The Oscars: The greatest sham on earth

The Oscars were created in order to counter sleaze in Hollywood. Yet today, argues David Thomson, the world's best-known awards ceremony has become shoddy, incestuous and undemocratic. Is our addiction to glitz killing the film industry?
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The Independent Culture

One quick look and you could tell yourself, sure, even though he's only 13.5in tall, he's the guardian knight to some great cultural treasury. Don't integrity, duty and sleepless dedication shine out of his featureless face? Just look at that stance, that buffed, bronzed body, and the superb balance poised over a sword nearly as big as he is. Whether it's the crown jewels or Sleeping Beauty, if you want to hire a Galahad of a guard this is the ideal.

One quick look and you could tell yourself, sure, even though he's only 13.5in tall, he's the guardian knight to some great cultural treasury. Don't integrity, duty and sleepless dedication shine out of his featureless face? Just look at that stance, that buffed, bronzed body, and the superb balance poised over a sword nearly as big as he is. Whether it's the crown jewels or Sleeping Beauty, if you want to hire a Galahad of a guard this is the ideal.

The only surprise comes when you learn that he isn't actually named "Galahad" or "Siegfried" or "Arnold". No, he's called Oscar, because when designer Cedric Gibbons (in charge of decor at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) did his sketch for the statuette, in 1926, Margaret Herrick, first librarian of this new dining club, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, was heard to murmur, "He looks a lot like my Uncle Oscar." That's how legends are born, and we are dealing with a tribe - American picture people - that generally prefers fantasy to fact. But another legend says that in the hubbub over the name "Oscar" few heard this comment, from a squashed looking mobster farther down the table: "He looks more like a guy named Noodles who owed a lot of money and got his face taken off so his mother wouldn't be upset."

That is prelude to Oscar's 76th birthday bash coming up on Sunday, when the annual handing out of statuettes will be resumed to persuade us all that we are just one planet, one audience, beneath the eyeless gaze of Oscar. My birthday tribute is not just an attack on the institution - because I am fond of its daft show - but a modest attempt to help you see that the Academy is one of the great shams of modern times.

On Sunday, the awards show (or a part of its close-to-four-hour sprawl) will be seen all over the world on television by well over a billion people. Thus, about a fifth of humanity is allegedly held in suspense by the decisions of a club numbering just under 6,000 people. It's one of those unnerving signs in international affairs that we are more impressed by theatrics than democracy, and happy to worship at the feet of celebrities, especially if they turn up drunk or belligerent, or break down in the misery of triumph. The tenor of the evening is that the most important events of the year and the most binding community on Earth are being honoured. Of course, if coinciding with some suitably dramatic world horror, the Academy will make throat-clearing noises - it will have 30 seconds of silence; it will refer in obvious ways to the loss and damage of others; it might even shift its night. But the Academy's sublime indifference to anything that might be called political is covered by its righteous urging that those chosen to receive (and give thanks) should in no way refer to "political" matters that may deserve a hearing by a billion of the world's people.

It's not that the Academy is entirely hostile to the suffering of others: it knows there is high dramatic potential in that area; and many members of the Academy lost relatives in the several disasters of its 76-year history that were not attended to promptly enough. What is most irking in the Academy's attitude to its own place in the world is the assertion that there's nothing anyone can do about things political, so enjoy the show and go to see movies. Of course, after 100 years of film-going, we do have the beginnings of a case that "difficulties" in the world at large can be connected to a culture that steadily believes in bringing dreams to life, worshipping beautiful people and knowing as little as possible about "foreign affairs" - a state of mind exemplified by the "Never heard of it" that often greets the announcement of the Best Foreign Language Picture (an area that Academy members actually leave to a special committee), plus the assumption that all languages other than American are "foreign".

The Academy is not remotely academic in its origins. It was set up by industry leaders resolved to protect their own position and reputation, to guard the film business against legal invasion, and to forestall significant attempts to unionise the several arts and crafts that made motion pictures.

I see no reason to blame Louis B Mayer, the leading force in the move towards an Academy, for looking after his own interests and those of his fellows. That was the stamp of his personality and his business. But let's not forget that he was prompted by the need to clean up Hollywood's image after a series of sex and drug scandals in the early 1920s - the death of Olive Thomas, the Fatty Arbuckle rape case, the murder of the director William Desmond Taylor, and the collapse into drugs and ruin of the star William Haines.

These cases were part of the growing dismay in real academia, in the churches, in Washington DC and among ordinary people, that this huge influence on the minds of young people - the movies - was a money factory for beautiful but uneducated and unstable people, and for a business run by Jews. Make no mistake, the first generation of Hollywood moguls were keen to be as American as possible. The Academy was a part of that effort, with its aura of the Ivy League or European classicism, and its suggestion that quality mattered more than anything else.

