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When Did The Oscars Become a Lifetime Achievement Award?

There’s been a fair amount of hub-bub (it’s a word – I swear!) about these year’s presumptive Academy Award winners. I’ve been following the Oscar race since early last year, and I was as surprised as anyone when Sandra Bullock’s name came into the race, first as a nominee and then as the sure-bet winner, for her dramatic turn in The Blind Side. I was also, I must admit, a little chuffed when the ever-loveable Jeff Bridges moved to the head of his pack for is own turn in Crazy Heart. However, I’ve noticed a lot of people talking about these two nominees and one question seems to be coming more than others: do those favouring these performers believe that they deserve to win for these roles, or simple that they deserve to win for years as solid and respectable actors? Do these roles just offer us a chance to recognise their longterm contributions? And is that necessarily fair?

Don't worry, Colin, your time will come...

I should begin with a confession. I live in Ireland. I haven’t had a chance to see either film. By all accounts, the performances are powerful stuff. So maybe those two actors do deserve to win for those particular roles. Maybe they represent the two best leading performances of the year that’s been.

But the question at the top of the article brings me back to my own immediate reaction on the announcement of the nominees two weeks ago. It wasn’t in reaction to either performer, as both were mortal locks for nomination weeks before the big reveal. Instead, it was the nomination for Christopher Plummer in The Last Station. There was an added cuteness factor because it came in a year when he has been particularly prominent (with the eponymous role in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and a supporting role in Up) and also because, despite being a leading man in The Sound of Music, this was his first nomination.

I’ll concede it sounded overdue. A lot of people with me agreed. The man has been around for decades, surely he has earned some kudos. It doesn’t matter that we’d probably never get a chance to see The Last Station, but it felt just that he had been nominated. For all we know, he spends the movie naked, standing on his head, delivering lines in the style of a Scottish Brian Blessed. Not that performing the role in such a manner wouldn’t merit an Oscar nomination, it just illustrates how little we know about the film (which is about Tolstoy, so I don’t seem too ignorant), but how solidly we all supported the nomination regardless of that.

I think it’s hard to despute that there’s certainly an element of “this person has given so much to cinema we need to nomination/award them for something” to the way the Oscars work. Take Charlie Chaplin, for example. The man is a legend – and rightly so. He received an Honorary Oscar and a Special Oscar for his contributions. But he also won a single competitive Oscar. For his 1952 film, Limelight. For the soundtrack. He won it in 1972. So desperate were the Academy to give him an ‘earned’ gold statuette that the exploited an obscure loophole to nominate a twenty-year-old film to give the actor/director/writer an award for his music.

You could make the same case about any old or veteran movie-maker who has won an award, particularly after being shunned for years. I loved Mystic River, but did Sean Penn deserve his Oscar for it? (Tim Robbins certainly did, though.) Regardless of how great the film was – and it was great – it seemed like most of the buzz around The Departed came from the fact that Hollywood really owed Scorcese an award. The same logic could follow for Polanski and The Pianist. There’s even a train of thought which argues that the only reason Heath Ledger receive an award for his truly stunning supporting performance in The Dark Knight was the fact it was the last chance the Academy had to give him the statuette – otherwise the Academy might have snubbed him as it did the movie.

It’s so common an occurance that it seems a surprise when it doesn’t happen. Undoubtedly the biggest upset at last year’s ceremony was the awarding of the prize to Sean Penn in place of the ‘new and improved’ Mickey Rourke. It’s become an unspoken assumption in Oscar punditry, and it’s interesting to actually thing about it and discuss it. Even though the Academy has its own Honorary and Special Awards to give out to talent based on their life-long contribution to the world of cinema, it seems like the general consensus is that they deserve to win a competitive Oscar – as if to suggest that an Oscar just given out by the body almost willy-nilly isn’t as good as one earned through a sustained Oscar season. It may also be the fact that they will no longer be giving out these awards at the main ceremony for ratings reasons – what’s the point in celebrating someone if the world isn’t watching?

The only thing that can seem to trump the overdue recognition of an experienced actor is the lauding of a perennial favourite. Helen Mirren also got a nomination for The Last Station and there’s a reason that Meryl Streep, coming out of a twelve-year Oscar dry-spell, is being discussed as the only real challenger to Bullock taking home the gold. M. Carter pointed out that Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep tend to get nominated for everything they do. The Academy knows what it likes and it likes them. At least it seems to have cooled just a little bit towards Tom Hanks. Remember the nineties when you seemingly couldn’t hold a ceremony without at least nominating Hanks? (Though, again, I’ll concede, most of his kudos was earned.)

On the other hand, maybe we’re being unfair. I think we have to acknowledge a bias, but not necessarily an overwhelming one. It isn’t, for example, the same bias which led to the revamping of the Best Picture category. This one isn’t nearly so strong. To illustrate my point, I give you the two presumptive winners in the supporting categories: Mo’Nique and Christoph Waltz, both giving their first really noticeable performances. There is room for new blood after all.

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2 Responses

  1. Stimulating topic as always, Darren, and I’m inclined to agree with your conclusion. Yes, the Academy long ago picked its favorites and refuses to let their less-than-stellar work go without nomination (thanks for the mention, by the way). But with Renner and Mulligan and Waltz, all relative newcomers to the world stage, up for major awards, there’s some diversity … even if there’s not nearly enough.

    • Yep, and – to give credit where it is due – it’s nice to see an unknown like Gabourey Sidibe get a well deserved nomination for her first role. But still it seems that the Streep and Mirren love-at-all-costs overshadows it a bit.

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