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.
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.
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.
There seems to be an unwritten rule in the Academy: "The statue we're giving out doesn't have any balls; neither should the movie we give it to." Since the most interesting filmmakers of the past 30 years have mostly been interested in America's obsession with violence, this made for some pretty unforgivable bullshit.
In 1990, the Academy rewarded a boring love letter to the Noble Savage fallacy, Dances With Wolves, snubbing Goodfellas. Consider the legacy of those two films: Name a director worth a crap in the past 20 years, and they'll cite Goodfellas as a major influence. It's arguably the finest mob movie ever filmed. The only time Wolves is mentioned these days is to point out where Cameron ripped off the story for Avatar.
Nothing you can do will stop it!
If Goodfellas isn't the most influential film of the past 25 years, it's a close second behind Pulp Fiction. Tarantino didn't just deconstruct the way people thought about filmmaking, he obliterated it in a coke-fueled fury, stabbing convention in the chest with a giant needle, rebuilding the noir as a candy coated cyanide pill cut with cayenne pepper, attached to a ball-gag and fitted to your unsuspecting head.
"My movies will rape your soul!"
Of course, Pulp Fiction came out the same year as Shawshank Redemption, regarded by iMBD users and whoever programs TNT as the greatest film ever made. Pretty good year for movies, yet neither won Best Picture in 2004--that went to Bob Zemeckis's Forrest Gump. We suppose Gump was edgy in its own right, seeing as it was a revisionist history in which a retarded descendent of the Ku Klux Klan is given credit for everything good that happened in the 20th century. Gump was a pretty enjoyable film at the time, and hasn't aged quite as badly as Wolves. But Pulp Fiction changed the way people made movies for an entire decade. Forrest Gump changed the way people said the name Jenny for a couple of years.
By the year 2000, Julia Roberts made a lot of people a lot of money in Hollywood, without ever winning Best Actress, most likely because she's not that fucking good. The film she was in, Erin Brockovich was like cutting the crusts off Silkwood, shoving it in an Easy-Bake Oven and setting the dial to "feel-good." Her main competition, Ellen Burstyn, already won her statue back in the 70's for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, so it was safe to snub her portrayal of Sara Golfarb in Requiem for a Dream. Didn't matter that Burstyn turned in the performance of her fucking life: Not only was Roberts "due," but Requiem was about ugly people, doing gross things, not pretty people in halter-tops smiling like someone shoved a carrot up Mr. Ed's ass.