The Academy Awards: Still Relevant or Just A Popularity Contest?

As The Academy Awards near once again, is the prestige still as strong as it ever was?

Jack Flahavan


With the pre-Oscars hype already beginning to seep into every media format available, nobody can blame cinema fanatics and the general public alike for being taken in by the gossip that has been rumbling for some time now about who is going to be crowned at next years’ ceremony on February, 24. Since the first ceremony was held on May, 16, 1929, the Academy Awards has always been viewed as an event of the highest importance in the world of film, and still carries a tyrannical clout even to this day, although in recent years its status as the primary spectacle has been challenged by the Cannes Film Festival, seen to be the more professionally rewarding because of its tendency to lean towards arty and independent ventures. That said, Cannes will never be able to garner as much worldly attention, a fact that cannot be denied when assessing the power held by American cinema and those one board at The Academy.

The Oscars, as the event is informally called, is well and truly the star attraction, a sparkling constellation that cannot be ignored as the elite names of today and yesteryear stride and strut their way up the red carpet, eyes glimmering in the wake of hundreds of flashing cameras, dressed in the finest threads and beautified after hours of primping in a suite at some grand hotel, ready to dazzle the avid fans of the First World. But, after eight decades of dominating the headlines and shunting more pressing, newsworthy stories, do the Awards still matter? Is the gratification a mere fleeting sensation for the winners, who are often quick to lose interest in their gold-plated britannium statue once all the fuss has died down and work can begin once more without interruption. Furthermore, is the ceremony any more than an inflated popularity contest, where favourites of the Academy are often the more likely to emerge victorious, even when there are more worthy competitors?

Such questions are always pertinent at this time, and were once again brought to light after some controversial comments made by one of 2013’s prospective nominees, Joaquin Phoenix. Having spent a few years in the wilderness after his failed mocumentary I’m Still Here, Phoenix has returned to tinsel town with plenty to prove to the detractors who were brutally vitriolic when assessing his attempts to con audiences, critics, and peers alike by feigning the downfall of his own career. Now, he is back with the perfect riposte, portraying a World War Two veteran struggling to acclimatise to a post-war America in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. His performance has been a critical success in all the major cultural quarters, and he was awarded with the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival, sharing the spoils with his co-star Phillip Seymour-Hoffman. Following the hysteria, talk about Phoenix being a favourite to scoop the gong at the Oscars was rapidly bubbling to the brim, until the a few terse words from the actor brought things into perspective, as seen in British newspaper The Guardian:

“I think it’s bulls**t. I think it’s total, utter bulls**t, and I don’t want to be part of it, don’t believe in it. It’s a carrot, but it’s the worst tasting carrot I’ve ever tasted in my whole life. I don’t want this carrot. It’s totally subjective. Pitting people against each other. It’s the stupidest thing in the world.”

As irreverent these comments may seem to the head honchos at the Academy, together with those in the acting game who dream of having a statue forged especially for them, Phoenix makes a very valid argument against the offer of prestige in the form of an inanimate object. Of course, he is not the first to disparage the ceremony, Marlon Brando having infamously rebuffed the Academy after winning Best Supporting Actor for his role in The Godfather, but rarely has an actor been so quick to denounce the event as worthless and vain, before their name has even been added to the shortlist. In many ways, Phoenix’s resentment is justified, as surely the greatest reward of all would be the thrill and satisfaction experienced during and after partaking in a film of true brilliance. The sensation or “buzz” as actors call it, when one feels truly engrossed and alive during a dramatic scene, is the original stimulus that drives thousands of aspiring young men and women to the profession.

Furthermore, it is the body of work, the opportunity to express oneself, and to explore the physical and psychological realms of a different being, that makes acting a thing of beauty. Trophies are only material, handed down to the chosen favourites who are not always deserving, but popular with the powers that be. Fame is fickle, as is celebrity, and an actor’s reputation is capricious as English weather; held in esteem one moment, fumbling in the gutter the next. For those who live for their art over conceit, the polarisation between ordinary and working life need not be marred by an undercurrent of bitterness, a sense of wrongdoing that festers on and off set when the ego is not fed. To be a prevalent actor is a fine privilege, one bestowed on very few; the ceremonies and statues will come later perhaps, but it is doubtful that they will invigorate the soul in the same way as performing does. So, when February 24 arrives and the red carpet unfurls like the tongue of some hulking mythical beast, perhaps viewers will take Joaquin Phoenix’s words into account, and see the bigger picture.