Oscars 2012: The Academy's Obsession With The C-Bomb

The Academy might not admit but a good old sprinkling is a surefire way to get yourself an Oscar. Here, from Carnal Knowledge to American Beauty, is proof...
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The Academy might not admit but a good old sprinkling is a surefire way to get yourself an Oscar. Here, from Carnal Knowledge to American Beauty, is proof...

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Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, 2005. Dead on fifteen minutes into the film, Val Kilmer's private detective 'Gay' Perry and Robert Downey Jr.'s thief-slash-actor Harry Lockhart are standing in the kitchen at a Hollywood party shooting the breeze. Downey Jr.'s erratic narrator apologetically calls it “a terrible scene. It's like, why was that in the movie? Gee, d'you think maybe it will come back later?” as they discuss a tinseltown producer's relationship with his daughter:

'Gay' Perry: “Mom's gone, so it's just him and his born again bundle of joy”.

Harry: “Born again? That's precious”.

'Gay' Perry: “Isn't it though? Three months ago she was suing him over mom's millions. He called her a....well, a bad word”. (There's a pause as the audience mulls this over).

'Gay' Perry: “Cunt. Welcome to Hollywood”.

Now, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was a film that was never going to rake in the industry accolades on the scale that it deserved. Screenwriter Shane Black may have been the man who penned 1987's Lethal Weapon, got paid a record $1.75 million for his The Last Boy Scout script in 1991, and smashed that record to bits five years later with his $4 million payday for The Long Kiss Goodnight, but none of this mattered to a new generation of studio executives when he went pitching his first script in almost a decade. Warner Brothers finally agreed to a modest $10 million budget (but would have been willing to offer more if Black could get Harrison Ford interested). The script itself wasn't designed to win any friends, and constituted a big “fuck you” to La-La land: the main villain is a Hollywood player, Harry is “discovered” and touted as a hot young actor by studio execs who are cynically looking to shave a million or two off Colin Farrell's asking price, and even the Hollywood henchmen are so shallow and image-conscious that they end up confusing each other with their sub -Tarantino pop culture references (“Ike, Mike, and Mustard......I gotta go with him on this one, man, that's pretty fucking obscure”).

Come awards season, Hollywood likes to pretend that it doesn't earn its crust from the sort of action comedy “buddy” films that Shane Black spearheaded, so it isn't really a surprise that Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (voted the Phoenix Film Critics Society's “Most Overlooked Film of the Year”) got no love from the Academy when it was time to dish out the Oscars. But it was a bit of a blip, 'cos if there's one thing the Academy absolutely adores - even more than sports-related tales of redemption or films where white people and black people learn to treat each other with mutual respect - it's someone who isn't afraid to use the word “cunt”.

Carnal Knowledge, 1971.

“Is this an ultimatum? Answer me, you ball-busting, castrating, son of a cunt bitch! Is this an ultimatum or not?” Jack Nicholson, during a particularly nasty domestic argument, invents a shocking new word - at least as far as mainstream cinema audiences are concerned - and the precedent is set. In mitigation, his character feels justified in stepping over the line because he's out there in the jungle, eight hours a day. Imagine: eight hours, every day (though admittedly, he might be including his lunch hour in that, we just don't know).

Ann-Margret, the son of a cunt bitch in question, is nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. The message is clear: this is a word that will get your film noticed. It's big and it's clever.

The Last Detail, 1973.

“The first seven minutes, there were 342 'fucks'” is how former Columbia Pictures exec Peter Guber describes what was, at the time, the sweariest script ever submitted to a Hollywood studio. Despite the accolade, the c-word is nowhere to be heard, and potty mouth Jack Nicholson, though nominated for Best Actor, loses out to Jack Lemmon, and similarly Robert Towne's screenplay loses out to William Peter Blatty's screenplay for The Exorcist. The fact that The Exorcist script happens to include the word “cunting” (twice) has absolutely fuck all to do with it, I'm sure.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, 1975.

“She's something of a cunt, ain't she?” Nicholson gets his mojo back, drops the C-bomb, and it's Oscars all round. The first film in over four decades to scoop all the major categories: Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay. The word's only been on cinema screens for a few years, but already there's a pattern emerging....

Taxi Driver, 1976.

“Listen, you fuckers, you screwheads. Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up”. Robert De Niro tries it on for size, but as it's his first time out of the gate, he has to make do with a nomination, not a win. Martin Scorsese makes a mental note to up his game.

