On Sunday night, the ever-elusive Bill Murray is expected to take the stage at the Kennedy Center and accept the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, an award he actively avoided receiving. Last week he told The Washington Post’s Geoff Edgers, “I really thought if I don’t answer the phone for awhile, maybe they’ll just move on to someone else.”
They didn’t. They called and called, and then had other people call, and eventually, Murray gave in.
This month, the same tactic was used by the Swedish Academy, who is responsible for awarding the Nobel prizes. Bob Dylan won the prize for Literature. The Academy called his manager. The press called his representatives. Dylan has yet to say a word.
“One can say that it is impolite and arrogant. He is who he is,” one of the Academy members told the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter this week.
When the prize is bestowed on Dec. 10, it appears there’s a good chance Dylan won’t show up. So will he still get to become the first musician to receive the Nobel for literature?
If the Academy follows the precedent set by the many award-giving institutions that have been snubbed throughout history, the answer is yes. In the world of prestigious prizes, the honor is yours whether you like it or not.
Pick any well-known award, and there’s a good chance its chosen winners haven’t all deigned to make themselves available for the ceremony. For some, the snub is a statement. When Marlon Brando won an Academy Award for “The Godfather,” he boycotted the ceremony and sent a Native American actress named Sacheen Littlefeather in his place. She took the stage, waved away the award and told the audience that Brando couldn’t accept the award because of the treatment of American Indians by the film industry.
Others seem to have little interest in the theatrics that usually surround award acceptance. Katharine Hepburn won four Oscars, but never showed up to claim them. “As for me, prizes are nothing,” she once said. “My prize is my work.” Woody Allen won’t show up to the Oscars, either. His biographer Eric Lax told NPR that’s because Allen, like his character in “Annie Hall,” quotes Sigmund Freud: “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.”
Some famous snubbers give no reasoning. Maggie Smith has been nominated for nine Emmys, and has won four times. She’s never showed up. When this year’s Emmy host Jimmy Kimmel announced another Smith win this year, he said, “Maggie, if you want this, it will be in the lost and found.”
The 81-year-old Smith responded via a PBS Twitter account: “If Mr. Kimmel could please direct me to the lost and found office I will try and be on the next flight.”
The world of Nobel prizes is far less star-studded than that of entertainment awards, but it’s hardly free of cold shoulders. The most notable came in 1973, when the Peace Prize was awarded to Vietnamese politician Le Duc Tho and then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who negotiated a cease-fire agreement meant to bring about an end to the Vietnam War. But the conflict was two years away from ending. Awarding Tho and Kissinger the prize was so controversial, two members of the Nobel selection committee resigned in protest. Vietnam’s Tho refused it outright. Kissinger didn’t show at the ceremony, and tried to return the medal.
But not once in the Nobel committee’s 115-year history has it allowed a prize to be revoked or returned. Once it’s awarded, it’s awarded for life.
In the case of Dylan, this history hasn’t stopped naysayers from calling for a do-over. While Dylan has showed up to accept awards in the past — including the Presidential Medal of Freedom — now, he seems to have no interest. Why give a prize to someone who doesn’t want it?
His fans see his indifference as a charming characteristic of his mysterious persona. His critics hold it up as just another reason why a man so prominent shouldn’t have been chosen in the first place.
“Bob Dylan now has a chance to do something truly great for literature: reject the Nobel Prize for Literature,” poet Amy King expressed to PEN America, a writers association. “He can take a stand and declare that fame and ease of consumption should not play a role in determining merit when it comes to focusing the public eye on one writer’s books.”
Dylan certainly could try to reject the prize. But first, he’d have to acknowledge that he won it.