Oscar Politics: Gandhi Vs. Tootsie

That Academy members, like ordinary moviegoers, tend to judge a film by the importance of its subject and relevance of its issue was also clear in 1982, when Gandhi swept most of the Oscars. Cinematically, it was a rather conventional, solemn biography of the noble political figure, lacking epic scope and visual imagination. Gandhi could have been a better movie had it been directed by a more subtle and inventive filmmaker like David Lean. However, Gandhi's figure was so inspirational and his preaching for antiviolence so timely a message in the context of the 1980s that Academy voters favored the movie over Spielberg's E.T. and Sidney Lumet's The Verdict.

Once again, Sydney Pollack lost the Oscar for the wrong reasons. His comedy, Tootsie, was accomplished on every level, but it lacked the noble intent and “important” theme that Gandhi possessed. The New York Times critic Vincent Canby described Gandhi as having “the air of an important news event, something that is required reading.” Faulting it for its earnestness, Canby wrote: “All films about saintly men tend to look alike, even though the men themselves may be radically different.” But Canby understood the Academy's motivation: “To honor a film like Gandhi, a perfectly reverent if unexceptional film about an exceptional man, they are paying their dues to the race (human), certifying their instincts (good), and also the belief that movies about worthy subjects can make money.

Variety's chief editor, Peter Bart, recalled: “Frankly, I was aghast, when Gandhi beat out E.T. and Tootsie. I felt my colleagues in the Academy were so eager to vote with their heads they abandoned their hearts.” It is worth noting that the Academy's taste didn't differ much from the critics'. Gandhi opened to almost unanimously favorable review; the only dissenting voices among the major critics were Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael. And it won the New York Film Critics, the National Board of Review, and the Golden Globe awards. However, there was no consensus among critics that year: the Los Angeles Film Critics cited E.T. as Best Picture, and the National Society cited Tootsie.

If you want to know more about this issue, please read my book, All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards(NY: Continuum International, paperback, 2003)