Mayer had another motive. In building his family home in Santa Monica, he had reckoned to hire studio construction crews - only to be told that he would have to pay the union rates they had negotiated for movie work. The horror! What if screenwriters, directors and actors got hold of this union idea. Surely they would want more money. So for Mayer the Academy was a kind of wide-ranging union that would look after everyone in the cosiest possible way - but especially the producers and the studio.

In fact, the ruse was transparent. The Academy helped hurry the actors' and the writers' guilds into being. And in those early days there were fierce battles between those guilds and the Academy. Many actors quit the Academy in the early Thirties and were only wooed back when the Academy (at Frank Capra's suggestion) agreed to award Oscars to supporting actors as well as leads (this began in 1936).

In time, the power struggle in Hollywood was solved when that new kind of practitioner - the agent - took over the business and ensured that stars got a lot more money. And so successful writers and actors are well looked after, while the large majority of the unemployed are left to luck. In short, the Academy was very influential in seeing that sufficient sharing of the booty would buy off protest. The radicalism of Hollywood unions never survived this manoeuvre or the drastic intimidation that came with McCarthyism. The Academy has actually been a protection agency for the people who get the most out of the business.

Well, why not, they could say. That's the American way, active in many other areas. All true, but all overshadowed by the immense high- mindedness and nearly abstract neutrality or judiciousness with which the Academy likes to present itself.

Let's look at that more closely. There are just under 6,000 members of the Academy. That is a small fraction of the number of people who work in film in America. It means that Academy members are successful (past winners and nominees) and generally senior. The large section of film- makers who are poor, unknown, young and striving are not very well represented.

The special sections of the Academy (the cameramen, say, or the editors) propose nominations in their areas of expertise. And then the entire Academy is entitled to vote on all areas. But the voters do not need to have seen the film they are voting for, or any of the films; and the voting numbers are never reported. There was a tie once (between Katharine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand, for best actress in 1968 - but the tying vote number was never named).

What that means is that in a close year in a certain category - say this year for best actor, and assuming that 5,000 Academicians vote - the figures might be as follows: Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, 600 votes; Jude Law in Cold Mountain, 800; Ben Kingsley in House of Sand and Fog, 1000; Sean Penn in Mystic River, 1299; and Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, 1301. In which case, Murray would get the Oscar with a little over a quarter of the vote. By the Academy's rules, and its TV lust for a winner, that's all very well. Yet it's contrary to the idea of polling in so many American contests where there would be a run-off after such voting in which the bottom three runners dropped out.

Those are regular and secret defects in the Academy system - and they are a travesty of any real sense of universal worth. Of course, the system breeds anomalies and in time the Academy caught up with that shortcoming.

These embarrassing stories are repeated over the years, but let me remind you that the following people never won (or have never won) an Oscar for their particular work: Charles Chaplin, Josef von Sternberg, King Vidor, Ernst Lubitsch, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Stanley Kubrick, Preston Sturges, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese; Cary Grant, Charles Boyer, Montgomery Clift, Kirk Douglas, Richard Burton, James Mason, James Dean, Trevor Howard, Peter O'Toole, Robert Mitchum; Gloria Swanson, Ruth Chatterton, Greta Garbo, Irene Dunne, Carole Lombard, Agnes Moorehead, Barbara Stanwyck, Marilyn Monroe, Deborah Kerr. And so on. Many of those omissions were rectified later with "honorary" awards to mark career achievement. Nor do I mean to dishonour all the awards that were made. But are we really to abide by the wisdom of these prizes?

There's a larger matter still. In many eyes, Oscar has too many of the defects of being 76 - he's out of date. There were times in our history, in America, for instance, where enormous numbers of people went to the movies every week - 60 million just before sound came in; 80 and 90 million in the late Thirties; and even 100 million after the end of the Second World War. All at a time when the population ranged from 110 to 150 million. Today, with about 270 million people in America, less than 10 per cent go to the movies in any week. The movies are no longer the kind of shared experience that the Academy Awards want to insist on.

One forceful evidence of this is the rise to prominence of the Golden Globes awards, which are unashamedly a silly, trashy show-business occasion. Once upon a time they were a laughing stock. But they have become a television event potent enough to compel the Academy to hold the Oscars a month early this year. And whereas Academy night is notorious as a ponderous show, the Golden Globes cram their three hours with awards and employ a dining-room setting (something actually originated by the Oscars) that is far more camera friendly than the Academy show. It's more fun at the Golden Globes.

That hasn't overcome the silliness of the Globes. But it begins to draw attention to the hollowness of the Oscars. Another sign of that danger is the degree to which all the enterprises of the Academy (including its excellent research library) rely on the income from one night of television. More urgently than we may feel on Sunday night, the Academy needs reform. Indeed, you might even look closely at the statue of "Noodles" and see that the rather menacing figure is using his sword to pin a reel of film to the ground. Was he a hired killer?