Joaquin Phoenix
Credit: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

Joaquin Phoenix just destroyed improved his chances at an Oscar nomination.

In a new Q&A with film critic Elvis Mitchell in Interview magazine, the star of The Master — widely considered to be a Best Actor contender — is asked about being on the awards circuit for the film. Phoenix, who has two previous Oscar nominations for Gladiator and Walk the Line, scoffs at Hollywood’s season of backslapping.

“I’m just saying that I think it’s bullsh–t,” Phoenix says. “I think it’s total, utter bulls–t, and I don’t want to be a part of it. I don’t believe in it. It’s a carrot, but it’s the worst-tasting carrot I’ve ever tasted in my whole life. I don’t want this carrot.”

That distant rattling you hear is the sound of Oscar pundits grasping their pearls at this sacrilege. Many will say he has crushed his chances of a nomination by insulting the great golden god of Hollywood, but that — to borrow a term from the actor — is also “bulls–t.”

First of all The Master was already fading in the Oscar race. While it has some fierce champions, many voters complained they felt confounded by Paul Thomas Anderson’s story of a psychotic drunk (Phoenix) and his relationship with a new-age religious impresario (Philip Seymour Hoffman.) It’s a little counter-intuitive, but Phoenix’s interview makes him a prime topic for conversation now, which could lead voters to sit up and take notice of his work in the movie again, despite his diss of awards season.

If Phoenix doesn’t get a nomination, it won’t be because of what he said to Mitchell.

Yes, the remarks will certainly cost him a few votes among the huffy and thin-skinned, but many members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have been Oscar contenders themselves — and most know that when you pour your heart into the race, it comes back to you fairly hollowed out. The Oscar race is a campaign, and the endless glad-handing and schmoozing and selling, selling, selling can make even the most ego-driven psyche a little sick of itself. A healthy cynicism about awards is one thing every nominee wins, regardless of whether he or she takes home a trophy.

Frankly, the thing that is even more poisonous to an Oscar campaign is wanting it too much. When Miramax’s campaign for Gangs of New York suggested Martin Scorsese was owed an Oscar for past classics that had not been honored, the Academy shrank away like a teenage girl from an overly clingy boyfriend. A more low-key approach in the campaign for 2006’s The Departed finally got Scorsese the award that had eluded him for so long.

The Academy has a long history of rewarding people who shrug off the traditional nominee duties (or in some cases openly reject the Oscars themselves.) The most famous one is George C. Scott, who tried to have himself removed from the race when honored early in his career, and did so again when nominated for Patton. In a letter to the Academy, he wrote: “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.”

It was a much more polite variation on Phoenix’s remarks (except Phoenix isn’t saying he will refuse a nomination.)

Though Scott’s rejection caused a massive stir, we all know who won that year.

Recent history provides us with another example: Mo’Nique. Although she was willing to accept the honors coming her way for her sinister turn as an abusive mother in Precious, the actress famously refused to stump for the honors by reaching out to voters at Los Angeles Q&As and traveling to film festivals. She had a more practical — some might argue “mercenary” — attitude toward it all: “What are you campaigning for, though? That’s what I need to understand,” she said. “What does it mean financially?” Pundits considered this an Oscar death sentence. They were wrong once again.

Why does this happen? It’s because Oscar voters do take the award seriously, and hope it has meaning. There’s a lot an actor can do to alienate the academy, but knocking the Oscar race is not necessarily a capital offense. If anything, voters often choose to cast their ballots in favor of deserving stars in spite of such statements, which itself is evidence against the argument that the award is “bullsh–t.” If they were to withhold their votes despite great work by a performer, that pettiness would validate the criticism.

All this is to say that many Oscar voters will know what Phoenix is talking about, even if he comes across as somewhat blunt and disrespectful to outsiders. He didn’t say “the respect of my peers is bullsh–t.” Mitchell clearly asks him about “the awards circuit,” and that’s a different thing. Phoenix goes on to point out a discomfort that a lot of Oscar nominees have expressed:

“Pitting people against each other . . . It’s the stupidest thing in the whole world. It was one of the most uncomfortable periods of my life when Walk the Line was going through all the awards stuff and all that. I never want to have that experience again. I don’t know how to explain it — and it’s not like I’m in this place where I think I’m just above it — but I just don’t ever want to get comfortable with that part of things.”

Movie awards are not like the 100-yard dash, where every contender is displaying the same ability. Phoenix’s work in The Master will be measured alongside top-tier performances such as Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln and John Hawkes in The Sessions, even though the roles couldn’t be more different from each other. So how can they logically compare?

Well, we compare them anyway. And that’s just how it is. It’s subjective and sometimes arbitrary, and favoritism and campaign resources play a role. Phoenix characterizes that a little crudely, but he’s saying the same thing many others have noticed.

Like most movie fans, I love and respect the Oscars, even if I sometimes disagree with their choices. (Crash over Brokeback Mountain? Seriously?) I’m not sure I have the same affection for the vast array of awards that have popped up around the Academy Awards, but I understand that phenomenon — everyone wants their say, and that long-running conversation helps focus us for a few months on the best film work of the year.

The term “Oscar-winner” is a short-hand for excellence, which makes it so enticing and desirable. It is the world’s most glamorous Employee of the Year award. That may seem like a joke, but who wouldn’t want to claim that kind of professional honor? The problem comes in wanting it so much that you lose part of yourself. I’ve heard a lot of past nominees express that.

At last year’s post-Oscars Governors Ball, the person who seemed to be having the best time was Jessica Chastain, who had just lost the Best Supporting Actress award for The Help to her co-star, Octavia Spencer. While chatting at the party, I expressed mild condolences, you know: “Sorry you didn’t win, etc …” But she waved that off like the crazytalk it was. How could she be so upbeat in that moment? Simple. She told me 1.) she was super-happy for Octavia, 2.) she never expected to win anyway, so she was hardly crushed, and 3.) she had such a breakthrough year, culminating in an Oscar nomination (!!!) that she couldn’t possibly feel bad.

That was a fantastic — but rare — attitude.

Most people in her situation would have felt dejected at only being named one of a handful of the best actors in the world that year. Some disappointment is understandable — you try so hard and want it so much, knowing it could change your career forever. It’s very easy to get caught up. And after the fact, once the painful emotion fades, it’s easy to think: “What was the point of all that?”

Most people who pay close attention to the Oscars know that Phoenix is speaking a truth, albeit crassly. The race is a slog (or as Scott said of his Oscar rejection “I have to do what is valuable to me: calling my soul my own.”) But the minute a potential nominee says, “Nah, I’m not going to do the campaign thing,” and decides to let his or her work speak for itself, some in the Oscar-watching business perceive it as the ultimate insult and return fire in kind.

Campaigning for an Oscar is certainly a far cushier gig than working as a grocery cashier, office temp, or bus driver. But there’s an authenticity to almost every other profession that “awards nominee” doesn’t have. Imagine if a stone mason had to compete for best bricklayer, and spent five months endlessly talking about that one wall.

If it’s a good wall, hey … who could deny that fellow the coveted Golden Trowel?

But by the end of that race, Phoenix might be able to supply him with a word for how it all feels.

The Master
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