Corporations like to control things (it’s in their nature), and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a way of thinking, and acting, just like a corporation: as the once-a-year organizing police force of Hollywood pageantry and taste. Nevertheless, it still came as a bit of a shock when the Academy laid down the law to Banksy. He’s the super-secretive and mysterious outlaw wizard of street art, the infamous British graffiti prankster — and now filmmaker — who sets off pop images as if they were cartoon bombs. A big part of Banksy’s allure is that no one knows who he is. A guerrilla practical joker, he’s an underground superstar who lives and works in the shadows. When he finally shows up in Exit Through the Gift Shop, the great, exhilarating jape of a documentary that he directed last year, he’s seen in silhouette, like some hooded killer on America’s Most Wanted. At the very least, he may be the most wanted man in show business.
But the Academy doesn’t want him. Not really. Exit Through the Gift Shop is one of the five pictures nominated for an Oscar this year in the Best Documentary category, and a couple of weeks ago, Banksy’s representatives put out a simple request to the Academy. They said that if Exit Through the Gift Shop won, Banksy would like to accept the award without having to reveal his identity. That might mean that he would wear a disguise — like, say, the monkey mask that he has sometimes been rumored to wear in public (it’s sitting to his right in that shot above). Or, of course, he might do something a lot weirder.
The Oscars turned him down flat. Said the Academy’s executive director, Bruce Davis: “The fun but disquieting scenario is that if the film wins and five guys in monkey masks come to the stage all saying, ‘I’m Banksy,’ who the hell do we give it to?”
Who the hell indeed? What would the gods of the gold statuette do? How could the evening possibly go on?!! The giveaway word in Bruce Davis’s rationalizing sentence is disquieting. Yes, it’s true that if Banksy wins for Exit Through the Gift Shop and five guys in monkey masks come up on stage to accept the award, it will be an odd, and slightly confused, and probably delightful next-day water cooler moment. But disquieting? I suspect that what’s really disquieting the Academy is the fear that if Banksy wins an Oscar and suddenly has the entire global television stage as his electronic performance-art canvas, he might do something a lot more provocative and adventurous than show up on stage in a monkey mask. In one of the more subversively funny moments of Exit Through the Gift Shop, he visits Disneyland and climbs over fences to deposit orange-jumpsuited Guantanamo Bay prisoner mannequins with black torture hoods in several strategic locations. The look on the faces of the spectators as they stare at those abused-detainee bodies, while the fantasy-kingdom choo-choo train goes by, is priceless. It’s vintage Banksy: an outrage with a message, one that you almost can’t help but chuckle at. (He treats his didacticism like a toy.)
Yet that’s just the sort of thing that turns zillion-dollar TV sponsors to jelly. The producers of the Academy Awards telecast probably think that when a potential Oscar winner is, by nature, so freewheeling and unpredictable that no one even has any idea who he is, that means one and only one thing: He’s uncontrollable. And a lack of control means…what? Maybe another Janet Jackson-at-the-Super-Bowl moment. (Are they scared that Banksy will show his nipple?) They’re not going to take that chance, and so Banksy, even if he wins, will not be accepting his Academy Award. The current arrangement is for Jamie D’Cruz, the producer of Exit Through the Gift Shop, to accept it for him.
You might say, and I would, that the Academy is being churlish and not very sportsmanlike to Banksy. After all, on the off-chance that Exit Through the Gift Shop actually wins (I predict that the award will go to the less deserving, but politically righteous, Inside Job), he simply wants to preserve the anonymity that’s central to his mystique as an artist — or, to put it in Hollywood-friendly terms, to his brand. Yet what strikes me most about this decision is how shortsighted and unfair the Academy is being…to itself. The organization’s executives think that they’re doing preemptive damage control, but what they’re really doing is blowing a rare opportunity. Because a little dose of Banksy is exactly what Hollywood, and the Academy Awards, need. It’s just what the doctor ordered to wake up a notoriously too-staid ceremony.
Banksy, in fact, has already been warming up for Oscar night. It’s rumored that he is presently in Los Angeles, and that he has left his mark on several outdoor settings, including this Charlie Brown-meets-a-cigarette-and-gas-canister cartoon that’s painted onto an abandoned, fire-damaged building on Sunset Boulevard. I’m not sure if this qualifies as a “disquieting” image, but I would certainly call it inspired showbiz. And that’s the thing about Banksy. He may be a naughty boy, but come on! — he’s all play, all winking mischief and nose-thumbing glee. Those Academy Awards promos that feature the evening’s two hosts, James Franco and Anne Hathaway, clowning around in a semi-improvised, post-articulate-generation, ya want a respectable evening? fuhggedaboudit! way, promise an Oscar telecast that is looser, more spontaneous and fun, than the ones we’re used to. But if the show’s producers, and the Academy, were truly committed to that spirit of spontaneity, they would take a chance on letting Banksy be Banksy. Who knows, he might just set the night on fire.