Losing support: Category fraud at the Oscars

by Tori Hawks-Ladds / Beacon Correspondent • January 27, 2016

You’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t think Marlon Brando deserved his Academy Award for best actor in The Godfather in 1973. He memorably declined it, sending American Indian rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather in his place to protest against the portrayal of indigenous Americans in film and television. His dissent feels especially relevant today, with many celebrities boycotting the 2016 Oscars to protest the ceremony’s lack of diversity and the overwhelming whiteness of its nominees. Beyond these acts of defiance and calls for change in the racial inequalities that permeate Hollywood is another problem with the Academy Awards: category fraud.

Brando’s win clearly exemplifies this specific injustice at the Oscars. He was nominated for best actor in a leading role, despite having only a quarter of the screen time of his co-star Al Pacino, who was nominated for best supporting actor. What determines who leads and who doesn’t? There’s never been an official answer, but Tim Gray, the awards editor at Variety, hypothesized that it boils down to “age, star power, ensemble casts or business considerations.” For Gray, this isn’t an issue—but shouldn’t the Academy categorize and award actors for, you know, their acting? And furthermore, in an industry so whitewashed and male-centred, to ignore that race and gender might also play a role in who gets nominated for what seems incredibly short-sighted.

Director Quentin Tarantino raised this issue in 1995 when Samuel L. Jackson was nominated for best supporting actor for his role in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. His white co-star John Travolta received a nomination for best actor, even though the two had nearly identical amounts of screen time and equally iconic roles in the film. Tarantino cites the 2003 film Lost in Translation as further proof of category fraud. Bill Murray was nominated for best actor, while Scarlett Johansson was snubbed, despite Tarantino’s belief that “she’s obviously the co-lead." The Oscars favoring older white men over women demonstrates, more or less, a timeless reality.

And what exactly are the “business considerations” Gray was referring to? They might be the fact that studios actually campaign films, actors, and actresses for nominations each year, practically deciding their categories ahead of time. This process occurs under the table, beginning with Oscar season in November each year. It often includes re-releasing trailers with special phrases like “for your consideration” added, or re-branding promotional material. Campaigns often spill into the territory of corruption. Studio heads have been known to throw cocktail parties and special events to attempt to influence Academy members—Harvey Weinstein is especially notorious for Oscar campaigning. In late 2015, the Weinstein Company pitched Cate Blanchett for best actress and Rooney Mara for best supporting actress for their roles in Carol. It’s nothing new; studios have been running these for years. Both women gave powerful performances in Carol, but their categorization doesn’t really add up. Mara’s character Therese undoubtedly leads, or at least co-leads, the film, and most of what the audience sees is from her perspective. While Blanchett’s titular role compares in size and scope, Carol’s purpose in the narrative of the film comes second to the character development of Therese. 

It seems clear that the nominations this year are largely the result of the campaigns by the Weinsteins and other production heads—and that simply is not fair. When business and the whims of studios have any part in the nominations, the Oscars cease to be a determinant of quality in Hollywood filmmaking. If the contest hinges on campaign results, then there’s category fraud. This undermines the integrity of the entire ceremony. This aggravates further when people of color are frequently excluded from the nominations altogether, even before the categories are decided. 

At this year’s Oscars, let’s not only protest and call for more diversity within the Academy—let’s ask for more transparency in sorting nominees into categories. This issue intersects with race, gender, age, and class. If the Academy actually wishes to “advance the arts and sciences of motion pictures,” awards should only be determined by the work of the artists and scientists who make movies happen—not by the companies who distribute those pictures or the white men who run them. Clarity and fairness in choosing categories of the nominees is an important step moving forward. Let's keep the campaigning to ads and the money to the box office. If the awards don’t go to the best of the best, then they're hardly awards at all.