I was nominated for In Old Chicago, didn't win. The Academy Awards event was smaller in those days, but you were expected to show up for the ceremony, and you were expected to vote for your employer's pictures, because that's what good company employees did. ...
-- Niven Busch
"Because that's what good company employees did."
It's been written that Clark Gable lost the Oscar for Gone With The Wind because Louis B. Mayer instructed M-G-M's minions to vote for Robert Donat, the lead in the company picture Goodbye Mr. Chips. (Gable was on loan to Selznick International for that other one.)
Based on Mr. Busch's observations, and based on some of the movies, writers, directors and actors that have won gold statues over the years, it's pretty clear that "best" doesn't always end up "winner."
Academy members cast their votes for all kinds of reasons. On occasion it's quality, but other times it's because the nominee has been an also-ran five times before and so wouldn't it be great to give him a boost into the winner's circle, quality be damned.
And sometimes it's whim. The three glasses of wine and broiled halibut went down painlessly, and the ballot is sitting there on the dining room table, so the Academy member marks the first name that catches his eye, whether he watched the screeners all the way through or not. (Who's going to know, anyway?)
And sometimes it's willful prejudice. The member didn't like war movies, or comedies, or features with dogs in them, and so voted for something else.
Lastly, votes are cast from, as Cartoon Brew notes, "cluelessness." But is clueless worse than drunkenness, pity, bigotry or the company line?
In the end, every vote is subjective. Giving out Oscars isn't rocket science, or any science. And you're well advised not to take the results of the balloting too seriously because you will be A) ticked off, B) heartbroken, and C) believing the voters have no taste or idea what they're doing*.
And you would be at least partially right. But all these things about the Academy Awards have always been true, right from the beginning. The Oscars aren't a meritocracy, and really can't be. They're a political event, a popularity contest, and a demonstration of corporate muscle. They're also a reflection of the mood of the people who qualify for membership, and that mood is constantly shifting, driven by demographics and the hot topic of the moment. And it's why I look on the Oscar telecast as a pleasant background diversion while cruising the internet on a rainy Sunday evening, and nothing more.
To think of it as anything beyond that will only invite heartache and despair.
* This is doubly true for the Golden Globes, which are handed out based on the exquisite judgements of a few dozen foreign correspondents and stringers. But, year after year, Tinsel Town turns out for the Globes anyway. Go figure.