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A brief history of Oscar toxicity

Released a month before the 1966 Academy Awards ceremony, Russell Rouse’s film The Oscar was one of the great cinema bombs of its era. Rouse primarily had form as a screenwriter: he was behind classics such as the film noir D.O.A. (1950) and the Rock Hudson and Doris Day vehicle Pillow Talk, for which he won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 1959. Teaming up with three other writers (including speculative fiction luminary Harlan Ellison), The Oscar traced the rise and fall of the fictional actor Frankie Fane (Stephen Boyd), in what on paper at least might have looked like a gender reversal of Joseph L Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950), another film that won numerous Academy Awards. As the title of the film alone suggests, Fane’s goal to attain an Oscar of his own grants the film an opportunity to peel back the gloss and reveal the gritty, often vicious personal and professional mechanics that propel such ambition.

With its opening and closing scenes set at a fictional Oscars ceremony, what is sandwiched between them is a straightforward enough flashback beginning with Fane’s early struggles, following him towards his place in the Academy Award audience as he arrogantly waits for his name to be announced as winner of the Best Actor award. Cameos abound, granting a similar degree of star-studded excitement that the real event still offers today: Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Hedda Hopper and Edith Head are amongst many who appear. Yet despite the clear reverence for the Oscars that explicitly frames the film, the inadvertent catastrophe within unintentionally undermines that very sacredness in ways that, fifty years later, are both revealing and at times even prophetic.

For starters, Fane is a violent misogynist, recalling recent discourse surrounding the Academy’s now much publicised ‘women problem’. The Oscar’s ethical framework is clearly one that seeks in tried and true melodramatic fashion to punish villainy and reward virtue, but that virtue is not embodied by any particular character: rather, it is the Academy itself that stands not just an institution to reward talent, but as one bestowed with the power to cast ethical judgement on nogoodniks such as Fane, scoundrels whose immorality is supposedly unacceptable to such a righteous and honourable tradition. But the film also revels in other seedier aspects of the industry that are still rife today: the casting couch, the staging of fake, publicity-stunt romantic relationships, and the brutal economic reality of how strategies such as advertising in trade papers has a direct impact on nominations.

I’m not partial to the highbrow pretensions of phrases like ‘guilty pleasures’ or ‘so-bad-it’s-good’, but there is something about The Oscar that undeniably falls into that category of movies that are akin to watching a figurative car accident: that old can’t-look-but-can’t-turn-away chestnut. So appalling was the film’s reception that co-star Tony Bennett never took on another dramatic role – and meaning no disrespect to him, it is difficult to not feel some degree of gratitude for this.

Today, The Oscar is remembered predominantly by self-identifying ‘bad film’ connoisseurs: predating the Golden Raspberry Awards (the so-called ‘Razzies’) by 15 years, Bennett was ‘awarded’ the Worst Performance by a Popular Singer for his role in Michael and Harry Medved’s 1980 book The Golden Turkey Awards, although it rated only a small footnote in their previous The Fifty Worst Movies of All Time (1978). This late 70s/early 80s period might initially appear to be the birthplace of this supposed ‘anti-award’ culture, but it’s worth noting how these self-appointed purveyors of taste mockingly included films that, today at least, have reputations far beyond the status these awards might suggest: Kubrick’s now beatified The Shining was famously nominated for a Razzie for worst actress in 1981, and the Medved’s 1978 book places Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) and Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961) alongside Godzilla Vs. The Smog Monster (1972) and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964).

Events like the Razzies of course exist not in opposition to the Oscars, but in many ways precisely underscore its perceived value: by mocking what it deems ‘bad’ film, it necessarily champions the exact kind of ‘good’ film that the Academy Awards seeks to advocate. There are, consequently, vital ideological issues at stake on both sides of this flimsy taste equation: for instance, it is arguable that despite the bumper seven nominations Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey received, it would have been lambasted by the Razzies regardless of what the end product was, who directed it or who starred in it. While I certainly won’t attempt to champion Fifty Shades myself (although, to their credit, others have), one need only look at Taylor-Johnson’s work like the Crying Men series (2002-2004) or her early film Method in Madness (1995) to dismiss claims she is not an insightful, intelligent and remarkably powerful visual artist. Leaving aside subjective binaries like ‘good’ and ‘bad’, it is doubtful that any film that sought to engage with female desire framed for a female audience was going to be anything less than ridiculed and mocked by phallocentric institutions like the Razzies, the Academy’s bratty little brother.

