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And the Award Goes to

According to online reporter/gossip Matt Drudge, there was a minor flap when Chris Rock was announced as host for the upcoming Academy Awards. Some Academy members—who spoke up anonymously, of course, because you never know when Rock might be in a position to do some hiring—were concerned that the comic’s irreverence might extend a bit too far. It’s all well and good to make fun of, say, crack users or the President of the United States; but the annual award of a gold statuette to important citizens such as Cher (Moonstruck, ’88) or Red Buttons (Sayonara, ’57), well, that’s disrespectful to the point of blasphemy.

Reportedly, some of the voting members of the Academy found Rock’s alleged comment, “Awards for art are fucking idiotic,” to express insufficient regard for the solemnity of the event.

Rock isn’t the first to dis the ceremony, however. In the past, even anointed actors took their shots. When previous winner Marlon Brando won a second award for his work in The Godfather he sent a representative in his place, a Native American woman who made a brief speech about . . . something . . . then refused the Oscar on Brando’s behalf. Of course, Brando’s refusal was meant as a political message—however vague—and didn’t seem to comment on the appropriateness of the award, per se. George C. Scott, on the other hand, expressed sentiments more in keeping with Rock’s; if they were less vulgar, they were no less condemnatory: When Scott turned down his award for Patton, he ridiculed the entire event as “demeaning,” labeling it a “two-hour meat parade.”

This aversion to awards as markers of accomplishment in the arts isn’t limited to the film industry. There are a handful of high-profile instances of big names refusing their earned glories. The writer Sinclair Lewis, for example, turned down his Pulitzer for Arrowsmith, claiming that such prizes appointed by committee could have the unintended but wholly pernicious effect of training authors to write for the committees; he further objected to the Pulitzer guidelines that works represent and testify to the “wholesome aspects” of American life—it’s an understatement to say that wholesome wasn’t really Lewis’ bag. (Cynics, though, have pointed out that the publicity that Lewis’ refusal gained him probably benefited him far more than the $1,000 prize then awarded, and that the writer showed no such scruples when picking up a later Nobel.)

Even musicians have occasionally walked away from the podium—and this is a group so needy of affirmation that there exist something like 15 gazillion separate awards shows, from the Grammys to the Bammys to the Nammys; from the Tejano Music Awards to the Detroit Music Awards to the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards. The most notorious example and, frankly, the coolest, is Nick Cave’s rejection of the Best Male Artist nomination offered him by MTV:


“My muse is not a horse and I am in no horse race and if indeed she was, still I would not harness her to this tumbrel—this bloody cart of severed heads and glittering prizes. My muse may spook! May bolt! May abandon me completely!”

Here we have a cult artist who likely would have benefited professionally from inclusion in the televised ceremony, whether or not his dark and skittish horse came in; and, unlike Lewis, it’s doubtful that Cave’s unwillingness to compete gained him in any commercially measurable manner. His letter, which you can find in full online, doubtless reinforced his iconoclast-with-integrity image to his fans—and probably ended up on a bulletin board here and there (not that I’d know first-hand or anything)—but it’d be tough to frame this as a canny move to cash in. A little histrionic? Well, perhaps, but hardly crass. Honestly, the guy deserves an award for the refusal alone—if for no other reason than that he got “tumbrel” in there.

In fact, that might be a way to go: Add to each of these red-carpet group hugs one category along the lines of Best Artist Who Will Have Nothing To Do With Us, And May Well Kill Us All, which specifically addresses those artists either outside or actively antagonistic to the mainstream, working with specifically counterculture agendas (even if the “culture” in question is just that of the specific industry).

An Oscar, then, for Todd Haynes’ Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which uses Barbie dolls to recount the singer’s battle with anorexia and which sent A&M Records and Richard Carpenter into litigious conniptions; or, better yet, one for John Waters’ theatrically unreleased movie The Diane Linkletter Story, in which Divine reenacts the suicide of TV personality Art Linkletter’s LSD consuming daughter; and a Grammy for DJ Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album, a mash-up of Jay-Z’s The Black Album with the Beatles’ The White Album, which incurred the wrath of Sony, copyright holders of the Beatles songs therein mashed; and Pulitzers all-around for Louis-Ferdinand Céline, George Bataille, J.G. Ballard, William Burroughs, Kathy Acker, Samuel Delany, Shelley Jackson and Michael Joyce—just for starters.

Or if that rankles, smacks too much of cooptation or suggests the creation of yet another stultifying star-system, then implement a plan whereby the award of an Oscar or Grammy, or whatever, includes a community-service component demanding that the recipient spend some portion of the upcoming year advancing the cause of lesser known artists or surrender their award to a runner-up—kind of like beauty pageant winners.

Or if that’s just hopelessly starry-eyed and naïve, keep the current award structure, just set up the ceremonies so the winners have to cross a general-admission mosh pit of fringe artists. The interaction would, no doubt, do everyone some good—and so long as they don’t let Billy Crystal host, it’ll make for truly great TV.

—John Rodat

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