The Impossible Mission of the Oscars (and the Heisman)
By Kid Gazoo (@KidGazoo)
*A Note From Ted: I did not write this post, which if not obvious from the byline should become so once you see the tremendous amount of thought that went into it. It’s the first piece from my good friend Kid Gazoo, who will be a regular to occasional contributor here on the blog, depending on his availability (he has, like, a job and stuff). You can also catch him as a regular co-host on my podcast.
“I still think awards are stupid, but they’d be less stupid if they went to the right people.” – Ron Swanson
We find ourselves in the homestretch of another awards season, that most wonderful time between late December and early March when the entertainment industry glitterati gathers together over and over again, and remembers The Year That Was. Over and over again, the most famous and beautiful people in the word dress up, throw big parties, and hand out awards to . . . themselves. This ultimate stretch of Hollywood navel-gazing annually provides a star-struck public with the Golden Globes,1 the Grammy Awards,2 and most prestigiously, the Academy Awards (which is regularly among the most-watched television broadcasts of the year).3
The annual spectacle of the Oscars captivates us every year. Hollywood glamor is at its peak on Oscar night. The show drives tremendous pop-culture interest, with Twitter insta-grading the host’s monologue via a real-time crowd-sourced virtual roast, and pundits second-guessing the selected winners (and the dresses, and the order of the honorees in the “In Memoriam” segment, and the choreography of the very odd dance number, and pretty much everything else about the production) the following day.
I love the Oscars, because I love movies, and because the Oscars are an annual celebration of the movies. The Oscar show is the high-point of the film-watching year (at least for those of us who aren’t invited to Cannes, Sundance, or Toronto), but Ron Swanson’s opinion quoted above fits the Academy Awards just as surely as it fits the Pawnee Woman of the Year celebration. Often the most deserving films, performances, and technical feats actually earn the golden statuette, which illustrates the great illusion of the Oscars (and many high-profile awards in entertainment): No matter how hard everyone involved may try to convince us otherwise, the Oscars do not (and, really, cannot) decide the most meritorious achievements of the year in film. The process is simply not constructed that way. Yes, the Oscars are an annual celebration of film, but they do not necessarily celebrate the very best in film.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to disparage the Oscars here. As I said, I love the Academy Awards show (and unironically, too). Unfortunately the list of award-winners tends to value middle-of-the-road appeal over a more spectacular brilliance. When this happens year after year, and daring films and performances are consistently ignored in favor of safer choices, frustration can build in film fans.
Jennifer Lawrence: One of the very best reasons to love the Oscars
This phenomenon isn’t exclusive to the Oscars, and examples of flawed awards selections abound in other venues, as well. As a point of comparison, let’s take a look at the flaws of the Academy Awards alongside those of the highest-profile individual award in sports, college football’s Heisman Trophy.4
For starters, consider what each of these awards claims to represent.5 Quoting from the official rules, “Academy Awards of Merit shall be given annually to honor outstanding achievements in theatrically released feature-length motion pictures.” So far, so good. The definition for Best Picture seems simple enough: “Best motion picture of the year.”
Well, that should clear everything up.
How is “best motion picture of the year” defined? Well, it isn’t, and now we begin to see some issues arise. There is no clear criteria provided for voters, so it becomes a matter of personal taste for the 6,000+ members of the Academy. I don’t want to belittle the importance of personal taste, but the combined opinions of such a large group of people rarely comes to any bold or interesting conclusions.
The Heisman Trophy criteria are similarly muddled. The trophy “recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.” There’s obviously nothing in that description that might have been ambiguous to the 870 sportswriters, 57 former winners, and one fan who were eligible to vote for the 2013 Heisman. After all, I’m sure 928 people from various parts of the country have exactly the same ideas about whom might best exhibit the pursuit of excellence with integrity.
Or, more likely, not.
Engineers (the math/science kind, not the train conductor kind) are taught that clear and measurable criteria are critical to perform a proper test of quality . . . and so far neither the Oscars nor the Heisman clears this bar.
Next, consider the voters. Academy membership consists of film professionals whose “work . . . represent[s] an unusually high level of quality and distinction.” Writers, producers, directors, and actors must have a minimum number of credits on “films that reflect the Academy’s highest standards.” What these standards might be is not explained, but rest assured, they’re the highest.
Also, prospective members must be sponsored by current members, or be Oscar nominees from the previous year. Now I’m not saying this process is likely to lead to excessive cronyism, but Boss Tweed and the rest of Tammany Hall probably thinks there’s something fishy going on here.6
The Heisman voting bloc is comprised mostly of media members equally divided among six regions of the country. The Heisman trusts that a geographically diverse set of sportswriters was the obvious choice, as they are “informed, competent and impartial,” which are the first three words that come to mind when I think of sports columnists, sportstalk radio hosts, and TV pundits. Surely they have no personal agendas, no regional biases. Oh, and all 870 writers surely watch every play from every game every weekend, because they each have 4,000 hours to spare each Saturday.
