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Joe Hoover, S.J.March 31, 2022
Photo by Mirko Fabian on Unsplash

In the movie “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” Jessica Chastain had to pull off what was no mean feat of acting: play a real-life person, the Christian evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker, who was herself practically a caricature of an actual person, without turning in a performance that was a further caricature. Chastain had to represent the cartoon quality of Tammy Faye—squeaky voice, flapjack make-up, blue-lidded, weaponized eyelash, praise-the-Lord! religiosity—while delivering a performance grounded in the evangelist’s humanity.

Chastain pulled it off. Her Bakker was sympathetic and true, and on Sunday night her performance garnered her the Academy Award for best actress in a leading role.

If Chastain’s work on “Tammy Faye” ranked highest among actresses last year, which performance was second best? Kristen Stewart, in “Spencer”? Penelope Cruz, in “Madres Paralelas”? Who would be considered third best? And fourth? How would you measure these things? Where are the thin slices of distinction that edges one performance out over another?

The fact is, nothing should have numerically pushed Chastain past Cruz and the other nominees; or Best Picture winner “CODA” past “West Side Story,” “Power of the Dog,” et al., or any Oscar winner past any other. It is absurd to measure works of art on a scale as you would rank height, volume, weight, revenue streams or stock prices. To decide that one out of five acting performances is the best or that one out of 10 finalists for best film is the winner is ridiculous.

The Garden of Hollywood’s original sin is that they try to do something at the Oscars that is ultimately corrosive: They try to apply a metric to art. You cannot measure the immeasurable. To do so is to shrink the world of the artist and the patron; to make us smaller, more petty, in ways we don’t even realize. Assigning number values to the transcendental is, well, sad. And given the right conditions, atmosphere and players involved, a contest for best anything can become so overblown, highly strung and tightly wound that people can, literally, get slapped.

Is all judgment relative?

In a 2020 article discussing their rankings of the best actors from the 2000s, The New York Times explained why they had left Meryl Streep off the list, an actress who had been nominated for an Academy Award ten times in the 2000s, including a win for her wonderfully spot-on performance as Margaret Thatcher in “Iron Lady.” The Times called her work, including her Thatcher portrayal, “showy” and “overdone.” One film professor told me he questions whether Streep deserves all the accolades she is given, or whether she is, essentially, a bundle of accents.

The Garden of Hollywood’s original sin is that they try to do something at the Oscars that is ultimately corrosive: They try to apply a metric to art. You cannot measure the immeasurable.

Meryl Streep is an actress alive in every moment, someone who is always surprising, who does not predetermine how to deliver a line but instead listens to what is being said and then very simply responds in character.

So, is she just a showy cartload of accents with a 22-year string of overdone performances or has she been as superb as ever the past two decades? Whose judgment wins, me or The New York Times? What is the measure? Or is all artistic judgment simply subject to the whims of the viewer? Is it all personal, hinging on whether something strikes a chord with us or doesn’t?

Not in the Catholic universe. For Catholics, or at least in “scholasticism,” a medieval theological school built on the notion of fixed universal truths, the measurement of art is not merely subjective. Thomas Aquinas, the most towering figure among the scholastics, in fact gives a sort of criteria for art; or more specifically for beauty—which, along with the true and the good, is known as one of the “transcendentals.” For a thing to be beautiful, says Aquinas, it needs consonantia, claritas, integritas: harmony, radiance and integrity.

[Related: What makes for good liturgical music? St. Thomas Aquinas has 3 criteria for what works at Mass.]

To have integritas means the art has “wholeness.” It is “fully itself,” a fully-realized thing. A portrayal of Tammy Faye with integritas, would be one that left out no aspect of the evangelist—her vocal patterns, movements, gestures, how she related to others, her internal and external motives—but rather made all of it real for us. The consonantia, or harmony, of Chastain’s work would be a performance in apt proportion to the thing it is emulating. Its claritas means that it would effectively radiate that reality to us.

Capitalist culture

Having said that, to try and melt down claritas, integritas and consonantia to some sort of assigned number or rating is a fool’s game. You cannot apply the measuring proclivities of a hyper-capitalist culture to transcendentals.

The spectacle of the Oscars is part and parcel of America’s unbridled, metrics-based, free-market capitalist economy. It is an economy founded on utilitarian principles: The value of a thing is only to be found in how practically useful it is, on how it produces the “greatest good for the greatest number.” The tendencies of this utilitarian economy spill over into pretty much everything else. Schools are ranked, doctors, C.E.O.s, restaurants, paintings, painters, buildings, townships, freshmen, sophomores, lawn services; the top-everything list goes on.

