelligent, thrilling combination of action and romance. \”Out of Africa\” served us a heaping plate of yawn pie and snore sauce. Also, could it be . . . ZERO Oscar noms in 1995 for \”Heat,\” one of the greatest police dramas ever?

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