Why does the Academy fear controversy?

Posted by · 10:52 am · November 12th, 2008

Jon Voight in Midnight CowboyIn 1969, the Academy saw fit to give “Midnight Cowboy” the award for Best Picture — a first ever for an X-rated film.  Some saw the moment as a bellwether signaling a new dawn for the group, that they were developing a growing acceptance for the films that would start coming at them around this time of creative invigoration in the cinema.  But was it really?

I remember somewhere that a high-ranking Academy official stated that if “A Clockwork Orange” won the Oscar for Best Picture they would resign their membership! The film had already won top honors from the New York Film Critics Circle and was nominated for four Academy Awards, among them Best Picture and Best Director. A ground-breaking work, the best of Kubrick’s career, still looking futuristic 37 years later, the film is an obvious masterpiece.  But it frightened the Academy for whatever reason.

A year later Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris” came along with a galvanizing performance from Marlon Brando and was certainly a better film than at least two of the pictures nomination int he top race, “The Sting” and “A Touch of Class,” yet as expected, the Academy backed away from the film, nominating only Brando and Bertolucci.

What is it in the makeup of this esteemed organization of artists that makes them steer clear controversial films, films that push the envelope, that go further out on a limb than most in exploring dark and sometimes daring subject matter?

In the years since “Clockwork” and “Tango,” such efforts as “Looking for Mr. Goodbar,” “Blue Velvet,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Do the Right Thing,” “Casualties of War,” “Natural Born Killers,” “Trainspotting,” “FIght Club,” “Magnolia,” “Happiness,” “The Passion of the Christ” and to a lesser degree “Brokeback Mountain” have all been ignored by this organization for Best Picture recognition.  “Brokeback Mountain” is the exception, having landed a nomination int he category but suddenly finding the rug pulled out from underneath come envelope time.

In some cases it is easy to understand why the Academy would be loathe to honor such films.  But when a film is so incredibly well made, makes an impact with critics and in some cases audiences, why does the AMPAS stick its head in the sand?

Perhaps the most blatant example of this was Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” an extraordinary directorial achievement, far greater than the one he won the Oscar for, “Braveheart.”  Gibson made no bones about the fact his film was about Christ’s death, not life, and warned audiences it would be as accurate as possible. The times were barbaric, torture ran rampant, with societies seemingly fascinated with how much abuse and punishment the human body could take. I saw the film for the first time with critics and religious leaders here in Toronto and was stunned at the imagery. Not being a religious man, I was rather shocked at the impact the film had on me.  Many people left the screening, I did not.  I wept.

The Academy nominated the film for a few awards, cinematography (which it should have won) and makeup, but nothing int the major races, which it certainly deserved. I am not saying it was the best film of its year, I do not think it was, but it deserved to be among the five final nominees for that honor and the Academy feared the film, despite incredible box office success around the globe. Why?

I understand more their fear of Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” because audiences were angered with a lengthy dream sequence in which Christ marries and lives out his days as just a man. NEWSFLASH! He was just a man…he walked the earth, of that there is little doubt, but whether or not he was the son of God is up to you. Here for the first time was a Jesus afraid of the voices he was hearing and what they were telling him to do. For the first time, here was a human Christ, in flesh and blood, that audiences could connect with.

Scorsese chose not to have a white robed, peaceful, benign, light-on-the-face being who spoke in hushed tones, no De Mille Christ for him, and audiences were bothered by that. Some. Not me. The Academy nominated Scorsese for Best Director, as they should have, but the film received no other attention from the group. Oddly enough, I get that, I disagree…but I get it.

Was “Fight Club” just simply too new? Too angry, too full of anarchy? Was “Magnolia” too confusing for them?

The howler to me is “Brokeback Mountain,” which explores the relationship between two men over 20 years in the American west. I loved that director Ang Lee did not focus on the homosexuality of their relationship but asked us to accept that two human beings of the same sex could be soul mates and doomed not to be together because of the mood of the times. Heath Ledger was a revelation in the film, deserving of the Oscar for Best Actor, and the film certainly should have won Best Picture. Is the Academy really fearful of homosexuality? Did honoring the film mean they condoned it?  Heaven forbid!

Again, why do they so fear controversy? Chime in folks…help me accept and understand.  And tell us your picks for the most unjustly ignored “difficult” works of cinema in the Academy’s checkered history.

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19 responses so far

  • 1 11-12-2008 at 11:10 am

    Ryan said...

