Cover story: Pigging Out

28 February 2014 Alan Attwood

Cover story: Pigging Out

Image from Disney Enterprises

Alan Attwood, Ed#451, February 2014

It’s almost Academy Awards time. But, again, a unique star has been subbed.

The thing about awards shows – any kind of competition, really – is that there are always more losers than winners. This is obvious at the biggest show of them all, the Academy Awards, which will be held in Los Angeles and beamed to a waiting world early next month. For every gleeful winner looking stunned, there are a handful of also-rans doing some of the best acting of their lives, trying to appear pleased for someone else.

The Oscars, as they are best known, have a credibility problem. They are famous for egregious omissions. Citizen Kane, for example, still tops many polls of best film ever, but missed out on a Best Picture Oscar. Alfred Hitchcock never won an Oscar for his directing; Charlie Chaplin, Alan Ladd and Greta Garbo (among many others) couldn’t get gongs for their acting. The Marx Brothers and Our Errol (Flynn) never even snared a nomination.

Walter Brennan, however, is in exalted company. Along with Jack Nicholson and Daniel Day-Lewis, he is the only man to have won three Oscars for acting. Walter Who? The only ones who know his name these days are Trivial Pursuit buffs with a special interest in 1930s movies. Meryl Streep, meanwhile, also has three acting Oscars and is nominated again this year, although Our Cate (Blanchett) is the hot favourite.

But Miss Piggy is a glaring omission from the shortlists and, probably, also the red carpet on the night. There are always, always, shameful oversights in what is rather a mysterious voting process – by members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which was founded in LA in 1927, with only 36 members and Douglas Fairbanks Sr as the first president. The body that now has close to 6000 voting members was once described by American novelist and screenwriter John Gregory Dunne as “essentially a trade union: a mixture of below-the-line sound men, special effects men and PR well as above-the-line actors and directors, producers and writers”.

But there is nothing above-the-line in the Academy’s consistent shunning of Muppet luminaries Miss Piggy and Kermit, indeed the Muppets generally, which now borders on the scandalous. Yes, a ditty from a Muppets movie won the Best Original Song Oscar two years ago – for Bret McKenzie, best known for his work on Flight of the Conchords. The song was ‘Man or Muppet’. Man? Shamelessly sexist. And another slap in the snout to Miss Piggy, who has always had more star wattage than Elizabeth Taylor sporting her biggest rocks yet, still, has suffered the indignity of being exploited occasionally as light relief during tedious Oscars ceremonies without ever being given her proper due.

In 1996, for example, the year when a cute young pig named Babe snuffled into her spotlight, Miss Piggy exchanged a bit of banter with presenter Whoopi Goldberg. Despite a plaintive admission – “It’s tough for a mature pig to get work these days” – she was yet again shut out of the awards. But she has (mostly) maintained a dignified silence on this touchy subject, unlike many of her colleagues in showbiz, who have made an art form out of bagging the awards and the ceremony. In 1974, nominated for his performance in Lenny, Dustin Hoffman denounced the Oscars as “obscene, dirty and grotesque, no better than a beauty contest”. In 1979, nominated this time for Kramer vs. Kramer, he complained that the process “put very talented and good people against each other, and they hurt the hell out of the ones that lose”.

Then he won, and suddenly he was up on stage saying how proud he was. Joan Fontaine, winner of the Best Actress gong for Suspicion in 1942, later declared: “That Oscar can be a jinx… Winning an Academy Award is undoubtedly a great accolade, supreme praise from one’s peers, a recognition to be accepted gratefully and graciously. It can also damage irreparably one’s relations with family, friends, co-workers, the press…” Humphrey Bogart (Best Actor, 1951, for The African Queen) believed that acting contests were meaningless unless everyone played the same part. Perhaps, he suggested, all nominees should be made to don tights and recite something from Hamlet. The much-awarded Streep, similarly, reportedly once complained: “You wouldn’t think of comparing two colours in a painting, would you? This blue is better than that blue?”

Streep can get away with this because, deep down, she knows Academy members love her. Eighteen nominations proves that. The first of those came in 1978, just one year before Miss Piggy, already well known for her TV work in The Muppet Show, made her big-screen debut in The Muppet Movie. So the timeline for her body of work is even longer than Streep’s, her name-recognition factor is arguably similar, and (unlike Oscar winners George Clooney and Al Pacino) she has not sold out with questionable endorsement deals for coffee they probably don’t drink at home.

Yet still she is without that lusted-after short (34cm) and overweight (close to 4kg) statuette, which is lacking private parts. Musing on possible cause and effect here, Hoffman once noted: “He has no genitalia and he’s holding a sword.” Apart from the individual snubs, the Muppets as an ensemble have never been adequately recognised for their work. The claim that their latest film, Muppets Most Wanted (due out in Australia early in April), came too late for this year’s Oscars is a mere technicality. There are ways to get around such things.

Did it occur to nobody in the Academy that Miss Piggy and her colleagues are now eligible for, and would be worthy recipients of, a Lifetime Achievement Award? After all, that irascible pair up in the balcony, Statler and Waldorf (pictured below right), aren’t getting any younger. Statler and Waldorf, a veteran pair of troupers who saddle up again in Muppets Most Wanted, have been overlooked again and again by myopic Hollywood executives. Either could have played Bruce Wayne’s butler in the Batman movies: Michael Caine is not the only bankable senior citizen. Big names and reputations mean nothing to them – for proof, jump on your favourite search engine [no free ads here] and look for the clip featuring Statler, Waldorf and Milton Berle.

All Muppets have demonstrated an easy professionalism with human actors. The reverse does not always apply. The previous Muppets movie (2001) featured Jason Segel and Amy Adams, who is an Oscars nominee this year, unlike You Know Who. Both had that slightly sheepish expression that comes from knowing that, whatever it says on the movie poster, they are not the real stars of the show. The new movie provides work for, among others, Tina Fey and Ricky Gervais. But the producers know who has the real crowd-appeal. It is not, after all, Tina’s Most Wanted

What the Muppets most want now is respect – both for their impressive body of work and individual achievements: Miss Piggy talked to Whoopi Goldberg in their rather awkward long-gone ceremony moment of “my unique brand of Star Power”. There should be no more slights, no more fobbing off Kermit and his leading lady with soon forgotten presenter spots for one of the less illustrious award categories. After all, history is on their side – especially her side. One of the theories about the derivation of the famous nickname is that it dates back to the early 1930s, when Walt Disney referred to his Best Cartoon award as ‘Oscar’. That cartoon, incidentally, was Three Little Pigs. Babe’s moment in the sun in the mid-1990s made life difficult for pigs already with a prominent profile in showbiz. Babe even had a cocktail invented in his honour: vodka and lime-juice with a curlicue of lime peel – just like a piggy’s tail. A lesser star might have turned lime green with envy.

Around the same time, In Style magazine declared pigs to be “the hottest four-legged friends in Hollywood”. Owners of pet pigs then included Clooney and Luke Perry. The latter was quoted as saying: “Pigs are proof that all one really needs to do to be happy is eat, sleep and have sex.” No class at all. This helps to explain why nobody talks about Perry anymore. Babe, meanwhile, languishes in the back bins of video stores. But the ageless Miss Piggy, like all her colleagues, remains ready for her close-up.

» Alan Attwood is Editor of The Big Issue.

This article appeared in Ed#451 of The Big Issue magazine.