Oscar Impact: Film Criticism

Another displacement of goals in the Oscar Award’s original operation has been its gradual acceptance as an institutionalized yardstick of evaluating artistic quality.

The Oscar has become an integral part of the film world, used by critics in gauging films’ various merits (acting, writing, direction). For better or for worse, the Oscar has become a legitimized measure of cinematic excellence.

For instance, in 1958, the critic Anthony Carthew wrote about David Niven’s performance in Separate Tables: “I knew I was seeing a piece of acting worth an Oscar.” Niven did win the Best Actor for this film.

In 1969, the National Observer’s Clifford A. Ridley was so smitten with Liza Minnelli in The Sterile Cuckoo that he predicted: “She does not play nineteen-year-old Pookie Adams, she is Pookie Adams, and you may mark your Oscar ballots right now.” Minnelli received her first Best Actress nomination for this role. Variety, the popular trade magazine, is known for using “inside Hollywood” jargon in its reviews. Reviewing Arthur, the Variety’s critic noted that “John Gielgud gives a priceless performance, truly the kind that wins supporting Oscars.” Gielgud won.

But film critics have used the Oscar label for praise as well as condemnation. The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael did not like Gena Rowlands’s performance in A Woman Under the Influence, noting that Rowlands was doing too much, “enough for half a dozen tours de force, a whole row of Oscars.”

The Oscar is often used as a tool for derogation, as in David Denby’s New York review of Places in the Heart, a film he didn’t like because it was “too pious.” “Parched and academic,” wrote Denby, “the movie is too square for art, though it’s perfectly designed for Oscars.” Denby was right, at least as far as Oscar nominations are concerned–Places of the Heart received seven nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director.

Both film critics and film audiences have incorporated the Oscar into their everyday lingo, making value judgments in terms of “Oscar caliber” movies and other achievements. In fact, shortly after the release of a major film, critics try to predict that film’s chances of getting nominations and Oscars.

In 1983, The Big Chill opened to rave reviews, with Richard Corliss writing in Time magazine, “the eight star actors deserve one big Oscar.”

Andrew Sarris stated in his Village Volice review of Twice in a Lifetime that Amy Madigan “deserves an Oscar.” Madigan was indeed nominated.

That critics are able to predict quite accurately the Oscar nominees and winners demonstrates again that the parameters of what is a so-called “Oscar stuff” film or “Oscar-caliber” performance are rather established in our movie consciousness.