A quick one this morning. With Oscar season nearly upon us (the nominations will be announced on Wednesday), it seems like a good time to remind ourselves of the true nature of the Academy and its illustrious awards. The Oscars are an elitist institution, and not just in the obvious ways. Everyone knows the perils of celebrity: our celebration of Hollywood offers poor and middle-class Americans an unreachable star to strive for. On Oscar night, we celebrate the institutionalization of fantasy, and many writers better than me could tell you what happens to a society that refuses to acknowledge realities.
But Hollywood relies on our idolatry of its stars, and the Oscars exist, first and foremost, to build that idolatry. That’s why you see young ingenues like Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) and Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich) taking awards from more deserving mature performers like Emmanuelle Riva (Amour) and Ellen Burstyn (Requiem for a Dream). It’s got nothing to do with talent; it’s about who has more to offer the industry. An award for Riva or Burstyn would give everyone a nice, warm feeling, but elevating stars like Lawrence and Roberts to “serious actor” status can boost revenues for decades to come.
Because the aim of the awards is to promote Hollywood’s brand, acts of politics during the ceremony are almost always frowned upon. Michael Moore was famously booed (and cheered a little) for excoriating then-President George W. Bush in his victory speech for Farenheit 9/11 (really, what did they expect?), and Marlon Brando’s decision to boycott the 1973 awards in protest of the Academy’s treatment of Native Americans – and have Sacheen Littlefeather accept on his behalf – left little impact. Its only legacy was the creation of a new Academy rule that forbade proxies for acceptance speeches.
But here is an exception to the rule. In 1980, Dustin Hoffman gave a speech that highlighted another side of the Academy’s elitism: the exclusion of the hundreds of crew members who contribute, in Hoffman’s eyes, to a film’s success just as much as the stars. The Academy recognizes only a precious few behind-the-scenes artists in the much-watched ceremony, instead relegating most of them to the Scientific and Technical Awards (otherwise known as the Nerd Table), typically held two weeks before the official ceremony. Is this decision understandable? Sure, if you’re being generous to the Academy; complaints that the Oscars are too long have become an institution themselves, and adding a whole slew of technical categories would surely have people reaching for their remotes.
But to exclude them is to diminish their contributions, and Hoffman saw it as a strike against the creative act of filmmaking itself. Making a movie is a monumental and emotional undertaking that requires a great sense of community, not a game of winners and losers. To those watching in America and across the world who have no hope of wealth or stardom, Hoffman’s words must have resonated deeply. Watch him show the world what a true ambassador for this industry looks like: