If the corner at Hollywood and Highland is blocked off for a full week – artificially snarling traffic that needs no additional help – it must be that time of year when a young actor’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.

Love of a 13½ inch, 8½ pound gold-plated statue, that is.

For most denizens of the film business the Oscar race is already over: without a nomination, you are merely a spectator to the pomp and circumstance that seems to get bigger (and more scripted) each year. All this activity, however, begs the question: Does Oscar really matter? Or, more pointedly, what is the real value of a competitive award for creative endeavors?

We can start examining this question with something easy like the Nobel Prizes in science where (a) the nominations are secret, (b) there is a measure of objectivity in judging, and (c) television ratings are not an issue. Example: Albert Einstein won only one Nobel Prize – only one! His prize was for showing light exists in particle form (scientists call’em “photons”). That’s pretty major to be sure but Einstein also had a few other accomplishments in physics. Like completely rewriting the book on gravity. From Sir Isaac Newton. A guy so big in the field of science that he had a cookie named after him.

Yes, that Isaac Newton.

(Newton, in fact, was overlooked for a Nobel Prize but only because he died before they were instituted. Should someone invent time travel physics, they would be able to award Sir Isaac his prize – except then they would have to immediately take it away as time travel invalidates his theories.)

So, here you have Newton’s theory of gravitation that’s been around for 300 years, and Einstein, primarily through what he considered the “proper aesthetic” of the universe, comes up with his theory that not only explains all previously known anomalies in Newton’s theory but also predicts a few new observations with pin-point accuracy to boot. It’s probably the greatest scientific achievement of a single human mind in all of history.

And no Nobel Prize for it.

john bardeen
John Bardeen

Already we see that giving prizes for the creative process is difficult, even if you have some sort of objective scale. And are not affected by television ratings.

Of course, another conclusion is that the Nobel prizes in science just aren’t really that important. After all, John Bardeen, an avid golfer and the only person awarded two Nobel Prizes in Physics, felt it took winning two Nobels to beat making a single hole-in-one. (Yes, you probably don’t know who John Bardeen is. But you should. He was one of the inventors of the transistor which is basically the foundation of the entire information age. So much for the thesis that a major prize brings public recognition. Even when you win two of them.)

Art prizes are even more difficult to award. For starters, there’s the itty-bitty problem that what is significant in one culture is not necessarily significant in another. This makes the Nobel Prizes in literature particularly troublesome. How do we stack the value of a writer in South America, for example, against that of one in Europe? If you realize that the Nobels are issued from a European country, you really wouldn’t even ask this question.

Now let’s take a look at the Oscars. These awards aren’t nearly as prestigious as the Nobels but at least they are more prestigious than the Emmys. It’s hard to find an actor – even the ones who don’t yet have their SAG-AFTRA card; in fact, especially the ones who don’t yet have their SAG-AFTRA card – that hasn’t thought what he would say if presented with an Oscar. (No one thinks about an Emmy speech.) Can you imagine a scientist rehearsing a Nobel speech? Hardly. Then again, the Nobels aren’t televised to half the planet.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the painter, once remarked:

The only reward one should offer an artist is to buy his work.

But what did Renoir know? He was French. And his son ended up in Hollywood. Who received an honorary Oscar.

MaerzMusik 2004
Charles Ives

Charles Ives, the great American composer, famously gave away the Pulitzer Prize money he won for his Third Symphony – yes, a Pulitzer is more prestigious than an Oscar – saying “Prizes are for boys, and I’m all grown up.” And just in case anyone missed the point, he also reminded people:

Awards are merely the badges of mediocrity.

Still, that doesn’t dim the shine from old Oscar – not for the studios and production companies hoping to boost sales, not for the actors hoping for a bit of public love (even more important to some than money), and certainly not for the television producers of the Academy Awards show hoping to win an Emmy for the broadcast.

Hollywood tries to dodge this issue of art-evaluated-as-a-competition by self-effacement. You get phrases like “I’m happy just to be nominated with such a distinguished group”. Uh-huh. And no one in Hollywood uses Rogaine.