Then Hollywood loses its bottle, and the c-word fades into the background for a time. The late 70's are a blur of Woody Allen films, and the early 80's don't fare much better. Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn walk off with the major acting awards in 1982 for On Golden Pond, with nary a muttered “cunt” between them. The next year Ben Kingsley - the man who would be Don Logan - paces himself with an Oscar-winning turn in Gandhi. Simon Callow sneaks one in during Milos Forman's Amadeus, and An Officer and a Gentleman gamely had a bash at resurrecting the tradition, but to little avail. Between Chariots of Fire and Driving Miss Daisy, it's an awful decade for Oscar-nominated swearing.

Luckily, a saviour was making its way down the corridor, in the unlikely form of FBI agent Clarice Starling, and her distinct lack of feminine hygiene.

Silence of the Lambs, 1991.

“I can smell your cunt!” Multiple Miggs lets loose with the line that launched a thousand disastrous blind dates, and Hollywood gets the scent back too. The film equals One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest's achievement at the Oscars, scooping all five major awards. Minge-tinged profanity is back on the menu.

Glengarry Glen Ross, 1992.

“You stupid fucking cunt....you're fucking shit. Where did you learn your trade, you stupid fucking cunt, you idiot? Who ever told you that you could work with men?” Al Pacino gets in on the act, and gets an Oscar nomination for his efforts. Regrettably, all his sterling work is undone when he misses out on the Best Supporting Actor award, and instead gets awarded Best Actor, for saying “Hoo-Wah!” in Scent of a Woman. For fuck's sake.

In his DVD commentary, director James Foley ruefully observes that “I was so convinced that not in a million years would it ever get released with Al calling him a 'stupid fucking cunt'. Cunt was absolutely verboten, everybody thought 'we got a big problem with this,' and....we didn't.”

Had you not been paying attention over the last couple of decades, James?

Forrest Gump, 1994.

Okay, so maybe nobody actually said it, but we were all thinking it. Oscars fly at the film from all directions.

At this point, Harvey Weinstein takes over for a while, telling everyone what to think and what to vote for. It's all The English Patient and Shakespeare in Love, and the sort of films you'd take your mum to. The c-word goes on a brief hiatus.

Magnolia, 1999.

“Respect the cock! And tame the cunt! Tame it!” Tom Cruise over-compensates wildly as self-help guru Frank T.J. Mackey, and gets the obligatory Oscar nod for it. Personally, I was always more of a Fight Club man myself.

American Beauty, 1999.

“Cunt!” Mena Suvari's teenage siren reclaims the word for women everywhere. As director Sam Mendes says, “nasty piece of swearing there from Angela, which, as a Brit, makes me laugh a lot, but tends to get a gasp from preview audiences.” Obviously the Academy was made of sterner stuff. Five wins (would have been the Big Five too, if it wasn't for that pesky Hilary Swank) and a shitload of nominations.

You may remember that, according to the pundits at the time, this was the film that was going to end Hollywood's infatuation with blockbusters: from here on in, it was small, intimate dramas all the way - which is why it's well-nigh impossible to watch a superhero flick or a big, stupid action film made in the last ten years or so. Just goes to show, pundits are a massive bunch of......oh shit, it's on the tip of my tongue, but I can't think of the word I'm looking for. I'll have to get back to you on that one.

Sexy Beast, 2000.

“Why are you swearing? I'm not swearing”. I felt I had to use that quote, because where else do you begin with a man like Don Logan? Wikipedia says that Gandhi is Ben Kingsley's best-known role to date, and I won't dispute that....but really, when was the last time you had a spare couple of hours and thought “let's watch Gandhi”? Same goes for Schindler's List and House of Sand and Fog, both of which got Sir Ben nominations from the Academy. Fine, fine films, all of them, but I'm betting they're not in the pile of discs that have taken up permanent residence next to your DVD player. No, if you're in the mood for some top-tier Oscar-nominated Kingsley, then Don Logan in Sexy Beast is your only man. Even if he is sweating like a cunt.

Well, I think I've just about proved my point, and it'd be impossible to top Mr. Logan's efforts anyway. I will say this, though: Atonement, I hope you've learned your lesson. Seven nominations and only one win. Luscious visuals and gorgeous dresses will only get you so far – if you really want to impress the Academy, you've got to say it, not just type the bastard....

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