Criticizing the Academy Awards is becoming a tradition as solidified as the Awards ceremony itself. The ink spilled over anticipation of who will come out swinging during Awards season is typically followed by an anticipated – but, when well-argued, often necessary – critique of the pomp and circumstance of the ceremony itself. Now that we’re neck-deep in Presidential election season, the time dedicated to polling, statistics, and manufactured drama all in the service of something ultimately unpredictable resonates alongside the earliest Fall predictions of the Winter’s Awards competitors: no matter the race, we can become hopelessly invested in every detail in the process of competition. As Matt Taibbi stated bluntly in an editorial on the Presidential race, this is not what democratic participation should look or feel like. Nor, for that matter, is immersing oneself in the Kool-Aid of Oscar anticipation what a genuine investment in cinema should look like.
While I’ve bloviated more than enough on the Oscars, it’s something different entirely when someone who ostensibly stands to benefit from the institution itself to criticize it, as potential Best Actor nominee Joaquin Phoenix did recently. Perhaps criticizing the Oscars is not the bravest thing a wealthy famous person can do (perhaps), but the exact form that it takes is certainly worthy of attention because such instances evidence certain power relations and possibilities in Hollywood.
Why do some Hollywood figures participate in this criticism, and others don’t?
In 1936, screenwriter Dudley Nichols was the first nominee to boycott the Academy Awards (the year that he won Best Writing for The Informer). Nichols’s boycott was expressed in support of the ongoing WGA strike. Of course, a similar strike nearly shut down the ceremony in 2008 as a result of solidarity expressed for unionized writers across many levels of Hollywood. While Nichols, who went on to pen Stagecoach and co-write Bringing Up Baby, would hopefully be proud that at the display of empathy that non-writer Hollywood figures gave to writers, the Hollywood screenwriter evidently still has a hard time making their way just above the line well after Nichols’s deliberate absence.
Nichols’s protest was politically circumstantial, not a sustained criticism of the ceremony or institution. As of 1949, after the writers’ demands were negotiated and Nichols acquired several more nominations, Nichols was in possession of his 1936 Academy Award.
George C. Scott
George C. Scott became notorious for being the first famous actor publicized as openly critical of the Oscars, calling the ceremony a “two-hour meat parade” (he’d surely be delighted to know the contemporary meat parade is more than an hour and a half longer). Scott declined his Best Supporting Actor nomination for The Hustler, but really turned heads when he refused to attend the ceremony that brought his Best Actor win for Patton in 1971 (when he made the famous “meat parade” comment).
Scott was known for his discomfort with his own stardom as well as his sometimes-intimidating no-bullshit persona. Seemingly misplaced, Scott found success in an industry with bullshit as its stock-and-trade. Not only was Scott the archetype for the famous actor speaking out against the Oscar, but he also modeled the jokey, no-bullshit approach to criticism sometimes articulated by later stars.
Method actor Marlon Brando, who won an Oscar in 1955 for On the Waterfront, became politically involved with the American Indian Movement (AIM) during the many civil rights struggles of the early 1970s. Brando refused to attend the Awards ceremony in 1972, and sent Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather to read a fifteen-page letter in protest that Brando had written. However, she was instructed by the producers to limit her comments to a one-minute speech. Perhaps no absence of an Award recipient is as notorious as this one. The political intents of the protest (against the treatment of Native Americans by the film industry – did I mention Dudley Nichols wrote Stagecoach?) unfortunately became overshadowed by Brando’s increasingly eccentric public persona.
I haven’t found any information as to whether this public display helped the AIM gain recognition and support. As much as this incident plays into Brando’s late career narrative of theatricality and peculiarity, Native Americans are still virtually absent in Hollywood both on and off-screen after decades of negative representation, and whoever booed Littlefeather here looked like a bunch of assholes. When you watch the actual speech, it’s nowhere near as strange as the industry folklore developed around it – which has attempted to mute any substance of the protests – has remembered it to be.
After the protest, AMPAS declared that no future proxies could accept Academy Awards, even with the permission of the winner. The following year, when Brando received a nomination for Best Actor for Last Tango in Paris, he was once again absent.
Though the prolific, eternal Hollywood staple Woody Allen refuses to attend the Academy Awards, this clearly never prevents him from receiving a nomination every 2-5 years. Allen made one exception to his consistent absence at the 2002 ceremony (in which he wasn’t nominated, thanks to Curse of the Jade Scorpion), when he gave a speech urging filmmakers to continue filming in a post-9/11 New York City. When asked about this rare appearance, Allen stated, “I didn’t have to present anything. I didn’t have to accept anything. I just had to talk about New York City.” Allen’s decision seems to be mostly personal, as he hasn’t leveled much overt criticism at the Academy Awards.
In 2010, French New Wave pioneer and current schizophrenic-media collage artist Jean-Luc Godard – whose films had heretofore never been recognized by the Academy in any shape or form – was announced as the recipient of a lifetime achievement award by AMPAS. Journalists and AMPAS members tried furiously for days to contact him by phone to see if he’d show up and accept, and Godard teased as to whether or not he would attend (he stated that one of the primary reasons he may not attend is because he can’t smoke on planes).
Godard ultimately did not receive or accept the Award by an industry that he at one point both revered and reviled, but the process leading up to Godard’s declaration made for the director’s most enjoyable and madcap Hollywood critique since Pierrot le fou.
Past winner and nominee Joaquin Phoenix stated in response to speculation about his Oscar nomination, “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.” As judging by his recent career, the perpetually fascinating Phoenix (who, by the way, is indeed really, really good in The Master) clearly does not care too much if powers that be validate or approve his decisions, resulting thus far in one of the most interesting turns of an already variegated career.
The actor cited his experience as the subject of Awards buzz when he starred in Walk the Line as the source of his discomfort with the ceremony (could this have also inspired his years-long renunciation of Hollywood and staging of a breakdown?). Phoenix seems to be in full George C. Scott mode with a “I-don’t-give-a-fuck” demeanor and colorful metaphors in tow, but what’s interesting is that Phoenix, like Scott, treats the ceremony as frivolous, while attempting no associated criticisms about potential negative ripple effects of the Awards-season-as-hype-machine on the craft of acting.
Probably the most immediately noticeable aspect of this list is that it’s composed entirely of white men and, with the exceptions of Nichols and Godard, movie stars. Though a lack of attendance did not bring evident repercussions on the likes of Brando or Woody Allen, I wonder if women and persons of color are reluctant to criticize the ceremony because quality Hollywood roles are difficult to find as is.
Secondly, with some exceptions, there seems to be a pattern of treating a frivolous ceremony with frivolity, and this is where Scott, Phoenix, and Godard are connected. Few criticisms are made outside the observation that the ceremony is silly, pompous, and unnecessary. Negative systemic effects about the quality of mainstream filmmaking or compromising the craft of acting aren’t mentioned, just a personal distaste.
Finally, even though the Academy Awards have been a television event for several decades (which probably contributes to some actors’ sense of discomfiting self-aggrandizement), it’s unclear as to whether the speeches of the ceremony are a productive forum for activism, as the Nichols and Brando examples attest. In fact, the Awards have a more evident history of activism from people who actually went up to the podium.
Criticisms of the Academy Awards may be rare from potential recipients, but they’re also occasionally very rich (see: meat parade). However, the hardest thing for an industry to do is criticize itself from the inside. But that won’t stop me from wishing for a mass walkout led by Joaquin Phoenix holding a bag of carrots.