Last year James Cameron proclaimed himself the King of the World on Oscar night. This year it was Harvey Weinstein’s turn to crow over his crowning achievement in selling Shakespeare in Love and Life Is Beautiful to the Academy’s voters, and crow he did with a vengeance. There was much gnashing of teeth in what passes for the establishment in Oscarville these days, most conspicuously in the persons of the seemingly ubiquitous reigning monarch, King Steven Spielberg and his noblest knight in shining armor, Sir Tom Hanks. Between them they represented all that was responsible and significant in Hollywood’s God-given mandate to enlighten and entertain the world.
Having already appropriated the Holocaust with Schindler’s List (1993), Mr. Spielberg found himself upstaged by an upstart Italian comedian who turned the subject into a tearful feel-good farce-a farce promoted by the deep pockets of Mr. Weinstein. Still, with Saving Private Ryan making Mr. Spielberg the cinematic proprietor of all the memories of the Normandy Invasion more than a half-century ago, Mr. Spielberg had every right to expect that he would win Best Picture, particularly after he had won Best Director over both John Madden for Shakespeare in Love and the irrepressible Roberto Benigni for Life Is Beautiful .
I can’t prove this, but I strongly suspect that the reason Mr. Spielberg didn’t say very much when he accepted the Best Director Award was that he was saving all his Golden-Globe eloquence about his World War II veteran father to whom he would dedicate his Oscar when he won for Best Picture, which he and all the professional prophets, including me, confidently expected to come to pass.
Therefore, when Harrison Ford opened the envelope, and declared Shakespeare in Love the victor, there was a discernible pause of shock and surprise before the Weinstein entourage erupted in triumphant jubilation. Ensconced as I was in near-solitary comfort, I was surprised as anyone by the result. Indeed, if I had bet heavily, or even at all, on my own choices published in The Observer [March 15], I would be cursing Mr. Weinstein for lowering my predictive accuracy average by his financing the upsets for Best Picture and Best Actor. As it was, I scored 16 out of 24 categories overall, and six out of nine of the “majors”-Picture, Actress, Actor, Supporting Actress, Supporting Actor, Director, Foreign Film, Original Screenplay and Adapted Screenplay.
At the end of the fourth hour of torture by the Oscar ordeal on television, I wondered what had happened to the promises to finish earlier for the sake of East Coast audiences. What prompted the ABC network to waste half an hour on an Oscar fashion show from 8 to 8:30 when the Oscar ceremony itself has always been one long, continuous fashion show? Whoopi Goldberg herself seemed aware that she was presiding over another premillennial disaster like so many others, and she let it all hang loose, baby, and then some. A few post-Oscar pundits denounced her for what were perceived as off-the-cuff obscenities threatening the dignity and decorum of the film industry’s sacred ritual. Unfortunately, none of her anarchic efforts could stifle the traditional stuffiness that seems to cling to the Oscarcast like moss.
Why was it necessary to bring on Gen. Colin Powell to explain to us what Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line really meant? Or former Senator John Glenn to give a plug for the space program? Fortunately, such merry pranksters as Jim Carrey, Robin Williams, and in her improvisatory way, Ms. Goldberg, popped up from time to time to stick pins in the hot-air balloons. But no one could compensate for the ponderousness of the time-consuming musical acts. Indeed, the Academy has never been able to decide whether they were putting on a Las Vegas lounge act or an industry lodge meeting, and so they have compromised by doing both. And those nominated songs! Oy.
What really had me worried as the evening wore on was that Mr. Benigni was going to win Best Director and Best Picture, as well as Best Foreign Film and Best Actor, and that he would then sprout wings and fly around the stage. Indeed, Mr. Benigni reminded me of nobody so much as the Alberto Beddini of Erik Rhodes in Mark Sandrich and Irving Berlin’s Top Hat (1935). Only if Mr. Benigni had played Beddini, he would have taken Ginger Rogers away from Fred Astaire. The man is so completely shameless and uninhibited that he makes Jerry Lewis look like a deadpan stoic. Flatter him, and he hugs you. Insult him, and he kisses your feet. I must concede he had one good line about thanking his parents for giving him poverty so that he could dream, but that is not enough to make up for all his monkeyshines accompanied by the shrewdest broken English since Chico Marx. I believe the Italian word for Mr. Benigni is basta .