    I couldn’t tell ya, though I agree 100%. Maybe it’s just there are too many older voters still hung up in their time that sway it one way, or maybe people are overlooking the fact that maybe there are quite a few conservative voters in the technical branches. Remember when Michael Moore was booed off the stage five and a half years ago? My guess is that it wasn’t George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio doing that booing.

  • 2 11-12-2008 at 12:55 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Surely you mean “Midnight Cowboy” was the first X-rated film to win best picture, not the first ever X-rated film?

    Nice piece. I basically think anything determined by such a large votership is going to favour MOR work — but they do throw a curveball now and then. “The Silence of the Lambs” is surely the most curious Best Picture choice in history — I wish they’d take leaps like that more often.

  • 3 11-12-2008 at 1:32 pm

    Damián Hoffman said...

    I repeat. Michael Moore was not booed, everyone gave him a standing ovation and booed Bush.
    I have the video.

  • 4 11-12-2008 at 1:41 pm

    John Foote said...

    Yes of course Guy, first X rated best pic…obviously I think faster than I type…thanks for that — I too have the DVD of Moore at the ceremony and it sounds and looks to me like they were booing him for using the Oscars as a platform — listen close to when the boos escalate — any wnonder why his films have never agin been nominated?

  • 5 11-12-2008 at 1:49 pm

    Scott Ward said...

    I would also say “Taxi Driver,” “Apocalypse Now,” and “Raging Bull” also got snuffed by the Academy by less provocative, and in my opinion, far inferior films. I like “Kramer vs. Kramer” a lot, but I just find it hard to believe that anyone could think that it matches the quality and depth of “Apocalypse Now.” The same thing goes for “Ordinary People”– fine movie, but in my opinion nowhere near the same league of “Raging Bull.” And going back to “Taxi Driver,” I think the ’77 Awards was a complete atrocity. To me “Rocky” is merely a nice little inspiring movie, nothing with much “Taxi Driver,” “Network,” or “All The Presidents Men” winning that year, all of which are unarguably much more provocative films.

    I honestly is scary to me that “Rocky” has won a Best Picture Oscar while “Raging Bull” has not.


    I’m serious. I would be happy to hear your argument and try to refute it.

  • 6 11-12-2008 at 2:14 pm

    michael mckay said...

    For an awards body that seems to like to avoid controversy whenever possible, it’s sure caused a bunch with it’s conservative selections over the years.

    Also, why do the AMPAS hate Werner Herzog?? Not a single nomination for any feature film or documentary he’s ever done. Few filmmakers living today have such an impressive body of work (spanning five decades). Absolutely unforgivable.

  • 7 11-12-2008 at 3:20 pm

    John Foote said...

    No argument from me Scott — I was going after a lack of nominations for many of my choices, and in fairness ‘Raging Bull” and “Apocalypse Now” were at least nominated — yes, yes, yes both should have won, you will get no disagreement with me on that…ever.In the fifth paragraph of my article I list several films that did not receive a best picture nod from the Academy, which is more where I was headed, but you make an excellent point — and yes again,”All the President’s Men” was vastly superior to ‘Rocky” as were ‘Network” and “Taxi Driver” and the great western that year “The Shootist”.

  • 8 11-12-2008 at 3:38 pm

    Isaac Richter said...

    It seems to me you people on this sight don’t like social dramas. I just saw Kramer vs. Kramer again, and honestly, I think it’s a very powerful film, and I think that film is more accesible because it deals with a subject that a lot of people can relate to, and that’s divorce and how it affects a family. The film never fails to get me, and I love both Dustin Hoffman’s and Meryl Streep’s performances. As for Apocalypse Now, there are a lot of striking images, but as a whole the film just didn’t connect with me (Robert DuVall gave a scene-stealing performance thought).
    As for the following year, I know I’m in the minority here, but I just don’t get why everybody loves Raging Bull. I have a hard time understanding why anyone would care for, let alone pity Jake LaMotta, and while I can appreciate a lot of the technical and film qualities, I can’t help but uterly despise the film. As for Ordinary People, I saw it recently, and I was blown away by the sheer power of every scene, every performance was aces, and even though not everything is resolved, I feel the story came to the only conclusion it could come to. I wonder why Donald Sutherland has never been nominated, he’s amazing.
    As for Rocky, I can agree there. It’s an uplifting film with a very likeable lead, but when compared to Network and Taxi Driver, it really does feel like a compromise. I just saw Taxi Driver once again and Robert DeNiro blew me away once more. I have this love/hate relationship with Martin Scorsese as you can see.

  • 9 11-12-2008 at 4:31 pm

    Jamian Bailey said...

    The Academy has made some atrocious decisions in what they choose to award or sometimes nominate. It pains me to think that one of my favorite films “Glory” couldn’t make it into the top 5, but the same year Field of Dreams could be considered a Best Picture. I feel like the people in Hollywood claim they are in touch with certain issues or provocative art work when they really aren’t.

    Other things that have made me cringe in the past are No Best Picture nomination for Leaving Las Vegas, and Dead Man Walking in 1995. Rewarding the top prize and Best Director to Ordinary People in 1980 ditto for doing the same thing 10 years later with Dances With Wolves.

  • 10 11-12-2008 at 10:53 pm

    Kip Mooney said...

    Moore’s speech elicited both boos and cheers. It was mixed. I remember.

    But anyways, “The Last Temptation of Christ” is surely the best film ever made about His life. Definitely deserving of Best Picture AND Best Director. Talk about your labor of love.

    But I think everyone should remember that just because a movie pushes buttons doesn’t mean it should be considered the best. The Academy shouldn’t shy away from controversial movies, but it shouldn’t reward them simply for pushing the envelope.

  • 11 11-13-2008 at 1:05 pm

    Marlowe said...

    I’ll agree that there’s probably something more to the films discussed here than the Academy just deciding the competition was better. But it completely ignores “Million-Dollar Baby”, which took way more than just Best Picture, even though the ending caused vitriol from the same people who wanted Martin Scorsese and Ang Lee tarred and feathered.

  • 12 11-13-2008 at 1:08 pm

    Fei said...

    The question is a valid (though loaded) one, but the discussion of it is off-base.

    The selection of Crash over Brokeback Mountain suggests, but does not prove, that certain ideologies, certain agendas have significant influence over Academy voting. In other words, AMPAS did appear to shy away from controversy in that instance.

    However, the many of the other titles mentioned do not support the argument. The reason why they weren’t nominated wasn’t because they were controversial; it was because the support for them just wasn’t there at the time. Why do intelligent people keep thinking that their personal opinions on the quality of given movies qualify as legitimate arguments for why those movies should’ve been nominated and/or won? That sort of argument basically comes down to, “I loved this movie, and everybody else should’ve loved just like I did!”

    Take The Passion of the Christ, for example. It was a movie primarily loved by its target audience — Christians who hold their faith to be a highly important part of their lives. Other viewers simply shrugged their shoulders or were bewildered (not in any good sense) by it. Given the critical reaction (which was overwhelmingly negative) to it, there was no expectation that it would do well in the awards race except in technical categories. I have no doubt that there were several #1 votes by Academy voters during the nomination process, but so many other movies were more beloved that year that, as a seasoned awards watcher, to complain about The Passion not being nominated is pretty ridiculous. Brokeback Mountain had all of the support in evidence, but it just couldn’t get over that last hurdle, so complaining was justified.

  • 13 11-13-2008 at 4:07 pm

    Chad said...

    Hey Scott,

    I think Rocky and Raging Bull are equally effective films. But to start, make sure you are thinking only of Rocky and not any of its inferior sequels. Watch it again if it’s been a while. Both films take well worn genres (inspirational sports drama and biopic) and finds a way to combine the cliches that make those genres great with tweaks and inventions that cause both films to rise above the perceived ceilings of those genres. And I would argue that it’s harder to make a brilliant and lasting film that makes the audience feel good than one that makes them feel bummed.

  • 14 11-14-2008 at 12:25 am

    Scott Ward said...

    Chad and others,

    (I realize this post is long but it is not complicated and I think it needs to be said in it entirety, so just please stick with me).

    First off, I haven’t seen any of the Rocky sequels so they are definitely not skewing my judgment of the original. I would also agree that the movie is somewhat effective in its goal of temporarily uplifting the viewer. But to me all of these inspirational and uplifting movies don’t last. I mean how when I think of Rocky in my everyday life am I supposed to be uplifted. To me there’s no risk being taken because you can almost always guarantee that the inspirational sports drama will be to some degree uplifting at least for a moment.

