Oscar Impact: American Pop Culture

The Oscar show is watched by one billion people in and outside America many of whom are not moviegoers. These global dimensions extend the Oscar's visibility way beyond the borders of the film world, and way beyond the borders of the United States. The Oscar has become a preeminent symbol of success and achievement in mainstream American culture.

Watching the show, viewers get a microcosm of American movies, American TV, American culture, and American society at large. Explicitly and implicitly, this function contributes to American cultural imperialism all over the world. The Oscar Award and the Oscar show serve as effective propaganda not just for American movies but also for American capitalism and the American Way of Life.

The Oscar as Annual Ritual

Watching the annual ceremonies has become an obligatory ritual for most Americans. The Oscar functions as a secular ritual in American culture. Like other religious rituals, the Oscar ceremonies are prescheduled, occurring every year at the same time. Like other rituals, the Oscar ceremonies are highly organized, following a strict set of rules; there are hundreds of Academy rules and commandments. The Oscar ceremonies are collective, requiring the participation of a large public, live and via television. Most important of all, like other rituals, the Oscar reaffirms the central values of mainstream American culture.

The Oscar Award embodies such basic American values as democracy, equality, individualism, competition, upward mobility, hard work, occupational achievement, and monetary success. The Oscar Award also highlights all the inherent contradictions in accomplishing these values, the dilemmas between the significance of cultural myths and their corresponding reality. Each value exemplified by the Oscar Award can be stated as a dichotomy of opposite orientations: democracy versus elitism, equality versus discrimination, universalism versus particularism, individualism versus collectivism, competition versus collaboration, hard work versus sheer luck, success versus failure.

The Oscar Embodies Cultural Contradictions

More than any other Oscar category, it is the acting awards that express the cultural contradictions inherent in American values. In no other profession is the conflict between the ideal of democracy and the reality of elitism more apparent. Acting is one of the most democratic professions, with a broader social class base than that of other occupations. The choice of acting as a career continues to provide a channel for upward mobility. Over half of the Oscar-nominated players have come from poor, uneducated families, and over one fourth are members of ethnic minorities.

Acting is still one of the most accessible professions, easily entered but also easily left. Entry into acting requires less formal education and less training than those required by other professions. On the job training and actual experience are far more valued and important than formal schooling.

Actors' biographies are replete with rags to riches and overnight success stories, myths that are still powerful in attracting new members into the acting profession. One of the most startling success stories is exemplified by Oscar-nominated writer-actor Sylvester Stallone. A product of a broken home, Stallone grew up in New York's Hell's Kitchen, then in Silver Springs, Maryland, and then in Philadelphia. After spending years in homes of foster parents, he was booted out of fourteen schools in eleven years. Stallone attended the drama department of the University of Miami for a while, where his instructors discouraged him from pursuing acting as a career. He then tried his hand at various jobs, the most glamorous of which was as an usher at the Baronet Theater in New York City.

Determined to become an actor, however, Stallone managed to get some bit roles in such films as Bananas and The Prisoner of Second Avenue. When his career seemed to have reached a dead end, Stallone decided to create his own opportunity and to write a screenplay. The result was Rocky, whose script was reportedly completed in three days, with a narrative that is similar to his own story. It's a tale of a downandout prizefighter who rises to stardom against great odds. The rest is film history: Rocky won the 1976 Best Picture and established Stallone as the preeminent male star of his generation.

Elitism Vs. Democracy

Though accessible and democratic, acting is also one of the most sharply stratified professions. The Oscar winners and nominees constitute a small elite composed of the most accomplished actors, who occupy the highest echelon in the film world in terms of money, prestige, and power. In acting, the gap in rewards between the elite and rankandfile members is immense. The supply of film artists continues to surpass the demand for them, which means that most actors are unemployed most of the time. By contrast, most Oscarwinners go from one film project to another, and from screen to stage and television, and vice versa. Cumulative advantage, as mentioned, is in operation in Hollywood and showbiz: the rich players become richer and the famous more famous, while the unsuccessful ones become progressively less so.

Sheer Luck Vs. Hard Work

The contradiction between hard work on the one hand and sheer luck on the other as two determinants for successful careers is also exemplified by the careers of the Oscar players. The Protestant ethic of hard work is still a legitimate avenue for achieving success. In acting, there is strong emphasis on motivation, ambition, selfdiscipline, and energy, all crucial requirements for professional success. Veteran actors like John Wayne rationalized their success by stressing the hard work involved in making movies, the physical rigor, the irregular time schedules, the long hours, and the grim and demanding working conditions. Walter Matthau was not joking when he once described acting as “the hardest job known to mankind.”

