David Brooks has certainly stirred the shit again with his latest column on whether Sandra Bullock should have preferred her marriage or her Academy Award. I’m not interested in that controversy—Brooks probably wrote in an awkward segue and now he looks like an idiot. Because the piece was that. Anyway, I had one specific focus about the article: namely, that Bullock shouldn’t care about the Academy Award. It’s probably worthless.
There are a few undeniable benefits to winning an Oscar. It’s great, short-term, for your career and the money you make from it. You get to have an eerie, androgynous statuette that can be used as a doorstop or a gardening implement. You get more freedom to choose which movies you make and you probably make more money from the ones you’re in. I don’t want to be presumptuous, but I’m guessing these things aren’t terribly meaningful for Bullock: she’s got tons of money, with which she can make whatever movie she wants, and get people to use more efficient gardening implements. So if she cares about the Oscar at all—and seeing as she cried, I’ll guess she does—it’s for other reasons. And if they’re oh, I don’t know, art and your legacy thereof, the award is basically useless. (And since you decided to enter an industry with a tournament structure—few winners, big winnings—you have to care about the art, hopefully. Otherwise you’re irrational.)
It’s not even really the Oscar’s fault in particular. Its quality as an award—the percentage of the time it gets its decisions right—is certainly higher than the Grammies. The point is general: you shouldn’t care about awards.
For my money, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the best movie of 2004. It got two nominations: best screenplay (original) and best actress. Can you name the best picture winner of that year? How many other nominees that year can you name? Odds are, unless you’re a trivia buff, very few. (The winner was Million Dollar Baby, which was definitely worse than Eternal Sunshine; other nominees that year included the immortal Being Julia and Maria, Full of Grace, no disrespect to either of those as I have not seen them. Suffice it to say, no one talks about these movies anymore.)
Did Casablanca win best picture in its year? You probably don’t know, but it did. Which picture won in its year, Chinatown or Godfather Part II? Godfather Part II. Which of Billy Wilder’s films won Best Picture? The Apartment, not Double Indemnity or Sabrina or Some Like It Hot. Who has a Nobel Prize in Literature, Hemingway, Fitzgerald or Faulkner? Hemingway and Faulkner, not Fitzgerald. Did Hitchcock ever win a Best Director Oscar? He did not.
I’m not trying to assault you with trivia for the sake of trivia. The point is, we think of these artworks—recognized or not—as roughly equal to one another. On the opposite side, surely we can all remember undeserving works that were rewarded (e.g. Crash, amusingly enough another Sandra Bullock movie). I simply want to make my point evident: awards are awarded to bad and good alike. We forget the bad ones and forget that the award was ever given to the good. That’s because the work ultimately stands for itself, however long it takes. So don’t worry, Sandra Bullock: we’ll remember your work for however good or bad it is based just on that—we don’t care about the Oscars if you give us enough time.