Which leads to the obvious: in 2016, the Academy Awards clearly has its own ideological issues. This article initially was to be an overview of the current shitstorm surrounding the Oscars, but in practical terms each time I sat down to write, some new, even more grotesque scandal erupted. Even this brief overview paints a dire, deplorable scenario: the flagrant lack of diversity of Oscar nominees led to the chilling statistic that voting members of the Academy were ‘94% white, 76% men, and an average of 63 years old’. There were calls for an Academy Award boycott by Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith, and Academy President Cheryl B Isaacs was forced to apologise (with at least one well regarded female film critic suggesting that it was not Isaac’s job to clean up the mess made by male studio bosses). Best Actress nominee Charlotte Rampling shockingly declared that talk of diversity was ‘racist to white people’, and while the Academy has vowed to ‘change . . . rules to promote Oscar Diversity’, co-founder of Japan’s iconic Studio Ghibli Isao Takahata turned down an invitation to become an Academy member following reports last year that a current Academy member ‘publicly dismissed Takahata’s Kaguya as a “Chinese fuckin’ thing”.’

Not only did it become almost impossible to keep up with these horror stories, the glut of writing appearing arguably makes another piece yet another voice in the online outrage echo chamber. But these stories and hashtags like #OscarsSoWhite demand we remember the long history of this institutionally sanctioned white privilege in particular. Recall, for example, the speech given by the first African American to win an Oscar, Hattie McDaniel, for her performance as Mammy in 1939’s Gone With the Wind: receiving the award in a segregated hotel with a ‘No Blacks’ policy, she was not allowed to sit with her white co-stars. While the stereotyped racial images in the film were the source of much public debate at the time, McDaniel defended her role as Mammy by saying ‘Why should I complain about making $7000 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one.’

Oscar history is not lacking in other stories of discrimination and privilege. Revisiting Rouse’s The Oscar fifty years after its disastrous release in this current climate is a strange, if somewhat depressing, experience. As dumb and hyperbolic as it is, it is precisely The Oscar’s inadvertent, clumsy exposure of the Academy Awards as inherently rotten that makes the current ‘we’ve had a gutful’ trend seem disingenuous at best. This is a privileged cultural event that deserves much more than the annual eye-roll dismissal of the middle-brow that has become norm: as legendary US film critic Manohla Dargis noted in 2009 in a lengthy, brutal take-down of Hollywood’s inherent bigotry, ‘the Oscars are bullshit’.

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Image: Robert Couse-Baker/Flickr

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic on Melbourne radio station Triple R on the Plato’s Cave programme and a co-editor of Senses of Cinema. She writes books about cult, horror and extreme cinema.

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  1. I have worked in film and television scoring as a featured singer, choral singer, choral director and contractor. I have participated in a number of Oscar-winning scores. I have performed and/ or contracted choirs on aproximately 750 films over the last fifty years, and I have served as Choral Directodr of the OSCARS broadcast for 22 of the last 26 or so Academy Awards broadcasts. I was turned down for membership in the Academy about ten years ago. The governors in the Music Group include gentlemen ( yes, — men) who have not worked on a film score, some of them, in decades. Singers – soloists, or ensemble singers, and even Choral contractors – never received screen credit in the days when I was doing the most of my solo film score work. I am still working – at 76, most recently on STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS and BRIDGE OF SPIES. Ironically, a cue I sang on for The Exorcist II , an earlier Morricone film score from the 70s was licensed for inclusion in THE HATEFUL EIGHT, so – I participated in three of the five nominated film scores THIS year. AND ironically, the guys who wrote the lyrics for the song “It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp”, which won an Oscar for Best Song in 2006, and who may never write another piece of material again in their lives for a film, automatically became members of the Academy by virtue of that nomination and win. Yes, I believe there is a great lack of diversity in the Academy. But it doesn’t have only to do with race.

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