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A closer look at the other side of Oscar

Sean Sweany | Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Alright, I’ll say it. I’m glad the Oscars are over. I’m glad they won’t roll around for another year. The reason is that the ceremony that should ostensibly and ideally hand out awards for achievement in various areas of film has become so noticeably political and hype-driven that it has lost its charm, its prestige and its credibility.

There are several examples from this year’s Oscars that make this point painfully clear.

Take Forest Whitaker’s Best Actor win for his role in “The Last King of Scotland.” By all accounts, Whitaker had locked up the award many weeks before the little statue was handed to him on Sunday night thanks to the press he received for the film. For a film that enjoyed very limited release, it would have been difficult for many of the 6,000 Academy voters to see and judge Whitaker’s acting. Rather, news stories ran ceaselessly about Whitaker’s onscreen talents – a surefire way to goad an Academy voter into choosing Whitaker as the year’s best actor without having seen the film. Whitaker’s acting may be superb – I have yet to see the film – but it seems that any excellence was proliferated more through studio hype than by people actually seeing the film.

“The Departed” is another film whose pedigree may have earned it more praise than it may have deserved. For all “Departed” lovers out there, let me say that I loved this film. It was fantastic. But the conflation of two stories – the greatness of the film and the fact that Martin Scorsese, who had never won an Oscar for directing, helmed it – made me ask a question. Was it a foregone conclusion that Scorsese would win the Oscar for directing and his film would win Best Picture by association?

Let me put it this way: if Stephen Sommers – the director of the awful “Mummy” films and the even more abominable “Van Helsing” – had directed “The Departed,” would it have received so much attention to win the Oscars for directing and picture? Probably not.

The point here is that actors, directors and films can receive unfair benefits or disadvantages based on their name, association or particular marketing campaign.

Take for example, Johnny Depp’s Best Actor nomination in 2004 for playing Captain Jack Sparrow in Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.” Its hard to deny that his performance was better than any of his competitors from that year, including Sean Penn (who won) for “Mystic River” or Bill Murray for “Lost in Translation.” But this was quirky Johnny Depp, acting in a popcorn-munching, effects-laden, summer blockbuster Disney movie. There was no chance that the Academy would deem him (and the movie as a whole) worthy of one of their awards.

The situation is somewhat akin to the Heisman Trophy award in its convoluted nature. In 2005, Reggie Bush won college football’s biggest honor because he was the best player on the team everyone believed to be the best in the country. Nevermind that Vince Young was more talented, a better leader on his team and ultimately more deserving of the award. Bush’s highlights saturated the ESPN family of networks, he and USC were media darlings and the result, as they say, is history.

The Academy Awards seem like they could be falling victim to this predicament of allowing the media and Hollywood politics to help determine who should and does win. Were Forest Whitaker or “The Departed” really deserving winners or did the hype machine help them win? Perhaps a better question is whether the hype machine is avoidable or not – it probably isn’t – or even a new phenomenon – it’s not. When you look at it that way, you can’t really complain, just watch “The Last King of Scotland” and “The Departed” and wait until next year’s Academy Awards.

Contact Sean Sweany at ssweany@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.