NPR

And The Oscar Goes To ... Wait, Who Hasn't Had One In A While?

Robert Duvall (right) was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role in The Judge, which also starred Robert Downey Jr. The nomination left many critics scratching their heads. (AP)

"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.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

More Photos
Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The great Katharine Hepburn once said the right actors win Oscars, but for the wrong roles. This week's Oscar nominations announcement made NPR's Neda Ulaby wonder about the Academy's history of rewarding stars for quasi-celestial performances.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: The nominations left a lot of people scratching their heads - over the snubs for "Selma," for example, and this nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

(SOUNDBITE OF "87TH ACADEMY AWARDS")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Robert Duvall in "The Judge."

ALYSSA ROSENBERG: I think most people hadn't even heard of "The Judge" before that nomination.

ULABY: That's Alyssa Rosenberg, a cultural columnist for The Washington Post. She says most critics were not impressed by this movie about a judge who's aging, cranky and hates his new dependence on his criminal lawyer son.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE JUDGE")

ROBERT DUVALL: (As Judge Joseph Palmer) I put a roof over your head, money in your pocket, clothes on your back, food in your mouth. Who paid for that college education - your mother?

ULABY: Now, let's just be clear - Rosenberg loves Robert Duvall.

ROSENBERG: He is wonderful, but it's not a particularly notable performance. It's weird. It's like they woke up and said, you know who hasn't had a statue in some time?

ULABY: ...Robert Duvall since 1983 in "Tender Mercies." Rosenberg says recognizing actors because of a sense they're overdue is an Academy tradition that goes back to at least 1935.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DANGEROUS")

BETTE DAVIS: (As Joyce Heath) You dare feel sorry for me - you with your fat, little soul and your smug face.

ULABY: 1935 was when Bette Davis won her first Oscar for a thoroughly mediocre movie called "Dangerous." The Academy ignored her incandescent performance the year before as a manipulative waitress in the film "Of Human Bondage."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OF HUMAN BONDAGE")

DAVIS: (As Mildred) You hounded me and drove me crazy. And after you kissed me, I always used to wipe my mouth - wipe my mouth.

ROSENBERG: 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.

ULABY: That's what happened, says Rosenberg, in 1960 to a certain violet-eyed 28-year-old.

(SOUNDBITE OF "32ND ACADEMY AWARDS")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Elizabeth Taylor.

ULABY: Taylor went unrewarded by the Academy for "National Velvet" and "Giant" and "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof" and "Suddenly, Last Summer." She won for "BUtterfield 8," a movie she herself called a stinker. But Taylor's third husband had recently died in a plane crash six months after the birth of their daughter.

ROSENBERG: People felt bad for her.

ULABY: Alyssa Rosenberg says other consolation Oscars might include Denzel Washington's in 2001 for playing a vicious cop in the movie "Training Day."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TRAINING DAY")

DENZEL WASHINGTON: (As Det. Alonzo Harris) You're lucky I don't have more pressing business.

ULABY: Critics preferred Washington in an earlier movie, "The Hurricane," not to mention in "Malcolm X." Or Dame Judi Dench winning not for her layered performance of Queen Victoria in the movie "Mrs. Brown" in 1997, but instead, the next year. Dame 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."

(SOUNDBITE OF "71ST ACADEMY AWARDS")

DAME JUDI DENCH: I feel for eight minutes on the screen, I should only get a little bit of him.

ULABY: Sometimes it takes a little while for a great performance to sink in. Sometimes a field is too crowded with too many great performances. And it's not just "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."

ROSENBERG: If you want people to take your award ceremony seriously as an arbiter of artistic quality, these are strange decisions.

ULABY: Far better, says Alyssa Rosenberg, if the cultural horse races that are award shows were guided not by sentimentality and nostalgia, but singularity and guts. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Most Popular