Well, bang goes the scathing criticism I'd expected to write about Sunday night's gauche-fest in LA. 2007 seems to be the year Oscar Got Class. Ellen Degeneres added a touch of homey sweetness and has never been funnier, the ceremony was unusually staid (by Academy standards, anyway) and, well, classy. Maybe it was the presence of all that Englishness.
Not many surprises, apart from Best Supporting Actor and Actress. Jennifer Hudson realised the American Dream while Eddie Murphy went home in a huff at having been squeezed out by the (frankly) far more deserving veteran Alan Arkin.
Marty finally got his - 30 years overdue, but hey. I must confess to having wept copiously at that. Helen Mirren, the very picture of elegance and still the sexiest woman over 50 on the planet (especially since Catherine Deneuve's gawdawful facelift) got hers and took it away in style. Forest Whitaker.. well, for once the Academy has rewarded a terrific and extremely deserving actor in a role that demands recognition.
Sad, though, to see poor Peter O'Toole go home empty-handed once again, bringing him into the lead as Oscar's biggest acting loser of all time, a title he previously shared with Richard Burton (0 for 7 at the time of his death in 1984). At least O'Toole has his Honorary Oscar (what I like to call the Oh Shit He's Dying award) from a few years back as compensation.
Cynical and underhanded
The story of the origin of the Oscars is neither a glamorous nor a generous one: started by the studio heads in 1927 as a cynical, underhanded means to keep control over employees who might otherwise unionise and cost them both control and money, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was ruled by a handful of powermongers.
The Award of Merit, an afterthought, was also rather a pointless exercise, since the studios more or less controlled the voters. Thus, for example, the biggest Oscar winner in history by miles is Walt Disney who, as Head of the Academy's Cartoon division, essentially voted himself no fewer than 32 separate Oscars (not counting the seven little buggers crafted specially for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs).
The early Academy Awards (which would soon become the world's most eagerly anticipated AGM) also had the useful side effect of powerful, positive publicity, drawing attention away from the numerous indiscretions of the celebrities, whose public expected them to be squeaky clean, teetotal and either monastically celibate or matrimonially, monogamously hetero. Oh my, how times have changed.
Big old sham
The Oscars can be fun to watch, but so much of it is just a big old sham. Hollywood is, after all, primarily about money and entertainment, in that order. The arts and sciences are way, waaaaay down the list, so the title of Academy of Motion Picture Arts etc is really a PR-inspired misnomer. Art? C'mon! Hollywood is to films what McDonalds is to the food industry. It's about producing entertainment - very seldom is artistic inspiration permitted anywhere near a movie set. Considering the technical ability it takes to make a film, Science is more like it, but even that takes a backseat to larger considerations. Shockingly, one of the hardest-working sectors of Hollywood receives no mention whatsoever at the Awards: the stuntmen.
But Oscars have another major flaw: the Academy's electorate are a fickle bunch, frequently giving the award to the wrong person or film or to the right person in the wrong year. De Niro got it for Raging Bull rather than for Taxi Driver; Dustin Hoffmann got it for Kramer vs Kramer (and then for Rain Man) instead of for Midnight Cowboy or Tootsie. Martin Scorsese finally got it this year for The Departed - 17 years after he should have got it for Goodfellas, 19 years after he should have got it for The Last Temptation of Christ and 30 years after he should have got it for Taxi Driver.
Pacino won it for beating us over the head with the
tear-jerking blind hedonist Frank Slade in Scent
of a Woman instead of for his delicately unfolding portrayal of Michael
Corleone in the first two Godfathers.
Sean Penn won it for Mystic River, in
which he was uncharacteristically outperformed by his co-stars, rather than for
The Interpreter - a crap film, to be
sure, but Penn’s finest performance since State
of Grace, thus edging out the underrated Bill Murray in the only sniff he’s
ever likely to get of the Oscar.
And that's just to name a few.
Getting it wrong
Among the geniuses never to win a single Academy Award (not
counting the Oh Shit He's Dying award) are Cary Grant, John Hughes, Alfred
Hitchcock, Richard Burton, Robert Altman, Charlie Chaplin, Edward Norton, Tim
Burton and his resident composer Danny Elfman, Willem Dafoe, Jennifer Jason
Leigh, Angela Bassett, Peter Sellers, Tony Curtis, Sidney Lumet, Terry Gilliam,
David Cronenberg and the Marx Brothers.
The Coen brothers, undoubtedly two of the greatest maverick
filmmakers working today, have won a single Oscar: for Best Screenplay (Fargo). More recently they were
nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay for O
Brother, Where Art Thou?, a script so loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey that not to nominate it for
Original Screenplay was laughable.
Stanley Kubrick, one of the greatest filmmakers of all time,
got nothing for direction but one for Best Special Effects. I mean, Special Effects? There’s a kick in the
teeth if ever there was one.
Orson Welles lost out on all Oscars but one for Citizen Kane, the ballsiest, most
controversial and technically one of the most groundbreaking films Hollywood
ever made (not to mention one consistently voted the greatest film of all time).
Welles had to settle for sharing Best Screenplay with Herman J Mankiewicz, the
screenplay’s actual author. He never recovered from the blow.
What Citizen Kane
is to the critics, Shawshank Redemption
is to the viewers. Voted #1 on the Internet Movie Database, Frank Darabont’s moving
adaptation of the Stephen King short story garnered seven nominations and won a
big fat nothing. Other films that have been passed over for Best Picture include
every Hitchcock-directed film post-Rebecca
(1940), Taxi Driver, Some Like It Hot, Dr Strangelove, A Clockwork
Orange, Sunset Boulevard, Se7en, Star Wars, Thelma and Louise,
The Big Blue, The Maltese Falcon and Duck
On the other hand, the Academy has honoured such turkeys as
the vomitously saccharine Oliver!, Coming Home, John Wayne, Rocky, Titanic, Braveheart and
Charlton Heston - great big, steaming, stinking, gobbling, gawking turkeys.
