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Why Did George C. Scott, Best Actor In 'Patton,' Reject His Oscar?

Entertainment | October 18, 2020

George C. Scott in Patton (Photo by Herbert Dorfman/Corbis via Getty Images)

At the 43rd Academy Awards in 1971, Patton star George C. Scott received what many thespians feel is the crowning achievement of acting, the award for best actor in a motion picture. Or he would have received it if he weren't asleep at his farmhouse in New York. Scott didn't just dislike the Academy Awards, he felt that they were a "meat parade" that pitted actors against one another, and he didn't see the point of receiving an award for acting.

Scott had previously been nominated for Academy Awards, and had made his disinterest known. Even though the Academy knew he might protest, they nominated him for Patton -- his performance was so overpowering, there was no leaving him out. It was the most acclaimed screen performance of the year, so to fail to recognize it would have been petty. Everyone know Scott would win, and Scott made it clear he'd refuse the honor -- which he did. But why?

George C. Scott was nominated for earlier performances

source: columbia pictures

George C. Scott is no stranger to award show love. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor twice prior to his turn as Patton, once for his role in Anatomy of a Murder, and again for his work as Bert Gordon in The Hustler. Scott first voiced his contempt for the Academy Awards following his nomination for The Hustler, saying that he disagreed on any competition that set actors against one another. That was in 1961, and from then on out he continued to churn out excellent work without recognition from the Academy.

Even though he didn't want it, Scott should have at least received a nomination for his role in Dr. Strangelove (1964). Scott famously hated his comedic performance in the film (Kubrick allegedly filmed an over-the-top rehearsal and used that rather than Scott's preferred take), but his mania as General Buck Turgidson is one of the most arresting performances in the film. Even so, he wouldn't be recognized for his work again until 1970.

Patton is Scott's career defining performance

source: 20th Century Fox

It's impossible to talk about George C. Scott without talking about his role as General Patton. To get into the general's head Scott studied 13 biographies on Patton, he had caps placed on his teeth to look more like the man, and he was fiercely argumentative over how the character should be portrayed. Scott wanted to create the full portrait of a man, not just a character. He was so obsessed with making Patton as well rounded as possible that he initially refused to film the opening monologue out of fear that it would overshadow the film. He only relented after he was convinced that the scene would be shown at the end of the movie. He was once again tricked by a crafty director -- and it's likely this scene that earned him his nomination.

Watching Patton today, it's clear that Scott is giving the role his all. It's rare to see an actor lose themselves to thoroughly in a character but when you watch Patton you're seeing someone embody a real life person so well that the public thinks of the fictional version of that person rather than the real guy. It's a fascinating performance deserving of accolades.

The Academy had to nominate Scott

source: 20th Century Fox

Not only was Scott's performance in Patton too good to be ignored, but he portrayed one of the most important military minds of the 20th century, someone without whom World War II could have shaken out quite differently. Not nominating Scott would have been seen as the Academy thumbing their noses at the actual General Patton, the U.S. military, and everyone who served in World War II. Aside from that, George C. Scott is amazing in Patton. It's not just one of the best performances of 1970, it's one of the best performances of Scott's career. Dennis Bingham, the director of the film studies program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis explains, "Patton was such a universally praised performance, and he was such a shoo-in to win that year, that he had to be nominated."

Scott requested that the Academy withdraw their nomination

source: 20th Century Fox

When Scott heard that he was nominated for the Best Actor award at the 1971 Academy Awards he told the press that "the ceremonies are a two-hour meat parade, a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons," before describing them as "offensive, barbarous and innately corrupt." He was essentially daring the Academy to pull his nomination, but they didn't rise to the occasion.

When trash talking the Academy didn't work, Scott went so far as to send them a telegram requesting that they remove his nomination because he wouldn't be attending the awards and even if he won he wouldn't accept the trophy on moral grounds. The Academy ignored his request and the nomination stood.

People were legitimately shocked when Scott won the award

source: 20th Century Fox

Prior to the 1971 Academy Awards there was a legitimacy issue with the show. The public questioned whether or not the awards were a real contest or just a way for publicists to buy an actor a nice trophy and some applause from their peers. Scott's dominant performance and his unwillingness to play ball was an opportunity for the Academy to show its legitimacy. Dennis Bingham explained:

They were in one of their periodic spells where the public was questioning their legitimacy. So they took the Oscar to George C. Scott as an opportunity to say, ‘Well, no one buys these awards, sometimes people don’t even want them; we’ll give it to George C. Scott because we just simply thought he was the best,' and so it actually did something to re-legitimize the award in the public’s eyes.

When Goldie Hawn presented the award for best actor that night George C. Scott was 3,000 miles away from Hollywood. According to legend he watched a hockey game and then he went to bed as a theater full of filmmaking insiders applauded his turn as one of the most fascinating people of the 20th century.

Patton producer Frank McCarthy accepted the award for Scott, and his personal snub didn't stop the Academy from nominating him again the next year for his role in The Hospital. He didn't stay away from the award show forever. In 1982 he attended the show after buying some last minute tickets to the ceremony.

Scott wasn't the first nominee to decline an Oscar -- in 1936, The Informer screenwriter Dudley Nichols refused to accept the honor because of a dispute between the Screenwriters' Guild (which he founded) and the Academy. Two years after Scott pulled his no-show/no-thanks move, Marlon Brando sent activist Sacheen Littlefeather to refuse his statuette for his performance in The Godfather.

Tags: Academy Awards | George C. Scott | Patton

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.