There is a moment near the end of the new Turner Classic Movies documentary And the Oscar Goes To… in which Benicio Del Toro and Helen Mirren discuss the inherent fault in devoting a night to telling four out of every five nominated artists that their art just isn’t as good. Del Toro points out, “It’s not a sport. In sport, someone definitely wins. The Oscars are not like that,” while Mirren argues, “You know in your heart that it’s kind of wrong. I know I shouldn’t be saying this because we’re talking about the Oscars, and on many levels it’s fantastic. In the end, we are artists, and art is not about competition and prizes.”
Oh, sure, they get to say that. They’ve both won Academy Awards, Del Toro for Traffic and Mirren for The Queen! Still, they’re not wrong. The Oscars are entirely founded on the shaky presupposition that bestowing objective greatness upon that which is inherently subjective is actually possible, forever drawing into question why we validate the Academy Awards by paying so much attention to them.
There are those in the film industry who feel the same way. George C. Scott rejected the entire idea of being pitted in competition against other actors, rejecting his nomination for The Hustler in 1962 and rejecting his win for Patton in 1970. Joaquin Phoenix referred to his experience on the awards circuit for Walk The Line as “one of the most uncomfortable periods” of his life, refusing to go through that ever again. Of an Academy Award, he said: “It’s a carrot, but it’s the worst-tasting carrot I’ve ever tasted in my whole life.” Of course, Phoenix didn’t actually win the Oscar for Walk the Line. So, he didn’t get to share his opinion about it from the podium. Dustin Hoffman, on the other hand, got his chance to do so when he won Best Actor for Kramer vs. Kramer.
By the time Kramer vs. Kramer came along in 1979, Dustin Hoffman had been nominated and lost three times before, first for The Graduate (1967), then Midnight Cowboy (1969), and finally for Lenny (1974), the first two being all-time classics and the latter a somewhat forgotten biopic about the controversial comedian Lenny Bruce. What could he do? He’d lost to Rod Steiger for In the Heat of the Night, John Wayne for True Grit, and Art Carney for Harry and Tonto. The Academy was repeatedly doing to him what it often does: giving the award to an older actor who may never get another chance to win under the assumption that the younger guy will have plenty of chances in the future.
It very easily could have happened to him again with Kramer vs. Kramer when was up against the similarly perpetually snubbed Al Pacino for …And Justice for All, Roy Scheider in Bob Fosse’s amazing All That Jazz, and two slightly older legends, Jack Lemmon for The China Syndrome and Peter Sellers for Being There. Of the five, Hoffman and Lemmon were the only ones who actually cared enough to show up at the ceremony meaning that Pacino, Scheider, and Sellers weren’t there to hear Hoffman use his acceptance speech to reject the entire idea that he beat anyone.
Dustin Hoffman’s acceptance speech when winning Best Actor for KRAMER VS. KRAMER. Hoffman had a tough task … in the 1970s, Dustin Hoffman had been well known for his criticism of the Academy, calling it a garish and embarrassing evening, and was even rebuked by Frank Sinatra at the 1975 show. So when he took the stage to accept his first Best Actor Oscar, he gave a very good speech where he explained his past criticism of the Academy, saying that he refused to believe that the other four nominees in his category lost and he won over them. He praised the artistic community of actors, only a handful of which are so lucky to attain the status that Hoffman had. He went to say that most actors have to drive a taxi while doing auditions, and he praised them all, saying that none of them have ever lost. The crowd was overwhelmed by the sentiment, and in a way, it made a lot of sense … Hoffman was saying that actors are a community, and who is to say that one is better than the other.
Here’s his full speech:
Note: Wow, I didn’t know that the introductions for each nominee used to run-down the big hits of their career as opposed to just highlighting the film for which they were nominated, although they did briefly bring that for the acting categories a couple of years ago.
Of course, accepting an award you don’t believe in is kind of like the time Pearl Jam won a Grammy and Eddie Vedder defiantly told the audience, “I don’t think this means anything.” It does beg the question of why you even showed up, but Hoffman’s speech was surprisingly eloquent, forever a reminder of why we shouldn’t take the Oscars all that seriously.