My favorite faux-self-effacing tactic by the Academy was doing away with the phrase “And the winner is…” in 1989 to try to make the Oscars seem less competitive. The phrase was finally brought back in 2010 because someone realized that it was even more hypocritical to claim things weren’t competitive when the studios dumped loads of money during the Oscar season in an effort to buy the awards. (The Weinstein Brothers at Miramax were notorious for this strategy. It is widely believed their techniques paid off most spectacularly when Shakespeare in Love bested Saving Private Ryan – which only rewrote the rulebook for large war epics – for Best Picture in 1999.)

richard feynman
Richard Feynman

So you really have to admire those creative folks who have turned down these “awards” outright. It’s not easy. Especially when there is money or fame or future projects involved. Even the irascible theoretical physicist Richard Feynman – one of the few scientists you can be fairly certain was constantly rehearsing his Nobel Prize speech – even Feynman realized how tough it would be to turn down “The Prize”. (Feynman used his 1965 Nobel Prize money to buy a beach house in Baja California.) When a theoretical physicist, a person from the group of the most poorly socialized individuals in the world, recognizes the societal pressures to accept “The Prize”, you know it’s a tough thing to walk away from – even if a beach house weren’t involved.

That’s why Jean-Paul Sartre’s turning down the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964 is so very cool. Here is what the artist said at the time:

A writer must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution, even if it takes place in the most honorable form.

Now that is a speech worth practicing.

Of course, if you are an artist in show business, you already have a conflict of interest. Add to this mix the tremendous amount of revenue dollars on the line, the fragile egos of studio execs – not to mention the future of your career as a highly paid popular artist – and you really have to be ballsy to bite the hand that feeds you in front of half the planet. But there are some examples.

Woody Allen famously has been a no-show to all Academy Award shows except the one just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to pay homage to New York City. By never showing to any of the ceremonies, he never really insults anyone for not picking up his awards. A kind of nebbish protest from a nebbish man.

oscars marlon brando Sacheen Littlefeather
Sacheen Littlefeather

In 1973, Marlon Brando pulled off a media sensation when he sent a proxy to turn down his award for Best Actor in The Godfather. The proxy? A genuine Native American. The reason? Brando’s protest of the treatment of Native Americans in the film industry. How effective? Pretty damned effective. At the time, there was a major standoff between Native American activists and United States marshals at Wounded Knee. The Native American activists credited the Oscar rebuff to be a major part of raising awareness for their cause. And if that is not proof enough of its effectiveness, consider this: As a direct result of Brando’s act, the Academy made a new rule prohibiting the use of proxies.

My favorite, however, has to be George C. Scott. In 1962, he sent a quiet letter to the Academy declining his Best Supporting Actor nomination for his work in The Hustler. Talk about an anti-actor move! Turn down a mere nomination at an early stage in your career??? And turn it down in a quiet letter??? You can’t even get a good sound bite over that!

That action was pretty impressive all on its own. But in 1970, Scott was again nominated, this time for Best Actor for his iconic performance in Patton. And again, he sent a quiet letter to the Academy:

I respectfully request that you withdraw my name from the list of nominees. My request is in no way intended to denigrate my colleagues. Furthermore, peculiar as it may seem, I mean no offense to the Academy. I simply do not wish to be involved.

You really have to admire this coming from an actor whose nominated performance included the line: “Americans play to win all the time.”

Naturally, Scott’s letter didn’t stop the Academy. It kept his name in nomination and awarded him the statue. Scott wasn’t there to pick it up and became the first actor to actually refuse the Oscar outright because he “did not feel himself to be in any competition with other actors.” George C. Scott’s private view, however, was closer to the tone of George S. Patton:

The ceremonies are a two-hour meat parade, a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons…What I hate is that whole superstructure and the phony suspense and the crying actor clutching the statue to his bosom…It’s all such a bloody bore.

No doubt he’d express the same opinion today. Except to call it a five-hour meat parade. (Six, if you count the red carpet pre-show.)

I’d really like to give George C. Scott a posthumous award for acting like an artist in the face of tremendous public and industry pressure but I have no doubt that, despite being dead, he’d figure a way to turn it down.

That’s how much of an artist he is.

Originally published February 19, 2013 in Bitter Lemons.