So, we have skewed voter bases determining the relative merits of films/football players based on vague criteria . . . sounds like a great way to determine the best of anything, right? Actually, a large electorate of insiders exercising votes based on personal and professional biases sounds more like a presidential primary, which tends to turn out watered down and commercialized candidates. But I digress . . . and maybe I’m being too hard on the voters.
Let’s consider the absurd enormity of the tasks Oscar and Heisman voters annually have set before them. Even with arcane eligibility rules, there were 289 films up for consideration for Oscars in 2013. I’m fairly certain that not every member of the Academy watched all 289 movies over the past year (though I have no proof of this, so I could be wrong). Shortcuts have to be taken, and things get even dicier at this point.
There’s a reason for the term “Oscar bait.” Cutting down the field to “contenders” turns into the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy. A cursory look at past Best Picture winners shows that the Academy definitely loves period epics7 and “issues” movies.8, 9 For an interactive exercise in Oscar’s love for these kinds of films, and for hours of fun, check out Time Magazine’s Random Oscar Winner Generator. You’ll find, as I did, that fake movie pitches comprised of amalgams of keywords about previous Oscar winners sound like they could definitely win Oscars.
Heisman voters have an even bigger problem. Technically, “the recipient of the award MUST be a bona fide student of an accredited college or university including the United States Academies. The recipients must be in compliance with the bylaws defining an NCAA student athlete.” Even limiting the field to scholarship players from the 125 NCAA FBS schools would result in 10,625 potential Heisman winners (125 schools x 85 scholarships per school). Obviously this list needs to be broken down even further, since the sportswriters want as much free time as they can get in those 4,000-hour Saturdays.
Realistically, Heisman voters prefer certain types of players just as clearly as Oscar voters prefer long, “serious” movies. If you want to win the Heisman, you better be a quarterback or a running back on a highly rated team.10, 11
The victim of the most egregious Heisman snub of all-time, Rocket Ismail also got screwed on this, one of the worst college football calls ever, the following month. Can you tell Kid Gazoo and I are Notre Dame fans?
The politicking and campaigning undertaken by contenders also brings out a marked similarity between the Oscars and the Heisman. The campaigning aspect is actually engrained in the Oscar eligibility rules! In addition to requiring that films play in Los Angeles County (in effect forcing potentially eligible films to impress Hollywood insiders in order to be seriously considered), eligible films must be “advertised and exploited during their Los Angeles County qualifying run customary to industry practice.” Again, I don’t really know what this means, exactly since “customary to industry practice” could be just about anything. A movie poster in the lobby might qualify. Who knows?
Sometimes it feels like the “exploitation” mentioned in the eligibility rules are more important than the “advertisement.” Urban legends have circulated for years about Hollywood power players like Harvey Weinstein allegedly strong-arming Oscar voters in support of their films. As recently as this year, a nomination for Best Song was rescinded due to allegations of improper vote solicitation by the composer.
Campaigning plays a role in the Heisman race, as well. In 1970, Notre Dame QB Joe Theismann (pronounced THĒZ-mən) famously changed the pronunciation of his name (to THĪZ- mən) so that it would rhyme with “Heisman” (it didn’t work – he finished second in the voting to QB Jim Plunkett of Stanford). Sports information directors regularly bombard newspaper offices with paraphernalia touting the skills and successes of top players. Sports journalists often participate in mock Heisman balloting through the year – which tends to influence other voters, especially those on a local beat who don’t get to see a breadth of games during the season.
So, there are issues surrounding the soundness of the Oscars and the Heisman processes. In turn, their ability to truly honor “the best” is doubtful. That said, they still have value. I mean, it’s not like the Academy and Heisman Trust are totally incompetent. Terrible films aren’t winning Best Picture Oscars, and terrible football players aren’t winning Heismans.12 The list of Best Picture winners contains some of the greatest and most memorable films ever produced, and similarly the list of Heisman winners includes legends of the game. But far too many deserving films and players are missing, often because their brilliance goes unnoticed until seen in retrospect.13
Even though a lot of hot air is wasted debating the relative merits of Film X vs. Film Y or Player A over Player B, educated and intelligent discussions about art and talent always have something to contribute to the public discourse.
As I said before, this reminds me of elections. Candidates often have to drift toward the middle of the spectrum in order to seem electable to a broader spectrum of people, and in the process they lose the special qualities that made them distinctive. This leads to a kind of homogenization, a voluntary regression to the mean. The same is true for the Oscars and the Heisman.
Of course, both the Oscars and the Heisman are valuable as snapshots in time. The Oscars do reflect a certain trend in attitudes about how Hollywood thinks the rest of America looks at the movies,14 even if it sometimes takes them a few years to catch up with the movies themselves. Similarly, the Heisman winners reflect variations in styles of play in football over the years.15
And both the Oscars and the Heisman are valuable in another way. They stimulate conversation. Even though a lot of hot air is wasted debating the relative merits of Film X vs. Film Y or Player A over Player B, educated and intelligent discussions about art and talent always have something to contribute to the public discourse.
Unfortunately, we too often ask the wrong questions. We debate which movies are the best, but there’s a more interesting conversation to be had. What makes the movies transcendent as both art and entertainment? What keeps pulling us back into darkened theaters for 2 hours at a time to watch flickering moving pictures on a screen? What alchemy of acting, directing, screenwriting, cinematography, music, and editing pushes us to respond so acutely, to laugh, to cry, to think?
