Oscar: Most Important Film Award–Why?

Article One in a Series of Two

In any artistic and professional field, if awards are to bear motivational significance, both symbolic and pragmatic, they have to fulfill at least three different functions.

First, they have to be visible and known to every artist. Second, they have to carry a high degree of prestige. And third, they have to be democratic, or within reach of potential candidates.

The Oscar Awards meet all of these conditions: They are visible, they are prestigious, and they are within reach. Almost every year, a performer comes out of nowhere to claim the Oscar Award, a slot occupied by the likes of Halle Berry, when she won for “Monster’s Ball,” or Charlize Theron, winner of “Monster.”

The importance of the Oscars goes beyond the American film world. The Oscars are now universally embraced as symbols of achievement in global entertainment. A combination of reasons accounts for that.


First and foremost, the longevity of the award.

Conferred for the first time in 1929, the Oscar is the oldest film prize in history. A tradition of 82 years has made the Oscar a respectable symbol with historical heritage. The other entertainment awards are children and grandchildren of the Oscar.

The Antoinette (Tonys) Perry Awards, given by the League of New York Theaters and Producers and the American Theater Wing, were first presented in April 1947. The Emmys, awarded by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, were presented for the first time in January 1949. The Grammys, the youngest showbiz awards, were first bestowed by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in May 1959.



Aside from longevity, there are differences in scope. The Tony is essentially a local award, given for achievements in the Broadway theater. Most people can’t relate to the Tonys because they are confined to shows produced in New York. A growing criticism of the Tonys is that it excludes the Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway theater, where the more innovative work is done. Movies, by contrast, have the potential of reaching everyone. Even people who don’t live in the United States and don’t speak English can relate to the Oscar show and the Oscar-winning movies.



The Oscar’s prestige stems from the Academy’s status within the industry. The Academy has always been elitist, with membership that constitutes a very small percentage of the film industry. Yet despite elitism, the Academy’s procedures are more democratic than those prevailing in other associations. The Academy, with its various branches, gives equal representation to all artists, regardless of specialty (writers, directors, players). Based on peer evaluation, the nomination process is democratic: The Acting branch selects nominees for acting awards, the Directors branch for directing awards, etc. However, each Academy member proposes nominees for the Best Picture, and the entire membership votes for the winners in all the categories.

In contrast, the selection of nominees for the Tony Awards is done by a committee. Final ballots are sent out to about seven hundred eligible Tony voters, members of the governing boards of the Actors Equity Association, the Dramatists Guild, the society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, the board of directors of the American Theater Wing, members of the League of the New York Theaters and Producers, and those on the first and second night press lists. Unlike the Oscar, which was always based on nominations, until 1956, there were no nominations for the Tonys.


Peer Recognition

The Oscar is awarded by peers, not by the public. Film artists, like other professionals, attribute the utmost importance to recognition from their peers because they consider them the only experts with the necessary knowledge to make a competent evaluation of their work. For most filmmakers, the significant reference group, which sets standards to be emulated and also serves as a frame for judging one’s performance, consists of fellow?workers. Film artists compare the rewards of their work (money, power, prestige) with those gained by their peers.


Scarce Number of Awards

The scarce number of awards also contributes to the Oscar’s prestige. In the entire Academy history, only 700 players have been nominated for and only 200 or so have won an acting Oscar. Every year, only 20 players are nominated in four categories, and only four win: Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress. These twenty performances are selected out of thousands of eligible performances.

Similarly, the five films (changed into ten this year) competing for Best Picture are chosen from a large pool of over two hundred and fifty films eligible to compete for Oscars. Production in Hollywood has declined, though: In the past, the number of eligible films was twice as large because of large film output. In the 1940s, over four hundred films were released on an average year, and in the 1960s over three hundred.



The Oscar is much more competitive than most awards. In some years, the Broadway theater is in such dismal state that the Tony Committee has problems filling the categories with competent performers, particularly in the musical fields. But even in better times, no more than forty new plays and ten musicals open in a given season, in comparison to the hundreds of movies and performances eligible for Oscars in a calendar year.

Superlative performances by foreign players may be unfairly ignored, but the Academy refuses to create an additional category for excellence in a foreign-language film. The suggestion to divide the categories by genre, say, best achievement in drama and comedy, has also been turned down. The Tonys have separate sets of categories for dramatic plays and musicals. Those in favor of one prize, regardless of genre or artists’ nationality, claim that increasing the number of awards decrease their prestige; too many categories belittle the award. The Grammys, for example, are awarded in over seventy categories, and singers can be nominated in three or four categories for the same song.