    However, a film like Raging Bull is highly ambitious and very risky. A film like that demands the flawless acting and directing that DeNiro and Scorsese brought to it in order to succeed. Anything less and it would have been a load of highly pretentious crap. Nothing at all about Rocky required any cutting edge acting, directing, editing, dialog, etc. Just an average storyline and a fairly good score, which Rocky has, is all that is needed for it to reach its goal. And even in that area, that is the score, Rocky nowhere near achieves what Scorsese did with Cavalleria Rusticana in Raging Bull. Its beauty moves between a victorious and uplifting swing, to a weeping melancholiac mood that pervades the entire score, precisely mirroring Jake La Motta’s life.

    I also highly disagree with your statement that Rocky finds a way to take the cliches of the inspirational sports drama and biopic and tweak them so that it enhances the film. Really? What is one thing about Rocky that isn’t cliche. At best I would say that the movie only slightly uses these cliches to be effective (i.e. Rocky’s training scene where he runs up the stairs). I don’t see how anyone could say that they couldn’t predict what would happen in the movie after Apollo Creed challenges Rocky (which is an absurd notion in itself that was obviously used so there could be a story). I don’t mean predict exactly, but I think everyone watching knew that Rocky would be excited about this possibility, he would then train hard, maybe doubt himself against the superior fighter, and in the end come away with at least a moral victory. I mean we HAVE to have that happy, uplifting ending for the movie to be inspirational. And I know that some people say that ordinarily the protagonist fighter/team would pull it out in the end, so in this case Rocky was going against the grain. Again, if people would just think about that statement and how it would have played out. Throughout the entire movie we were lead to believe that Creed is the best fighter in world right now, basically unbeatable. So IF Rock had one the fight, this would have completely shattered the viewer’s suspension of disbelief and would have been one of the most ridiculous things ever. Yet as previously stated, Creed could not simply crush Rocky by a KO, because that would have made all of these inspirational training moments seem now useless, and no viewer would have ever thought about the film once they left the theater.

    (I know I’m getting verbose now, but just stick with me, as you can tell this is an important topic for me).

    However, I would like you to name ONE SINGLE THING that is cliche or contrived about Raging Bull. Rocky, the usual protagonist and underdog, ends up fighting the general superior fighter and going the distance with him. Yet Scorsese didn’t use the opening scene of Bull merely for aesthetic and audible beauty (which it certainly has), yet we see La Motta in the ring by himself warming up, no one else, showing that his truest and toughest, and you could even only, opponent: himself.

    Scorsese has shown that he has perfected the way of showing how men strive to obtain what they want, and how their fallacies (which could definitely be argued to be simply be natural human conditions, which is an argument I support) hinder or prevent them. In Taxi Driver, he took an ordinary man, Travis Bickle, and showed how he tried to change his ordinary life by becoming a governing vigilante. In other words he had to escape his average, banal life. In complete contrast, Scorsese takes Jake La Motta, a man who has already garnered success and is still rising, and shows how he struggles with forming the ordinary and mundane family and social life. And that ultimately this social ineptness is what brings him down, however it is shown that it is something he can never escape. That is what is so incredible about the picture. Contrary to what Issac said, it is a social drama more than anything in that the timelessness of the picture comes in the triangle of Jake, Joey, and Vicki and how they try to maintain a normal love in their abnormal lives. Scorsese simply takes the normal social drama and inverts it.

    But Chad, you really didn’t make a true argument on why you actually thought the films were equal in their effectiveness, you simply stated it. Not being sarcastic, but I would love for you to provide me with actual, legitimate reasons as to why the films are equal.

  • 15 11-20-2008 at 11:54 am

    Scott Ward said...

    It’s nice to see I shut down this discussion.

  • 16 12-19-2008 at 7:50 pm

    Miguel said...

    I actually thought that Crash deserved the movie instead of Brokeback, actually I would have even prefered that Capote won.

  • 17 6-12-2009 at 2:13 pm

    Glenn Kapfer said...

    The # 1 sacrilege by AMPAS was not bestowing the Best Picture Award to “Brokeback Mountain.”

  • 18 8-15-2010 at 9:51 pm

    Glenn Kapfer said...

    Julianne Moore should have won the Best Actress Oscar for “Far From Heaven.” She immersed herself in a role that she actually became a Donna Reed housewife but experiencing social taboos that no TV show during the 50’s dare mention. I am infuriated with the Academy for not bestowing Julianne Moore with the Oscar for her impeccable performance.