It’s not exactly a secret that many actors would like to win an Academy Award for their work at some point or another. But for some reason, we don’t want them to want it too much. Don’t look desperate, you know? Campaigning has been a part of the awards season practically since the Oscars began. America’s Sweetheart Mary Pickford opened the doors of Hollywood society to the entire Oscars jury by inviting them over to Pickfair, her palatial estate, when she was up for an Academy Award in Coquette. (It probably didn’t hurt matters that she was married to the Academy president Douglas Fairbanks at the time, and was herself one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood.)
In 2022, Andrea Riseborough came under fire for her surprise nomination in To Leslie, a performance that received a boost from a targeted social media campaign supported by many of her friends in Hollywood. Normally, this style of self-promotion is barely noticed, greeted perhaps with a cynical eye roll by some Oscar fans, and quickly forgotten. But in 1969, Cliff Robertson struck a nerve with awards journalists for his surprise win in Charly. Mere weeks after the Oscars ceremony, he was lambasted by Time for his overt campaigning in Hollywood, casting a pall over what should have been a victory lap for the actor.
In this adaptation of the novel Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, Robertson plays the title role of Charly, a young, intellectually disabled janitor working at a bakery. Despite his limitations, he is eager to learn, and is chosen for an experimental brain surgery that hopes to increase his intellectual capacity. Although it doesn’t seem to work at first, it isn’t long before his newfound gifts match the prowess of the scientists and tutors who surround him, and he eventually surpasses them. So it’s a cruel irony that it is Charly himself who discovers that the experiment is doomed to failure – whatever intelligence he has gained, he will lose just as quickly, returning to his original mental state. Charly is made with late 1960s panache, especially in the sequences designed to depict the development of Charly’s emotional and sexual maturity. Robertson was widely praised for his performance, bringing to life a character who goes on an immense internal journey and transforms entirely over the course of the film.
When Robertson took home the Academy Award for Best Actor, there were little more than a few raised eyebrows at the fact that he won over Peter O’Toole for A Lion in Winter, who was considered by most to be the frontrunner in the race. But just a few weeks later, the hammer came down, in the form of an eviscerating article in Time that bemoaned the state of the awards business, while tearing Robertson down seemingly to make an example out of him. Criticizing the “outright excessive and vulgar solicitation of votes” prevalent within the Academy, Time mocked the garish full page ads taken out for Robertson in seemingly every major trade publication, whereas his competitors – they claim – were perfectly happy to let their performances speak for themselves. Although the article reserves specific ire for his Oscar campaign, it’s actually just a laundry list of complaints about the Academy Awards – actors winning for films in a perceived attempt to make up for losing earlier in their career, actors being nominated so that they’ll show up for the ceremony – many of which linger to this day.
Cliff Robertson was publicly embarrassed by the Time article that called into question the appropriateness of his Oscar win, especially over some of his competitors, and the tactics by which he secured such a win. As far as Oscar glory goes, he now has a little asterisk next to his name as an actor who is perceived as not only collecting an unearned Academy Award, but who did so by openly campaigning for it in a way that even Hollywood insiders found tasteless. Still, there’s little evidence to suggest that the controversy affected his career – which, if anything, was derailed more by a scandal in the 1970s in which he went to the press about Hollywood embezzlement and was blacklisted by the studios in return. Although roles briefly dried up for Robertson, he continued acting into the 2000s, when he was introduced to a new generation of audiences by playing the now iconic role of Uncle Ben in Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man franchise, the last films he made before his death at the age of 88 in 2011. In light of this short career resurgence, the Charly controversy was long forgotten – memorialized only by a disgruntled Time journalist in 1969.