But despite emphasis on hard work, most actors realize that they have little or no control over their career opportunities, that luck and fate play just as important roles in shaping their careers. Gary Cooper, a two'time Oscarwinner, regarded acting as “just a job,” which made him successful because he was “the right man at the right time.” Cooper also differed from his colleagues in considering screen acting as “pretty silly business for a man because it takes less training, less ability, and less brains to be successful at it than any other business I can think of.” The men's attitudes toward acting range from Jack Lemmon's–“I have never lost a total passion to my work”–and William Hurt's–“I am proud to be an actor”–all the way to Marlon Brando's–“acting has never been the dominant force in my life.”

Whatever the case may be, most artists acknowledge the impact of luck and accidental contingencies on their screen careers. Some men have become actors by accident, without ever making a conscious or deliberate decision to pursue such a line. Jimmy Stewart, who majored in architecture at Princeton but never practiced, once summed up his career: “If I hadn't been at some particular place at some particular time and some man hadn't happened to say soand'so, and I hadn't answered thisand'that, I'd still be hunting for a job in an architect's office.”

Another Oscar star, Bing Crosby, viewed his popularity as a series of lucky coincidences, naming his autobiography Call Me Lucky. “I'm not really an actor, I was just lucky, ” Clark Gable used to say about his meteoric success, “If it hadn't been for people like Howard Strickling (MGM publicity director), I'd probably have ended up a truck driver.”

Luck also plays a considerable part in getting the “right” screen roles, i.e., roles that are easily recognized and acknowledged with the Oscars. The Academy's history is fraught with Oscarwinning roles played by actors who were neither intended nor originally cast in them. What would have happened to Jack Nicholson if Rip Torn hadn't turned down the part of the dropout lawyer in Easy Rider, Nicholson's breakthrough film after ten long years in Hollywood One also wonders if this part would have made Rip Torn a more visible star had he played it

Individualism Vs. Collaboration

The conflict between individualism and collaboration is also demonstrated by the Oscar Award. Rugged, romantic individualism is most fully expressed in competitive achievement, which thousands of Hollywood films have portrayed on'screen. But romantic individualism also means rewarding artists for their contributions in their specific area of expertise. However, since film is a collaborative art, it is often hard to single out the relative contribution of each element (writing, direction, acting, cinematography, editing) to the overall success or failure of the final work because the various elements are so interdependent. However, the Oscar Award follows the primacy of individualism in American culture and honors individual achievements.

It's almost impossible to define the elements of an effective screen performance, though one knows a good performance when one sees it. Along with talent, individual performances depend on the support from other players, on the way they are photographed and edited. Not surprisingly, screen players resent their lack of control over the final shape of their work–often opting to work in the theater where they feel more directly responsible.

Ironically, more than other elements, it's acting that's often blamed for the film's overall low quality, and, conversely, actors are often undeservedly praised when they appear in good or commercial films. When a film is powerful, every aspect of its seems to be good. Good films tend to overcome mediocre performances, but effective acting has a harder time overcoming a bad movie. This is one of the inherent problems in evaluating films–the ability to distinguish the input of each element to the overall quality. Good films get nominations and awards in most categories, even in those which do not merit a nomination. By contrast, excellent individual contributions are ignored if they are contained in average or bad pictures.

Moreover, the structure of many films depends on ensemble acting, when a group of players complement each other. As noted, only Sam Shepard was nominated in The Right Stuff, Glenn Close in The Big Chill, Julianne Moore and Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights, Tom Cruise in Magnolia, and Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith in Gosford Park, all films that rely heavily on large casts and ensemble acting. It is in such cases that other, less relevant factors, such as actors' former work, previous nominations, and popularity begin to play a role in determining their chances to win the Oscar.

Some critics have proposed to establish a supplementary category, for the best ensemble acting, a category that exists at the SAG awards, honoring the collective achievements of a team. However, this notion is unlikely to happen with the Oscars. It not only runs against the individualistic nature of the awards, but also against individual competition and achievement, values that are highly cherished in American culture. “The comparatively striking feature of American culture,” the sociologist Philip Slater once observed, “is its tendency to identify standards of excellence with competitive occupational achievement.” And competition bears negative effects as well, as Slater noted: “The competitive life is a lonely one and its satisfactions are very shortlived, for each race leads only to a new one.”

Particularism Vs. Universalism

Finally, the Oscar also functions as an arena for conflict between universalism and particularism. Had the Oscar operated on completely factual and rational principles, quality of work would have been the sole criterion for evaluating film artists. A universalistic ethos requires that artists producing highquality work would be rewarded regardless of ascribed statuses such as age, gender, race, religion, or nationality. However, such a reward system is utopian and does not exist even in science. Indeed, one of the Oscar's effects is to call attention to the operation of multiple of yardsticks in evaluating film art. Hence, the more disagreement there is about the Oscars, the more critically aware the public becomes of the problems involved in judging film.

What's amazing about the Oscar is its public and immediate manifestation of these cultural values. Through the Oscar show, viewers get to participate in the making or breaking of careers, in the rise and fall of artists, in upholding overnight success stories, all of which happen on their TV sets right before their eyes.