There is value in that discussion, and there is value in comparing the strengths and weaknesses of the most prominent films of the year. The Oscars provide a wonderful platform for that discussion. Just don’t think for a second that the winners are necessarily the best. We know that the most qualified don’t always win, just as Ron Swanson did. But the show goes on, and we keep watching.
(And after nearly 2,800 words laying out my concerns about the Oscars, here are my predictions for March 2:16 12 Years a Slave, Alfonso Cuarón, Cate Blanchett, Matthew McConaughey, Lupita Nyong’o, Jared Leto, Frozen. Book it.)
1 Everyone at the Golden Globes is drunk, so the movie stars don’t mind slumming it with the TV stars, and the TV stars steal the show by making awesome jokes about how arrogant the movie stars are.
2 There is no pretense by anyone involved in the Grammys that the awards actually mean anything to anyone, which leads both to musicians actively campaigning to lose, and to the strangest and most bizarre spectacle of all awards shows . . . look, there’s Kendrick Lamar performing with Imagine Dragons, and there’s Robin Thicke and Chicago!
3 The 85th Academy Awards, televised on February 24, 2013, were watched live by about 40.38 million Americans, or nearly 25% of US households.
4 Since we’re here at tedfoxisawesome.com, whose readership (and authorship) sits squarely in the intersection of the Venn diagram of “Sports Fans” and “Entertainment Industry Observers,” this comparison seems totally appropriate.
5 The majority of the Oscars discussion will focus on the Best Picture award, but other awards will be discussed if it makes my argument sound better. This is my essay, after all.
6 Sure, I just made a joke about political corruption in mid-19th-century New York City. When I’m not watching movies or sports, I occasionally read a book. Just wait until I start riffing on the Teapot Dome scandal . . . (Of course, maybe I recalled Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall from Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. Whatever.)
7 Examples include Gone With the Wind; Around the World in 80 Days; The Bridge on the River Kwai; Ben-Hur; Lawrence of Arabia; The Godfather; The Godfather Part II; The Deer Hunter; Gandhi; The Last Emperor; Dances with Wolves; Braveheart; The English Patient; Titanic; and Gladiator.
8 Examples include The Lost Weekend (alcoholism); The Best Years of Our Lives (returning to ordinary lives after war); Gentlemen’s Agreement (anti-Semitism); On the Waterfront (union corruption); One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (conditions in mental hospitals); Kramer vs. Kramer (divorce); Ordinary People (coping with a tragic death in the family); Rain Man (autism); Schindler’s List (the Holocaust); Forrest Gump (developmental disability); Million Dollar Baby (euthanasia); and Crash (racism).
9 Period epics . . . “issues” movies . . . seems to me that 12 Years a Slave is a no-brainer this year.
10 Here’s the list of non-QB, non-RB Heisman winners: Larry Kelly (E, Yale, 1936), Leon Hart (E, Notre Dame, 1949), Tim Brown (WR, Notre Dame, 1987), Desmond Howard (WR, Michigan, 1991), and Charles Woodson (CB/WR/PR, Michigan, 1997). That’s five out of 79. Apparently offensive linemen and wide receivers are rarely outstanding players, and defensive players simply don’t pursue excellence with integrity often enough.
11 The last Heisman winner to play on a team that finished outside of the AP Top 20 was Ty Detmer (QB, Brigham Young, 1990).
12 Except maybe for The Greatest Show on Earth and Gino Torretta. Reasonable people might come to the conclusion that they were not good.
13 Sight and Sound magazine regularly conducts a poll of film experts ranking the best films of all time. The most recent poll was conducted in 2012. The English-language films from the Oscars era to crack the top 20 were Vertigo (#1, 1958, not nominated for Best Picture); Citizen Kane (#2, 1941, nominated, did not win); Sunrise (#5, 1927, silent, won an award for “Unique and Artistic Production”); 2001: A Space Odyssey (#6, 1968, not nominated); The Searchers (#7, 1956, not nominated); Apocalypse Now (#14, 1979, nominated, did not win); and Singin’ in the Rain (#20, 1951, not nominated). The Best Picture winners in each of these years were Gigi; How Green Was My Valley; Wings; Oliver!; Around the World in 80 Days; Kramer vs. Kramer; and An American in Paris, respectively. Nothing against the “winners,” but subjectively speaking, each of the films from the Sight and Sound list is among my favorites – and the critics obviously agree.
14 This seems more pronounced in examining nominations than in scouring through winners since the winners are often a bit watered down as described in the previous paragraph.
15 For example, five of the last eight Heisman winners have been hybrid-style QBs who looked to both run and throw: Troy Smith (2006, Ohio State); Tim Tebow (2007, Florida); Cam Newton (2010, Auburn); Robert Griffin III (2011, Baylor); and Johnny Manziel (2012, Texas A&M).
16 Because if there’s one thing I love more than ranting about awards shows and writing parenthetical asides as footnotes, it’s handicapping winners.