If you are an Academy Award nominee this year, I would like to offer you first my congratulations, and second, some words of consolation. Chances are you are going to lose. The likelihood of losing is usually 75% or higher depending upon the number of other nominees in your category. Since it is more than likely that you will not win an Academy Award, you should take some time to understand what you’ll be missing out on. Because really, it’s less than you think.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was initially conceived by ruthless Hollywood tycoon Louis B. Mayer, a man who is remembered for, among other things, using blackmail to get a discount on Clark Gable’s salary. The intended purpose of the Academy was to declaw the growing labor movement of Hollywood talent and technicians. The approach was twofold: first, to create a pseudo-union that would arbitrate contracts between studios and talent (always in favor of the studios, of course), and second, to bestow awards.
“I found that the best way to handle [moviemakers] was to hang medals all over them … If I got them cups and awards they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created,” Louis Mayer once remarked.
Since then, getting an Oscar has become one of the chief goals for anyone working in film. Mayer’s scheme worked. But the fact remains that the awards are figuratively hollow, which is something you should really take to heart in case you are hoping to get one.
Awards for film don’t actually make any sense. If you made the best movie of the year and you don’t win Best Picture, then you still made the best movie. If, on the other hand, you didn’t make the best film this year, then getting an award won’t change that. The problem is that the concept of “winning” is actually out of place in the creative arts. Someone can win a game of chess, because it’s a defining feature of the game; without winning there is no chess. If you got rid of awards ceremonies though, you’d still have cinema. Here’s another example: You win a football game by scoring the most points before the time elapses. Not by having the two teams play the game and then having a jury of several thousand football professionals vote as to who they feel played the better game. Which is, of course, the system used by the Academy. You can’t win at a movie anymore than you can win at sneezing, or a game of catch. Trophies for film making are at best redundant and at worst wrong. And they’re often wrong.
There are some pretty conspicuous examples of undeserving films being selected for Best Picture. Famously, “Citizen Kane” lost to “How Green Was My Valley,” a film mostly remembered for being the wrong recipient of the award. In 1989, “Driving Miss Daisy” was the least critically acclaimed of all the nominees, which included “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Dead Poets Society,” “Field of Dreams,” and “My Left Foot.” Nonetheless, “Driving Miss Daisy” won the award for Best Picture. Then, in 2002, “Chicago” won over “The Pianist,” which in turn took Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenplay. The question then, is how could a film which, by the Academy’s own measure, had inferior directing, acting and writing, still win the award for Best Picture? The answer is that they gave the award to the wrong movie, and there are plenty of other cases just like the ones above. Not to mention all the great films, actors, writers etc. that don’t even get nominated each year. So don’t take it too much to heart if you or your film loses, because you’re actually in some fairly good company.
Of course, even though the awards are nonsensical and frequently given to the wrong nominees, they are not going away within the foreseeable future. For one thing, we like to watch them. The Oscars’ real value lie in making an entertaining (and highly profitable) program out of show business as a whole. We, the public, get to watch the pantheon of celebrities glitz across the carpet and then try to get to know you better as you chit chat with the press. Once the ceremony has begun, camera closeups of the nominees provide us with a rare and intimate opportunity to share in the rush of triumph or the wrench of disappointment.
Ultimately, it’s just a compounding case of what talent in Hollywood already deals with each day. You put everything you have into trying to create the best product possible and then, after you’ve done that, we insist on arbitrarily placing you in competition with one another so that we can watch your reactions. It’s a poor reward for people who are already in a punishing line of work. So don’t care too much. If you win, your career will be boosted and you’ll enjoy some prestige. If you lose however, the creative product you put out there won’t be a bit different for it. So if you can, take it easy on yourself.