May 24, 2001
Not for Keeps
There are lots of things wrong with awards, aside from the fact that I so rarely win one. First off, there are way too many of them. All some people have to do is show up, and you know there's an award in store for them. Every time Steven Spielberg leaves his house, I guarantee he finds an enormous pile of plaques and commendations on his doorstep. All Jack Lemmon has to do is agree to make a movie and Mrs. Lemmon starts moving stuff around on the mantel to make room for the next load of trophies. I swear, the man collects Oscars and Emmys the way a dog collects fleas.
In case you haven't noticed, every day brings a new awards show. As it is, with the Academy Awards, the Grammys, the Emmys, the Tonys, the Golden Globes, the People's Choice, Kennedy Center, Screen Actors Guild, the Foreign Press and all those televised tributes to country-and-western singers, there's barely room on the tube for "I Love Lucy" reruns. Things have reached such a point of zaniness that there are even awards for awards shows.
The thing is, once created, awards, like government bureaucracies, can never be killed off. For instance, take the Oscars. Back in the '30s, with the advent of musicals, a category was created to honor the best song. Back then, when the likes of Gershwin, Kern, Porter, Berlin and Warren were writing the tunes for the movies, the likes of "Over the Rainbow," "That Old Black Magic" and "A Fine Romance" used to wage battle year in and year out. The competition used to be so stiff that the Gershwins, whose output for Hollywood included such musical treasures as "They Can't Take That Away From Me," "A Foggy Day," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," "Nice Work If You Can Get It," "They All Laughed," "Love Walked In" and "Love Is Here to Stay," never took home an Oscar. If that doesn't convince you how far we've fallen, consider, if you will, that such evergreens as "I Won't Dance," "Easy to Love," "Pick Yourself Up," "In the Still of the Night" and "Too Marvelous For Words" weren't even nominated!
These years, when movie musicals are as passé as silent films, typically five songs without a discernible melody or a memorable lyric among them get nominated, and one of them eventually wins an Oscar that looks and feels exactly like the ones that went to "White Christmas" and "It Might as Well Be Spring."
The truth of the matter is that most people who win awards don't really deserve them. Eliminate politics, PR campaigns and bribes, and a lot of honors would go begging. When it comes to acting awards, it's invariably the script that determines who deserves the victory. Or do you think it's an accident that after winning an Oscar for Paddy Chayefsky's "Marty," Ernest Borgnine was never again even nominated?
The biggest problem with awards, though, is that once people win them, they get to keep them, no matter what they go on to do. At least in the world of sports, if you win a title you're expected either to defend it on a regular basis or retire. But in the world of arts and entertainment, once they call your name out, the prize is yours, and nothing that happens afterward can force you to relinquish it.
To me, that's just ridiculous. Consider Marlon Brando, if you will. The man has not one but two Oscars on his shelf, in his closet or stashed away on an American Indian reservation somewhere. I won't argue that he didn't have them coming for "On the Waterfront" and "The Godfather," even if I hasten to point out that those were two of the best scripts ever written. (to Brando's credit, he didn't muck them up.) But are you going to tell me that he deserves to keep those Oscars? If a person can earn honor and esteem, can't he also earn dishonor? And I insist that a bad review isn't sufficient. When an actor plows on, turning out the likes of "The Freshman," "Christopher Columbus," "The Formula," "Don Juan DeMarco" and "The Island of Dr. Moreau," I want the Academy to send a couple of big guys out to Brando's house to repossess the hardware. And in the future, he should be identified as Oscar-loser Marlon Brando.
I don't want anyone to accuse me of picking on Americans. Take Sir Laurence Olivier. The man took home a suitcase full of Oscars for "Hamlet" and then got to keep them in spite of "Wagner," "The Jigsaw Man," "Wild Geese II," "Clash of the Titans," "The Jazz Singer" and "Inchon." Hell, for "Inchon" alone, I'd have made him give back the knighthood.
Actors aren't alone in this regard. The woods are full of people who should have to fork over Pulitzers, Peabodys and even Man of the Year tributes. Take Yasser Arafat. Please. Am I the only one who thinks it's way past time that the Nobel Committee sent a bunch of big, tough Scandinavians over to his tent with orders to take back the Peace Prize?