The most hilarious industry complaint about Mr. Weinstein that I read after the Oscars was that he played dirty pool by backing only art films with a chance to win Oscars unlike the big studios which had to diversify their projects to satisfy their markets. This may explain why, week after week this year, the major studios have opened so much garbage for the teenage market that by December Mr. Weinstein may have once again come up with the most solid contenders for the votes of the post-adolescent Academy voters.
Neither a Bang Nor a Whimper
The much ballyhooed controversy over the lifetime award for Elia Kazan played out with neither a bang nor a whimper, but with a fascinating range of mixed emotions. Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro put their considerable artistic reputations on the line to muffle some of the overt hostility to Mr. Kazan in the audience. When the ailing 89-year-old director appeared on the stage after a barrage of film clips featuring his outstanding screen achievements, he seemed grateful for his supporters and nervous about his antagonists. But if there were any movement in the alignment of the audience, it was toward at least a grudging acceptance of a fellow survivor.
He spoke very briefly, and clutched at Mr. Scorsese and Mr. De Niro, who seemed even more nervous than he. Through it all, I felt closer to all three, whatever their true motives and feelings, than I did to the protesters outside the auditorium and the silent minority in the audience. Having grown up politically on George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Animal Farm , Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed , I find myself siding with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Richard Schickel over Mr. Kazan’s deservedness against Victor Navasky, who published a slyly disingenuous knifing of Mr. Kazan in the Newsweek of March 22. Mr. Navasky, author of the book Naming Names , argues that there is nothing wrong with the practice when it applies to “Nazis or Ku Klux Klanners or mafiosi. But these were anti-Semites, racists and lawbreakers, whereas the actors, writers and directors who joined the Communist Party (a legal party, by the way) in the 30’s started out as social idealists who believed that the party was the best place to fight fascism abroad and racism at home.”
I prefer the view of George Orwell in 1944: “The sin of nearly all left-wingers from 1933 onwards is that they have wanted to be anti-Fascist without being anti-totalitarian.” Besides, Mr. Navasky gives American Communists the benefit of every doubt about their true motives, while denying Mr. Kazan any political identity as a sincere anti-Stalinist, opting instead to depoliticize him as a shameful career opportunist. It is much easier to denounce a rat than a sworn enemy of the Moscow Trials, the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the Siberian gulags.
Anyway, Hollywood is hardly the place to make a moral statement about betrayal and outing, vicious activities that go on to this day. After all, who caved in to the Congressional Red-hunters but the very moguls who founded, funded and maintained the Academy itself? Perhaps if we pulled them out of their graves, and drove stakes through their hearts, the ghosts of John Garfield, Zero Mostel and Judy Holliday would be appeased. And what about Fatty Arbuckle being banned for “bad morals” after being acquitted of all crimes? Or Lee Tracy being blackballed by Louis B. Mayer after drunkenly urinating from his hotel window on the pride of the Mexican Cavalry during the shooting of Viva Villa! Then there were the industry cold-shoulders to D.W. Griffith, Erich von Stroheim, Buster Keaton, Preston Sturges and Ingrid Bergman.
If Irving J. Thalberg had lived long enough, he would probably have joined the hunt for Commies in the industry with the gusto of a big-game hunter. S.J. Perelman once described Thalberg as a vindictive union-buster, and his name is still honored every year by the Academy.
One final irony: I was less than kind to Kazan’s art in The American Cinema (1968). “Kazan’s violence has always been more excessive than expressive, more mannered than meaningful. There is an edge of hysteria even to his pauses and silences, and the thin line between passion and neurosis has been crossed time and again. Yet, his brilliance with actors is incontestable.”
Back then, Mr. Kazan represented the cultural establishment, and I was a revisionist film critic trumpeting the genre glories of Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford and Howard Hawks. Time has been kinder to Mr. Kazan’s work than I would have suspected 30 years ago, particularly with his quieter films like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), Pinky (1949), Panic in the Streets (1950) and Wild River (1960).