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Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: The bad guys you love to hate

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Posted: Saturday, February 20, 2010 12:00 am

It's Oscar time again, and it's got me to thinking about why we as a culture place so much importance on and devote so much energy to following the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS).

Historically, this hasn't been the most respectable organization; after all, neither Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa nor Stanley Kubrick ever won a competitive Oscar, and "The Greatest Show on Earth" was once awarded the trophy for Best Picture. (Kinda puts things in perspective, don't it?)

Sure, they come through every once in a while with a fist-pump win (my arms were exhausted from wild flailing after Martin Scorsese finally won Best Director, for "The Departed") or an awesome, surprising nomination (Keisha Castle-Hughes as Best Actress for "Whale Rider," Paul Greengrass as Director for "United 93," etc.), but mostly it's just bad news all around.

They were always very suspect, but in my estimation, the Academy's current reign of terror began 15 years ago with the 1995 Oscars, in which 1994's "Forrest Gump" and Robert Zemeckis were honored as Best Picture and Director over "Pulp Fiction" and Quentin Tarantino.

Apparently, the single greatest, most important and most influential film of the past 30 years or so doesn't quite measure up to the staggering brilliance of, "Life is like a box of chocolates."

(I'm sorry, but if you seriously think that "Forrest Gump" is a better film than "Pulp Fiction," then you're just a goofball who hates movies. I'm afraid there's simply no getting around that.)

In case that alone doesn't convince you that the Academy has the capacity to be completely insane, I humbly submit to you a very brief run-down of only their most egregious, most indefensible injustices, narrowed to the major categories in the past 15 years:

  • "The English Patient" and Anthony Minghella for Picture and Director over "Fargo" and Joel and Ethan Coen, and "Secrets & Lies" and Mike Leigh, 1996.
  • Cuba Gooding Jr. ("Jerry Maguire") for Supporting Actor over William H. Macy ("Fargo"), 1996.
  • Mira Sorvino ("Mighty Aphrodite") for Supporting Actress over Joan Allen ("Nixon), 1996.
  • Helen Hunt ("As Good As It Gets") for Actress over Judi Dench ("Mrs. Brown"), 1997.
  • Kim Basinger ("L.A. Confidential") for Supporting Actress over Julianne Moore ("Boogie Nights"), 1997.
  • "Shakespeare in Love" for Picture over "The Thin Red Line," 1998.
  • Gwyneth Paltrow ("Shakespeare in Love") for Actress over Cate Blanchett ("Elizabeth"), 1998.
  • Judi Dench ("Shakespeare in Love") for Supporting Actress over Rachel Griffiths ("Hilary and Jackie"), 1998.
  • Julia Roberts ("Erin Brockovich") for Actress over Ellen Burstyn ("Requiem for a Dream"), 2000. (Note: This ranks as one of humanity's worst crimes.)
  • Jennifer Connelly ("A Beautiful Mind") for Supporting Actress over Marisa Tomei ("In the Bedroom"), 2001.
  • Adrian Brody ("The Pianist") for Actor over Daniel Day-Lewis ("Gangs of New York"), 2002.
  • Roman Polanski ("The Pianist") for Director over Rob Marshall ("Chicago") and Martin Scorsese ("Gangs of New York"), 2002.
  • "Million Dollar Baby" and Clint Eastwood for Picture and Director over "The Aviator" and Martin Scorsese, 2004.
  • Jamie Foxx ("Ray") for Actor over Leonardo DiCaprio ("The Aviator"), 2004.
  • "Crash" for Picture over "Munich," 2005.
  • Reese Witherspoon ("Walk the Line") for Actress over Felicity Huffman ("Transamerica"), 2005.
  • Diablo Cody ("Juno") for Original Screenplay over Tony Gilroy ("Michael Clayton"), 2007.
  • Sean Penn ("Milk") for Actor over Mickey Rourke ("The Wrestler") and Frank Langella ("Frost/Nixon"), 2008.

Stunning, no?

And this isn't me nit-picking; these are choices that can't really be defended on any level whatsoever… unless, in some instances, you account for the Academy's propensity for playing "catch-up" and making up for their own perceived mistakes of the past.

You see, Polanski should have won Best Director for "Chinatown" but lost to Francis Ford Coppola for "The Godfather, Part II," an award he should have got for the first "Godfather" but didn't because of Bob Fosse and "Cabaret," so instead Polanski gets a standing ovation for "The Pianist."

By the same token, Judi Dench won Supporting Actress for "Shakespeare in Love" (for a forgettable cameo with less than eight minutes of screen time) as a make-up award for not winning for "Mrs. Brown," and Kidman won for "The Hours" because she didn't win the previous year for "Moulin Rouge!".

Of course, this "catching up" phenomenon extends beyond the above examples, from Sean Penn ("Mystic River") and Morgan Freeman ("Million Dollar Baby") to Kate Winslet ("The Reader"), but perhaps my all-time favorite example is Denzel Washington, who won Best Actor for 2001's "Training Day."

He won this award because he should have won for 1992's "Malcolm X" but lost to Al Pacino in "Scent of a Woman," because the Academy had to make up for the fact that an acting giant like Pacino hadn't yet been honored with an Oscar.

This robbed Russell Crowe of an award for his superlative work in "A Beautiful Mind," but they certainly couldn't give it to him, because aside from the Washington factor, Crowe had already won the previous year for his weaker performance in "Gladiator" — an award he likely won as a make-up for not getting one for his work on "The Insider" the year before that.

So, yeah, the Academy largely sucks.

But back to my original question: Why, with such a history of general idiocy, do people continue to follow the Oscars?

Perhaps it's because we love to hate them. I know I do. But if that's the only reason, then why will I be so happy if "Inglourious Basterds" wins Best Picture in two weeks, as if such an ultimately meaningless gesture would somehow vindicate my enthusiasm for the film?

My best and final guess: Good or bad, love 'em or hate 'em, the Academy Awards represent Hollywood's own self-image, and we as voyeurs find value and interest in that projection.

And even if we disagree with the choices made (which is probably roughly 80 percent of the time), it's still fascinating to see the Hollywood elite gather and take stock of the industry — where it's been, where it's going, and what over-hyped, under-cooked turkey will be honored next.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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