That Tom Hanks has ever won for anything throws the existence of God into
But what can one expect from a body so sensitive, tasteful
and considerate that they selected deaf Best Actress winner Marlee Matlin to
present the award one year for Sound? That thought the best way to honour
disabled viewers was at a special screening of Daniel Day Lewis’s portrayal of
artist Christy Brown in My Left Foot,
at which each seat (except the wheelchairs, which everyone forgot) was adorned
with a small, white chocolate foot?
A very Caucasian
Since before Hattie McDaniel became the first black woman to
attend the Oscars ceremony as a nominee rather than as a waitress (and won Best
Supporting Actress for her role in Gone
with the Wind) there has been a growing awareness that the Oscars, like
Hollywood that spawned them, are a very Caucasian affair. Other than a handful
of Supporting Actor winners (including Lou Gossett, Jr; Cuba Gooding, Jr and
Whoopi Goldberg who won for the otherwise awful Ghost and not her bravura turn in The Colour Purple) and one Best Actor (Sidney Poitier), there had
been a glaring absence of any notable black nominees (never mind winners)
throughout the Awards history.
One rather irksome detail that is seldom noted is that,
rather than split the vote in 1995 between Samuel L Jackson and John Travolta
for Pulp Fiction, voters were urged
to nominate one for Best Lead Actor and the other for Best Supporting Actor.
Even though Jules Winnfield had significantly more dialogue and impact than the
doltish Vincent Vega, it was Travolta who was nominated as a Lead and Jackson
as a Supporting Actor.
In 2002, when the ceremony was cut short owing to the second
Iraq war, the Academy saw fit to usher in a couple of black wins to keep
everyone happy. Thus, the very talented Denzel Washington won Best Actor for Training Day, one of the least
satisfactory performances of his career (he should have won for Malcolm X) and the no-great-shakes Halle
Berry won for her somewhat hysterical overacting in Monsters Ball.
Good taste and common
The 2002 debacle is a classic example of Oscar political
correctness outweighing good taste and common sense. With all the extraordinary
black talent from which to choose over the decades - Morgan Freeman, Forest
Whitaker (each of them now finally paid the honour they deserve), Alfre
Woodard, Dooley Wilson, Lena Horne, Ving Rhames, Samuel L Jackson, the luminous
Angela Bassett and Regina King (to name but a few) - the Academy took the
expedient and cowardly way out by giving the world a cheap and nasty
two-for-one job. (Of course, the following year they were surprised by two far
more worthy black nominees - Jamie Foxx and Morgan Freeman, both of whom won.)
For most the Oscar is a godsend and a guaranteed
career-rocket, but minority players often find it a curse. Most notable is Rita
Moreno, who won Best Supporting Actress for being the only person worth
watching in the very long and depressing West
Side Story. After her win she was indeed showered with scripts, but most
were vengeful Latina spitfire roles nothing with dignity or substance. She took
part in no notable films after that, giving most of her fine performances on Broadway.
Thirty-six years after her win as Anita she once more made
her indelible mark as Sister Peter Marie Reimondo in HBO’s hard-hitting prison
drama Oz. Nonetheless, she is one of
the few people in history to have an Oscar, a Grammy, a Tony, an Emmy and a
Golden Globe to her name. Take that, Barbra Streisand!
Women constitute yet another group marginalised by Oscar and
his buddies. Although, thank God, we have Best Leading and Supporting Actress
Awards (without which the Awards would be as feminine as a Freemasons’ Guild
meeting), women otherwise tend to be nominated mostly for makeup or costume
design. Martin Scorsese’s longtime editor (and three-time Oscar winner) Thelma
Schoonmaker is an unusual exception.
To those who may argue that women don’t do the sort of jobs
for which one can be nominated, au contraire. There are hundreds of female
directors, producers, set designers, composers, editors, sound editors,
screenwriters and so on who are consistently overlooked.
It has long been a bone of contention amongst feminists that
Barbra Streisand has never been nominated as a director, despite having helmed
two Best Picture nominees. More deserving, however, are Guinevere Turner, Amy
Heckerling, Penny Marshall, Jane Campion (who was nominated for her direction
of The Piano but won only Best
Screenplay) and Kathryn Bigelow, whose work on Strange Days and Point Break
was definitely of a calibre worth an Academy nod, yet she has never even been
Lina Wertmüller was the first woman nominated for a
directing Oscar in 1977. In 2004, Sofia Coppola was the most recently
nominated. Lost in Translation is a
sweet film, but nowhere near worthy of an Academy Award, which, had she won,
might have smacked of a reprisal of 2002’s give-it-to-[insert minority]-while-there’s-one-the-running.
Being Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter didn’t hurt, either. As it is, she
followed in Jane Campion’s footsteps and won Best Screenplay.
Throughout history only three films have won the Big Five:
Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay (either Adapted or
Original). (If one were to add both Best Supporting categories to the roster,
however, this becomes a winning streak no film has ever yet achieved.) The
first, It Happened One Night, was an
Oscar fluke with all the top prizes going to a comedy. The other two have a
great deal in common with one another, but are very unusual for Oscar picks: both
are violent, gritty films; contain no romantic plot (at least in the
conventional sense) and deal with madness. Guessed it yet? They are One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Silence of the Lambs. It’s good to know
at least sometimes Oscar gets it right.