What Would George Do?

June 14, 2018
A thought by James Berardinelli


This was originally published at Patreon in the weeks leading up to the 2018 Oscar ceremony.

On April 15, 1971, George C. Scott made good on his promise. Goldie Hawn opened the envelope and, with seemingly genuine shock, exclaimed: “Oh my God, the winner is George C. Scott.” The music played but the only one to take the stage was Patton’s director, Franklin Schaffner. He graciously accepted on behalf of Scott but the Oscar was returned the next day (it reportedly can be found at the George S. Patton museum). For his part, Scott was at home during the ceremony watching a hockey game on TV. When reached by phone with the news that night, he allegedly made a noncommittal remark, hung up, and unplugged the phone, not wanting to be disturbed for the rest of the evening.

His nomination for Patton wasn’t the first time the Academy had recognized Scott. He had previously been cited for Anatomy of a Murder in 1960 and The Hustler in 1962. After the latter nomination, he sent a telegram to the Academy requesting that they rescind his nomination. The request was refused but Scott didn’t win. Then came Patton. Scott again requested that his name be removed from the list of nominees. Once again, the Academy didn’t comply. At that point, his victory was virtually assured. In a weak category, there was no real competition. What Scott wanted or didn’t want wasn’t considered.

Although Scott didn’t grandstand in refusing the Oscar, people took notice…and took sides. Many Hollywood veterans weren’t happy and let their feelings be known. Others, including Ryan O’Neal (who was also nominated), stood behind Scott. The tempest in a tea pot continued to boil for weeks, giving the Oscars longer legs than they normally had.

Scott didn’t talk much about the 1971 ceremony or the Oscars in general, but there were a few exceptions. One of those was when he explained, without mincing words, why he had rejected the award (as well as the nomination for The Hustler): “The ceremonies are a two hour meat parade, a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons… they are offensive, barbarous, and innately corrupt…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.”

Scott has been dead for years now but his actions in 1971, despite being low-key and classy, are embedded in Oscar lore. His protest is remembered because of its sincerity and because he took a tangible stance. Which brings us to 2018…

At the Golden Globes, it was decided that some sort of statement was in order to emphasize the inequities inherent in a patriarchal culture like Hollywood. Racism and misogyny have been common complaints at awards ceremonies in past years. This year, however, against the backdrop of the #metoo movement and Harvey Weinstein’s abuses, the sense of urgency was palpable. So what was the decision? How would Hollywood’s elite call attention to this? By adopting a dress code. Everyone had to wear black.

I guess in Hollywood this made sense. After all, when people are accustomed to spend thousands of dollars for custom-made dresses, being restricted to one color – black – is quite the sacrifice. However, I’m not sure George C. Scott would be impressed.

The only way for a statement to have genuine impact is if it’s from the heart and that means it can’t just be a changing of wardrobe. Want to get the message out that Hollywood is rotten to the core, that the culture has to change and the Oscars, as the most public celebration of this, need to feel the impact? A boycott would do the trick. Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee tried this a few years ago and, although it garnered some attention, there wasn’t enough star power behind it.

The way to make a meaningful #metoo statement at the Oscars wouldn’t be to wear black; it would be not to go at all. A wardrobe change simply says, “I don’t want to look like I don’t care but I don’t want to sacrifice the ego-stroking and camera time that goes along with appearing.” A massive number of no-shows would create an Oscar-night panic and, believe me, nothing would be more effective in italicizing the message.

Then there are the nominees. What if they held an awards ceremony and the winners didn’t show. What’s more, what if they issued the following statement: “Although I’m grateful to the Academy for having recognized my performance, I cannot in good conscience accept this award while so many deep-rooted problems in the industry and Hollywood culture remain unaddressed.” Or something like that.

It won’t happen, of course. Few of the nominated actors and actresses will want to rock the boat. Although many will pay lip service to the #metoo movement, they value getting the statue too much to give it up over a point of principle. And that’s the real source of the problem – the importance that’s placed on winning an Oscar. It’s not even about career advancement – it’s about ego-stroking. Scott was on target when he called the evening a meat parade with contrived suspense. And any attempt to make this year’s ceremony about female empowerment and racial equality will ring false unless people take a real stand.

Within the bubble, it looks differently than from the outside. Wearing black as a gesture of solidarity probably made everyone at the Golden Globes feel self-righteous. To the TV viewer, if it was even noticed, it was more of a curiosity than anything else – easily forgotten. The same would be true if something similar was attempted at the Oscars. (As of now, I haven’t heard any plans.)

The Oscars have always been about Hollywood patting itself on the back. In 2018, is being self-congratulatory the way to go? What does an angry speech matter if the actor leaves the stage with the gold statue in hand? Isn’t it hypocrisy to rail against the culture while accepting the honor? Aren’t there any George C. Scotts today?