The Academy Awards are like Hollywood's Super Bowl (what with the betting pools, the bean dip, the coma-inducing length) but with one important difference: Super Bowl rings are actually awarded on merit.
You can't say the same about the Oscars. In an effort to shade the pageantry with a modicum of perspective, we'll be taking a look at the Academy's playbook of fuck-uppery. This is a gentle reminder to you, the discerning reader, that if you treat the Oscars as some sort of authority on what makes a film great, you're doing it wrong.
5The Circle of Ineptitude: Best Actor (1974, 1992, 2001)
In 1974, Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson were in their prime, and turned in two of the most iconic performances in the history of American cinema--Nicholson as J.J. Gittes in Chinatown, Pacino as Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II. That year's Best Actor Academy Award was the acting equivalent of Magic versus Bird in the '84 NBA Finals.
But your prime isn't necessarily a good place to be in the eyes of the Academy. No matter what it says on the statue, most Oscars are at least partially lifetime achievement awards that factor in things like how "due" you are, and how likely you are to die before ever getting nominated again.
Of course, anyone who's gambled on little league baseball or participated in a record breaking gang bang can tell you, trying to give everyone a turn only penalizes the people with talent. The Academy proved this point by giving Best Actor to Art Carney for playing an old fart on a cross country trip with his cat in a movie called Harry and Tonto. This is the acting equivalent of the NBA giving the'84 MVP to Kurt Rambis.
To be fair to the Academy, De Niro edged out the cat for best Supporting Actor.
Now we wouldn't begrudge an old man his moment of recognition if the Academy didn't operate in something we'll call "The Circle of Ineptitude."
See, skipping Pacino in 1974 meant that come 1992, he was "due." So 18 years after the initial screw up, the Academy gave Pacino the Oscar for doing a Yosemite Sam impression in Scent of a Woman. This, in turn screwed over Denzel Washington for Malcolm X, who then had to be given a make-up Oscar in 2001 for his role in Training Day that's mostly memorable for the Chappelle Show sketch it inspired.
This raises the important question: Who gives a shit? Why should we feel sorry for Al Pacino? The problem is that as little as they should matter, the actors, writers and directors who make our movies live and die with each Academy decision. It's why Pacino has shouted every line of dialog since 1992 in an inexplicable Cajun accent.
4Genre Snobbery: Best Picture 1981, Best Actress 1986
Everyone remembers the slick bit of larceny that opens Raiders of the Lost Arkwhere Indy leaves a bag of sand on a podium and yoinks a golden statue. That year at the Academy Awards, Chariots of Fire pulled the same trick, snaking the statue out from under Spielberg. This is a good example of the genre snobbery that makes phrases like "Oscar Bait" even possible. All anyone really remembers from Chariots of Fire is the scene where a bunch of dudes in John Stockton shorts sprint along the edge of a beach. If that's all it takes to win an Oscar, where's the Best Picture for Rocky III? If it can't even legitimately win the Oscar in the category "Best Homoerotic Coastal Track Meet," how the hell does it end up winning Best Picture over what is arguably the finest example of pure cinema Spielberg ever created?
"The Academy. I hate these guys."
A little bit more of that genre snobbery, mixed with some patronizing grandstanding to look "understanding": Marlee Matlin turned in a good performance as a feisty deaf janitor who gets boned by William Hurt in Children of a Lesser God, but what Sigourney Weaver did with James Cameron's ALIENS is nothing short of a miracle. Think about what Ripley was on the page after Cameron was done with her: A strange riff on Rambo (which he'd just rewritten) as a repentant mother looking to redeem herself as a parent. He stuck this characterization into the middle of a movie about drooling, fanged penis monsters that shit eggs with face-raping catchers mitts inside of them. And Weaver made it one of the single most influential performances in the last 25 years, obliterating the restrictions on what a woman can do in a movie, and paving the way for characters like Sarah Connor, Buffy Summers and Beatrix Kiddo.