Oscars feed America's obsession with competition

No nation is more besotted with sports than ours — more intrigued with the fastest, the strongest, the toughest, the best. It has become the paradigm for virtually everything in the culture– the Oscars no exception — turning American life into a series of Super Bowls.

HOLLYWOOD — When the 1951 campaign for Oscar nominations began, Humphrey Bogart, who was hoping to get a mention for his performance in “The African Queen,” was nevertheless cynical about the whole process. “The only honest way to find the best actor,” he said, “would be to let everybody play Hamlet and let the best man win.”

In a similar vein, George C. Scott 10 years later asked the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to withdraw his supporting actor nomination for “The Hustler,” telling reporters, “I take the position that actors shouldn’t be forced to outadvertise and outstab each other.” He would make the same request, more famously, in 1970 when he received an actor nomination for “Patton,” though skeptics called it a clever ploy for Scott to promote himself.

Over the years, Scott and Bogart’s plaints would be echoed by, among others, Luis Bunuel (“corrupting”), Dustin Hoffman (“no better than a beauty contest”), Marlon Brando and Woody Allen (both no-shows).

Just recently, Alexander Payne, director-co-writer of “About Schmidt,” commented ruefully while accepting a Golden Globe for his screenplay that he couldn’t really think of himself as “better” than the other nominees.

Despite these cavils and some genuine ambivalence, it is no secret that the Oscar in Hollywood is to most not a trivial pursuit. Millions are spent to get one and not just because a win can swell a film’s box office receipts — though it often does.

The real reason may be far less craven: An Oscar is so coveted because it is the one seemingly objective symbol of quality in an industry that is always accused of being mercenary while being obsessed with artistic legitimacy. Winning an Oscar is an anointing — a neat way of taking art and turning it into sport by, in effect, awarding a championship.

Of course, competition is bred in the American bone. No doubt this was partly because America was an egalitarian society in which status wasn’t ascribed. Thus the country required some other means to determine the pecking order, partly because America was born of superlatives — the freest country, the most beautiful country, the most abundant country — as a way, one supposes, for the young nation to declare its superiority to Europe.

As a result, no nation is more besotted with sports than ours — more intrigued with the fastest, the strongest, the toughest, the best — and more fascinated with the statistics to back up the argument.

What may be less apparent is that over time sport has become the paradigm for virtually everything in the culture, turning American life into a series of Super Bowls. As the sociologist C. Wright Mills described America’s “fetish with competition”: “It does not seem to matter what the man is very best at; so long as he has won out in competition over all others.”

However appropriate this might be in athletics or politics or even media clout — witness the interminable lists of “most powerful” mavens that appear in Entertainment Weekly, Premiere and Vanity Fair — it is a far dicier proposition for art, as the first Oscar contenders seemed to realize. The Academy Awards began as a kind of good-natured intramural scrimmage between studios. As an indication of just how sociable it all was, in 1931, four of the director nominees wired the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences urging it to honor the fifth, Norman Taurog.

Everyone seemed to understand that comparing films or performances was, in that timeworn phrase, like comparing apples and oranges and that there really couldn’t be a single “best” as there could be a single champion in an athletic competition. So much of art is a matter of taste, which cannot be quantified.

Yet AMPAS clearly hasn’t been immune to the American need for quantification. If the Oscars began as a collegial rivalry between the studios, the contest became far less collegial in the 1950s as the studio system crumbled and with it the support and status that system provided its employees.

No longer, for example, could an MGM star or director or craftsman draw on the reservoir of MGM power and glory for gratification. With the rise of independent production, Hollywood became a jungle where it was every man for himself — a situation that made individual status especially important.

In a way, Oscar has helped fill the status breach. Winning an Oscar means you are No. 1, better than everyone else. And in Hollywood, where status determines everything from the parking space you’re designated to the table where you are seated to the parties to which you are invited to the jobs you are offered, this is no small matter. In fact, it is very nearly the whole ball of wax. Under these circumstances, as the longtime producer Lawrence Turman, himself a nominee for “The Graduate,” put it, “Who wouldn’t want to win an Academy Award?”

But the Oscar can only be utilitarian in this way because of the film industry’s attitude toward art and because of its abiding faith in the Academy’s ability to reward it. Hollywood may bow before Mammon, but it worships art, or at least the semblance of it. And it has almost redevised the Oscar as a way to validate the old un-Hollywoodsy artistic tradition, which is why drama usually prevails over comedy, the middling box office success usually prevails over the blockbuster hit, and the British often prevail over Americans.

Seen this way, the Oscar is entree to the precincts of high art and a rebuff to what the critic Manny Farber called “termite art” — the popular, low-rent genre pieces that Hollywood has always done so well. Even Steven Spielberg, the most successful popular artist of our time, needed that Oscar to cross over from popular artist to Artist.

Leo Braudy, Bing professor of English at the University of Southern California and author of “The Frenzy of Renown,” thinks this is not necessarily a bad thing since it isn’t really competition. “The better word would be ‘emulation,'” he says. “The whole idea of schools in art implies a sense of emulation and a rivalry that inspires artists to do their best.”

This may very well be true, and certainly there are films that are made to appeal to the Academy rather than appeal to a large audience. As the critic Richard Schickel once put it, “American movies are made for two reasons: to entertain teenagers and to win Oscars.”

But it is also true that because the Oscars have become worldwide, televised, highly rated sporting events, the competition often supersedes the films and the performances themselves. Just think of how many people avidly follow the Oscar race and then imagine how many of them have actually seen all or even a majority of the films nominated. In short, for the public, Oscar has become an honor unto itself, only tenuously connected to the actual work it is supposed to reward.

All of this may seem faintly ridiculous, and it violates every precept of the artistic endeavor to pit one talent against another, even though it is now routinely done in literature, theater and music, too. But it is also strangely compelling to think of, for example, Daniel Day-Lewis and Adrien Brody and Jack Nicholson and Michael Caine and Nicolas Cage all engaged in a giant game of King of the Hill. For them, it means status and artistic validation. For us, it is one of the greatest shows on Earth: the Super Bowl of art.

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