“The right actors win Oscars, but for the wrong roles,” Katharine Hepburn once said.
The Motion Picture Academy has a history of rewarding stars for less-than-celestial performances, and this week’s Oscar nomination announcements left a lot of people scratching their heads — over the snubs for Selma, for example, and the nomination of Robert Duvall for best supporting actor in The Judge.
“I think most people hadn’t even heard of The Judge before that nomination,” says Alyssa Rosenberg, culture columnist for The Washington Post.
Rosenberg says most critics were not impressed by the movie, about a judge who is aging, cranky and hates his new dependence on his criminal-lawyer son.
To be clear, Rosenberg loves Duvall.
“He is wonderful,” she says. “But it’s not a particularly notable performance. It’s weird. It’s like they woke up and said, ‘You know who hasn’t seen a statue in some time?’ ”
Robert Duvall hasn’t seen one since 1983 and Tender Mercies. Rosenberg says recognizing actors out of a sense they’re overdue is an Academy tradition that goes back to at least 1935.
That was the year Bette Davis won her first Oscar for a thoroughly mediocre movie, Dangerous. The Academy had ignored her incandescent performance the year before as a manipulative waitress in the film, Of Human Bondage.
“It’s using the awards to back up and say, ‘We know you’re good. Really, we know you’re good, even if we missed it before,’ ” Rosenberg says.
That’s what happened in 1960, she adds, to a certain violet-eyed 28-year-old, Elizabeth Taylor.
Taylor went unrewarded by the Academy for National Velvet, Giant, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly Last Summer. She won for Butterfield 8, a movie she herself called a stinker. But the actress’ third husband had recently died in a plane crash, six months after the birth of their daughter.
“People felt bad for her,” Rosenberg says.
Other consolation Oscars might include Denzel Washington’s in 2001, for playing a vicious cop in the movie Training Day. Critics preferred Washington in an earlier movie, The Hurricane, not to mention in Malcolm X.
Or Dame Judy Dench, who won not for her layered portrayal of Queen Victoria in the movie Mrs Brown in 1997, but won, instead, the next year. Dench had a sense of humor about accepting her best supporting actress statuette for her eight-minute appearance as Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare In Love.
“Um,” she said, “I feel, for eight minutes on the screen, I should only get a little bit of him.”
Sometimes it takes a little while for a great performance to sink in. Sometimes the field is too crowded with too many great performances.
The phenomenon goes beyond the Oscars. Playwright Edward Albee did not win the Pulitzer Prize in 1963 for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf because it was seen as too controversial. A few years later, the Pulitzer committee basically backtracked, rewarding Albee for another play, A Delicate Balance.
Far better, says Rosenberg, if the cultural horse races that are awards shows were guided not by sentimentality or nostalgia, but singularity and guts.
“If you want people to take your awards ceremony seriously as an arbiter of artistic quality, these are strange decisions,” she says.