Oscar: Award as Popularity Contest

The standing of film artists within the Hollywood industry and their popularity with audiences often count for more than the quality of their acting performance when it comes to receiving an Oscar nomination or even the Oscar itself.

Bing Crosby

Bing Crosby was a dominant boxoffice draw in the 1940s, following his recordings and his “Road” movies with Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour.  His Best Actor, for Going My Way, and his second nomination, for The Bells of St. Mary’s, were as much a reward to his long-enduring popularity as a tribute to his natural, effortless acting; it also helped that both movies were commercial hits.

Crosby received his third and last Best Actor Oscar nomination for The Country Girl, in which he gives a decent (but not great) performance, opposite Grace Kelly.  The Academy voters couldnot ignore the fact that in the same year, Crosby made some commercially popular pictures.

Doris Day

Doris Day was the most popular female star in America for close to a decade. Her first and only nomination, for the comedy “Pillow Talk,” coincided with her appearance on the “Ten Most Popular Stars” poll in 1959.

As Day recorded in her published memoirs: “I was surprised at being nominated for an Academy Award for my performance in Pillow Talk, and even more surprised to find that by the end of that year, I had shot up to number one at the box-office.” But Day’s performance in this film didn’t match her work in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, or in the biopicture of singer Ruth Eting, Love Me or Leave Me, which is arguably the most accomplished of her career.

Robert Redford

Redford was catapulted to the pantheon of movie stars in 1969, after the success of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which co’starred Paul Newman. Four years later, the two stars were reteamed in a bigger hit, The Sting, proving that there was no need for a love interest to be in a film to make it a smash hit. Redford received his one and only nomination for The Sting (Newman did not), possibly due to its box-office appeal and also due to Redford’s appearance in another blockbuster that year, The Way We Were, which kept him in the public eye for a while.

Redford would have preferred to be honored for his work in Michael Ritchie’s political satire The Candidate, or in Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson. But, by the time of the 1974 nominations, the Academy couldn’t ignore that Redford ranked as America’s most handsome and popular star.

Richard Dreyfuss

Richard Dreyfuss’ 1977 Bets Actor Oscar for The Goodbye Girl, based on Neil Simon comedy, was probably also related to the fact that he had appeared in three of the all-time blockbusters of the 1970s, American Graffiti (1973), Jaws (1975), and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which was made in the same year as The Goodbye Girl.

Ali McGraw

Ali McGraw, a beautiful if below-mediocre actress, began her career after a successful turn as a model, establishing herself as star material in Goodbye, Columbus, as the Jewish princess. McGraw’s third movie, Love Story, based on Eric Segal’s best’selling novel, opened to mixed reviews but was such a huge hit that it was nominated in almost every category: Picture, Actress, Actor (Ryan O’Neal), Director (Arthur Hiller).

Rocky: Sly Stallone

Similarly, John Avildsen’s Rocky would not have been nominated for ten awards and won three, including Best Picture, had it not been the year’s top money-maker, with over fifty million dollars in domestic rentals. Popular films have the ability to make those associated with them appear more gifted than they are. Indeed, had Talia Shire’s performance as Rocky’s shy girlfriend been contained in another film, she would not have received a nomination.

If the choice of winners is influenced by the candidate’s popularity rather than talent, it’s due to the fact that the final voting is done by the Academy’s entire membership. Consequently, many artists stress the nomination because it is based on peer evaluation, a process which is allegedly more matter-of-fact or less biased. Since the final selections are made by a large and varied body, many “irrelevant” factors–ad campaigns, studio politics, the nominees’ personality, popularity within the industry–come into play.

And while there is more of a consensus over the merits and deservedness of the five nominees, it is much harder to choose the one nomination that’s the best. Almost inevitably, emotional and political factors impinge on the Academy’s final selections.

The claim that the final choices are based on the “validity” or “morality” of the nominees’s personalities offscreen rather than their on’screen work is a doubleedged charge. On the one hand, brilliant actors have been denied the Oscar (and nomination) because of real or alleged political factor. But mediocre artists have won the award for sentimental and other personal reasons, such as an impressive comeback, career longevity, old age, etc. In all of these cases, the Oscar is used as a symbol of social acceptance and personal embracement, granted to previously wayward members of the film colony.