The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science and I share the same birth year. I think I’m only two months younger than the academy. Although I’ve watched many TV broadcasts of the event, I’ve never accepted the academy’s competitive premise. Winners and losers are inherent to sports. Indeed, victory or defeat is the essence and end game of sports. That should not be so for the performing arts and creative science.
There is an art to sports when done at their best, but faster, higher, and stronger are the predominant–if not sole–factors that determine the outcome of sport events, some of which are decided by sheer chance. That’s why every effort is made to reduce the element of chance from the competitive equation. For example, in major league baseball, a Playoff series and the World Series consist of an odd number of games so that the winning team is more likely to be the better as well as the winning team. A final score of 1-0 is definitive, i.e., there is nothing subjective about who has won and who has lost a competition even if chance played a role in a specific instance of a single game in a seven-game series.
However, in the world of performing arts and creative science, subjectivity is a principal factor in the selection of winners and losers. That is the fatal flaw in the concept of competitive art; it doesn’t fit into the mold of competitive games. To a lesser degree, that is also true of creative science.
The ancient Greeks were correct about Olympic games–competition is the essence of sports. But they were mistaken about promoting theatrical competition. Who am I to question the wisdom of the Greeks? Well, their principal philosophers were Plato and Aristotle, both of whom supported slavery. My admiration for the transcendent classic civilization is deep, but I have a proclivity to see things as freshly as possible. The Greeks were dead wrong about slavery, just as we were. They were also wrong about theatrical competition. Exactly what are the criteria that make it possible to select who gets the Oscar–Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides!
Leaping to our time I ask, exactly what is it that is paramount in the selection of Oscar winners other than sheer merit? Years of observation have taught me to spot a winner among nine choices for Best Picture even though I haven’t seen any of the nine nominees. Something is dead wrong with my seeming prescience. For example, this year, I knew that 12 Years a Slave would be a winner the instant I heard its title, long before the Oscar event. The chances are that it is a wonderful film. But I should not have known that it would be a winner simply on the basis of having heard only its title! I didn’t even know that it was favored to win. I would not make a point of this were I not ‘prescient’ about many past winners through the years based on factors other than merit.
I can also spot losers for reasons that have nothing to do with a lack of merit. For example, Advise and Consent (1962) depicted conservative and liberal senators in a titanic struggle to make a critical decision about a national emergency. They fervently expressed their points of view, privately and on the congressional floor. They debated with their opposition and with some members of their own political parties. Some of them searched their souls for answers. It is a classic film, but not exactly a winner for liberal academy voters. It didn’t receive a single nomination!
In the world of opera, competitions among singers are absolutely restricted to the purpose of ‘discovering’ talent. No established opera singer will ever engage in any kind of competitive event as film actors do–and with good reason. A number of different opera singers perform the same operatic roles and sing the same notes in century-old operas. With their principal focus on voice, they each give distinguished yet different performances. In turn, opera fans often have equal appreciation for several very different performers–this, in the context of classic works that require rigid adherence to the original score. Because of disk recordings and videos, fans enjoy hearing and seeing differing performances of the same role, spanning about a century of many great singers. Actors have an even greater opportunity to act the same roles in different but equally valid ways. That doesn’t mean that they may not do so badly, but if they are fine artists, their artistry may be at least as good as that of other actors that have played the same role. Ideally, actors and directors should compete only with themselves, not each other, and certainly not engage in public competitions.
On rare occasions, a definitive work of art is created. Films like It’s a Wonderful Life and The Wizard of Oz do not encourage re-makes: those films are done…forever. A wise director knows that and makes no attempt to re-do them.
There are also definitive works in the less celebrated categories for Oscars. I still remember the very brief clip of Sven Nykvist’s lighting in Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1972). Amazing. Breathtaking. It didn’t require ‘prescience’ to recognize a definitive moment of brilliant lighting. Sven Nykvist had competed with himself and received the award for Cinematography.
Brief acting clips cannot reveal substantive differences among competing nominees. It takes viewing a whole performance to do that. Presumably, the academy’s members do that. But the Oscar evening format is unavoidable. So, we are often shown five very angry characters at a peak scene in the movie. Unfortunately, although anger is very effective, it is also the easiest emotion to portray. Just about any actor can do that on demand. Four of the clips sounded alike–not at all bad, but unavoidably alike.
The format includes an instant shot of the nominated actor when the clip ends, the lights restored, the camera cuts to the nominee, and the theater audience applauds. At that point the nominee is challenged to express pride and humility at the same time. She has few demonstrative options and usually expresses pride with her eyes as her body language implies–sometimes symbolically, sometimes literally–a shrugging of the shoulders as though she regards her performance as only a modest performance. “Please forgive me audience, that bit is only my humble best.” It’s always an awkward moment.
Accepting awards on stage is something of a harrowing experience for most of the actors as well as a number of us in the audience. Unlike technical artists, performers are expected to speak without notes. That’s as it should be. But at the academy event, too much is required of a human being. Under enormous time pressure, he tries to express genuine gratitude to several individuals who have significantly helped him win the award and must be sure not to forget anyone and regret his memory lapse for the rest of his life. All that angst is the result of regarding art and science as a sport.
The Best Picture category is a particularly subjective one. For example, 2001–A Space Odyssey (1968) boasted superior filmic technology, but not the originality of Forbidden Planet (1956). 2001–A Space Odyssey was consistent in style, but Forbidden Planet was marred by a robot that burped after drinking alcohol. 2001–A Space Odyssey was marred by excessive auteurism, Forbidden Planet had a significant and unequivocal original theme. As far as I know, those two films were the only films that depicted silent space before Gravity.
It appears that Gravity is another milestone in the genre of science fiction. Apparently this movie is a cliffhanger and was almost certainly selected on its merit alone (although backstage gossip may someday prove me wrong). Unlike Avatar, Gravity seems to be free of political malice. In addition, I’m so glad to know that the film accurately depicts the absence of sound in space. I love good science fiction and look forward to seeing it. Since I was twelve years old or somewhat younger I’ve been bothered by absurd representations of sound in space. I hope producers of fine films will no longer ignore soundless space in favor of collisions in space “full of sound and fury” even though there is no sound in space. Perhaps Gravity will finally force producers to listen to science consultants when they tell them, “But there’s no sound in space, sir.”
We can appreciate and discuss each piece of art in and of itself and relate it to others in the same genre without forcing formal judgment of them in competitive molds. Critics do enough harm in subjective reviews. We can more accurately discuss the merits and shortcomings of a film by focusing on its unique characteristics rather than grading it. Of course there are also definitive works of art and science combined. For example The Time Machine (1960) cannot be topped in the genre of science fiction combined with art. The same is true of The Wizard of Oz (1939).
Art and creative science are fundamentally incompatible. Comparing even the most closely related art forms or separate works of art within its genre is like comparing apples, oranges, and automobiles. Actors know that. They know that any of their competitors might just as well have received the award for Best Acting. They even become somewhat apologetic when they receive the award: “I am honored to be in the same company with the likes of…” And then there are the losers, bravely smiling and enthusiastically applauding while the other guy climbs on stage to receive the Oscar.
I have a fantasy. Were I a recipient of the award, I would dedicate my Oscar to the thousands of actors and directors who were never recognized by the academy but are watching the award ceremonies on TV. That fantasy includes my asking friends watching the event with the unsung actor or director to please stand and applaud her.
But reality is something else. In sport matches the losers simply disappear as quickly as possible. Actors, directors, and other artists remain at the party even though they’ve just been devastated. I saw profound disappointment in the eyes of Chiwetel Ejiofor. Apparently that man wears his heart on his sleeve.
I cannot help but think how much better a celebration of a set number of pre-selected winners would be without the tension of the opening of an envelope as though it were a criminal trial jury’s final decision. In place of manufactured suspense, the event should be designed to celebrate already selected award recipients as it is at the White House, without implied losers. Dramatic artists would then be afforded the same dignity that other celebrities enjoy when they are honored.
Yes, I know: What about the diminished commercial aspect of having a pure love-fest instead of a battle of egos and box office receipts? I didn’t say my fantasy would be more profitable, I only said that it would be much better. It would also be exponentially more truthful.