Are the Oscars a popularity contest? Sort of.

Posted by · 6:57 pm · November 10th, 2008

Over at his increasingly active OscarWatch blog, Dave Karger is bringing up the age-old issue of whether or not the Oscars are a popularity contest. The post is in part a response to Tom O’Neil and Pete Hammond’s dismantling of Karger’s predictions in the Best Actor race, where he declared the frontrunners to be Sean Penn, Mickey Rourke and Frank Langella.

Seems sound enough to me — the first two in particular — but O’Neil and Hammond seem to feel that personal likeability issues might get in the way for all three actors. Karger acknowledges their point, but ultimately feels they might be off-base:

I see where they’re coming from: An awards campaign truly is similar to a political campaign at times, and one’s deportment certainly comes into play. I think it’s fair to say that Marion Cotillard’s tirelessness and charm in supporting La Vie en Rose didn’t hurt in her recent eventual Best Actress victory over Julie Christie. And who knows how many nominations Russell Crowe has squandered over the years by shoving awards-show producers or chucking hotel telephones. But then again, I wonder if Penn’s win for Mystic River (after he didn’t even bother to show up for the Golden Globes) proves that conduct doesn’t matter that much.

I have to agree. Yes, the Academy can play favourites — not least within the actors’ branch — but popularity and likeability aren’t always one and the same. Otherwise, someone as universally liked as Kate Winslet would have won approximately four Oscars by now. (Kate Hepburn, meanwhile, might have won substantially fewer.)

However much O’Neil argues (occasionally ludicrously) that Penn has somehow crossed the Academy, the fact remains that he’s firmly in the club. (I personally don’t think the underachievement of “Into the Wild” earlier this year reveals any clear anti-Penn sentiments in the actors’ branch.)

Penn isn’t cuddly, but he doesn’t have to be when he has the level of professional respect he commands among his peers. He has an Oscar (and four nominations, including ones for vehicles as weak as “I Am Sam” or as low-key as “Sweet and Lowdown”) not because he plays any kind of industry game, but because he’s one of the best in the business. Sometimes things are that simple. If he’s as great as people (including Kris) are saying he is in “Milk,” I don’t see how he can fail to be nominated.

Something similar goes for Rourke — a chequered personal history and a smattering of industry enemies can’t compete with the scale of his achievement in “The Wrestler.” With the weight of the right campaign behind them, certain performances are too astonishing to ignore — which Rourke will no doubt discover on nomination morning. Sometimes it’s the work that makes you popular.

→ 9 Comments Tags: , , , , , | Filed in: Daily

9 responses so far

  • 1 11-10-2008 at 8:46 pm

    Zac said...

    Interesting comment about Katherine Hepburn. I don’t much about her life so I take it she wasn’t well liked in Hollywood?

    It would be nice if one could evaluate things objectively, but no matter what, subjectivity will always crowd its way into the picture.

  • 2 11-10-2008 at 8:47 pm

    Zac said...

    Forgot the word know in the 2nd sentence. Whoops!

  • 3 11-11-2008 at 2:54 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Like with all the rest regarding the Oscars. There are no basic rules and there’s always enough examples to prove the theory wrong and right.

  • 4 11-11-2008 at 6:02 am

    John Foote said...

    No question Guy it can be a popularity contest with timing playing a huge role — case in point Roberto Benigni, who did every talk show,. acted like a goofy puppy for anyone who asked, went to dinner parties hosted by the stars, became essentiually a pet monkey, and won himself an Oscar — where is he now? Anyone see “Pinocchio”? — among the more deserving nominees that year were Tom Hanks for “Saving Private Ryan”. Edward Norton in “American History X” (my pick), Ian McKellan in :”Gods and Monsters” and Nick Nolte in “Affliction”. Though I love his work, Jack Nicholson’s popularity had more to do with his Oscar for “As Good As It Gets” which defeated Robert Duvall’s ferocious work in ‘The Apostle” — was Cher in ‘Moonstruck” more popular than her fellow nominees, or really better? — Julia Roberts was very good in ‘Erin Brockovich”, and hugely popualr, good for the business, but was she better than Ellen Burstyn in ‘Requiem for a Dream”? — “Chicago” was a popular film, but in no way the best film of 2002, though it has an Oscar that says it is — so sure it can be a popularity contest, just as it can be right on, in awarding the best of the year — can anyone argue “The Godfather” not being best film of the year? Or “The Godfather Part II”? Or “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, “On the Waterfront”, “Lawrence of Arabia”, “Midnight Cowboy”, “Casablanca”, “Platoon” or “Amadeus”? They get them right sometimes on sheer merit, but yes, there are times when it is, shamefully a popularity contest.

  • 5 11-11-2008 at 6:31 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I think I’m the one person one earth who doesn’t have a problem with Benigni’s win. (I’m not saying he was the best of the nominees — I agree with your Norton pick — but I liked his work. Shoot me.)

    That was a bit of an exceptional case anyway — he was nominated in a multitude of categories, and the Academy wanted to throw him a bone beyond the token foreign film award.

    I agree it’s a popularity contest on occasion — but I also think a winner can be popular without necessarily pandering to the industry. Sean Penn is a case in point.

  • 6 11-11-2008 at 6:33 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    And I personally think “Chicago” is a superb film — I’d have personally gone with “Gangs of New York” (from the nominees, at least), but I actually think it’s one of the more inspired Best Picture winners of late.

  • 7 11-11-2008 at 10:11 am

    interstellar said...

    John Foote

    R.Benigni is, and has been for years now, a succesful dantista (dante alghieri’s poetry lecturer) and this year he’s been, among others, nominated for a Nobel in literature (then assigned to Krugman)
    Where are ‘you’ now?
    You know, there’s a world out there!
    (and, btw, there’s not a contract that obliges you to make other 15 movies after winning an oscar..)

  • 8 11-11-2008 at 12:43 pm

    Xavi Rodriguez said...

    That was true about Katherine Hepburn. She wasn’t a fave by Hollywood. Her affair with Spencer Tracy and because she’s “box office poison” didn’t matter with her 4 Oscars after all… Or the case of Jane Fonda (Hanoi Jane)

    Sometimes is a case of popularity contest (Reese Witherspoon and Julia Roberts came to my mind), only for “the Best” (The Silence of the lambs and Sean Penn are good examples) or even both (Marion Cotillard had a great campaign but she also gave a marvelous performance)

  • 9 11-11-2008 at 2:52 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Nope, I’m with you Guy. Have absolutely no problem with Benigni’s win and rather liked his work in the wonderful “Life is Beautiful,” for me the best film of 1998.

    And I again agree with you on “Chicago,” a spectacular film and surely one of their best choices this decade.