The rating fallacy, the danger of measuring the worth of a thing by the numbers, was most eloquently and effectively shriven by Robert F. Kennedy in a speech at the University of Kansas in 1968. The senator and presidential candidate pointed out that the gross national product that year had hit $800 billion. The G.N.P., he pointed out, is often used as a measure of how “well” the country is doing. Kennedy saw something else though.

The spectacle of the Oscars is part and parcel of America’s unbridled, metrics-based, free-market capitalist economy. It is an economy founded on utilitarian principles.

“Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play,” Kennedy said. “It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

The making of art is in part a business, no mistake about it, and there is nothing wrong with that. But within a G.N.P. mentality, a work of art is only as potentially useful or important as the number of awards it gets or viewers it garners or the money it makes. A film actor or director’s career can be rapidly and neatly summed up in how many nominations and victories they get or do not get. It can shrink the self-worth of an artist, and how we view that artist, into an incredibly small set of criteria that diminishes the very idea of doing the work for the work’s sake. Of putting beauty into the world because beauty is a thing that should be in the world.

Movies should be created with an audience in mind, but not an audience with a scanner in hand ready to assess how many particles of claritas and integritas that film had.

The Oscars are the Oscars

We all probably know, in one sense or another, there can be a sort of grand fiction, a native subjectivity, to any number of prize contests; that Academy Awards go to actors and directors and designers for any number of reasons beyond the merits of the artist’s craft. “It was his time.” “She should have won last year.” “That director has never won.” Or, as an article in the Los Angeles Times recently discussed, “I disliked that film less than the rest.”

That such races are sometimes popularity contests or driven by cultural trends or the largess of rich studios and their marketing campaigns—we all know these things and nod and wink, so what’s the harm? Let the film industry have its fun and move on.

Except that it is the Oscars we are talking about. Along with the Super Bowl, presidential elections and March Madness, the Academy Awards are one of our most nationally obsessed-over (or just media-hyped) cultural events. Who’s in the running, who’s leading the pack. Everyone plays the game, “everyone” watches, or chooses not to and then talks about how few people watched it. (This year it was 16.6 million, up 58 percent from last year, but still less than half the size of the 2016 audience and its 34.4 million viewers. Why do we know these things? But we do.) The Oscars are a thing in the culture.

So go away, ratings. Go away, best actors and best poetry and best chefs. Exit stage left Tonys, Emmys, Grammys.

Because we put such a high value on the Oscars culturally, because the simple act of being nominated or not can make careers, because of the utterly high stakes an Oscar campaign can take on, it is all fraught.

The over-the-top competition to win an Academy Award did not cause one celebrity to slap another celebrity on the Oscar stage Sunday night. But the physical assault did happen within a context. It took place within a pageant rife with edgy humor, trip-wire cultural pressure, sky-rocketed tensions, multimillion dollar marketing campaigns, a churning amalgam of artist ego and vulnerability, the dazzle of 10,000 spotlights, where every word is hyper-analyzed, every gesture takes on towering stakes—none of which the art was ever intended to be about. Things can go wrong in settings like these.

Keep the pageant, lose the ranking

St. Peter’s wins a ballgame or it doesn’t. That is clear. (God bless you, Peacocks.) I’m six-foot, you’re six-foot-two. No argument, no discernment. He’s got $10,000 in his account, she’s got $1,156.24. No disagreement.

But art? Let’s look at it, appreciate it, love it, hate it, be moved, be saddened…and then go on with our lives. Let’s carry it with us, or not, talk about it or forget it, and let that be that.

So go away, ratings. Go away, best actors and best poetry and best chefs. Exit stage left Tonys, Emmys, Grammys, Pulitzers.

Sure, we can talk about excellence. We can gather together and offer narratives about what we love, tell stories to celebrate marvelous work. The Academy can and should have a yearly party. None of this is a simplistic cry against glitz and glamour, against a “shallow” and “self congratulating” Hollywood culture. No, celebrate justly the hard work of creating a great film. Bring out the red carpet, dish on the Chanel gowns, gossip about the Vanity Fair after-party. It’s ridiculous, joyous and fun. But don’t assign grades to the work.

Living in a fictional movie, book or play is awesome; it is what those things are there for. But we shouldn’t accept as fact the idea that we can rank the worth of a piece of art. That is a fiction itself, a fundamental untruth, and living in the truth is a far better place to be.

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