For Your Consideration … A Few Thoughts on the Oscars

The 73rd Academy Awards have not been given enough credit

for some signs of intelligence. For example, the single switch from the age-old

practice of sending up a pair of presenters for almost every award to this

year’s steady stream of solo presenters was little short of a stroke of genius.

Still, there was a big morning-after complaint: that the show lacked

“spontaneity.” It was as if the inane exchanges at the podium over the past

decades were Wildean models of repartee. Too many movie journalists have

forgotten, or perhaps never read, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s devastating description

of William Powell and Norma Shearer fumbling through cocktail parties without

their scriptwriters to provide them with the appropriate dialogue. No, the last

thing the Oscar telecast needs is the “spontaneity” of the big stars, not

unless what the movie journalists are really looking for are opportunities to

laugh derisively at the gaffes, slips and bloopers coming from the lips of

overdressed celebrities.

That’s not to say there aren’t a few things the Oscar

telecast needs desperately, and I’d like to submit a few modest proposals to

the Academy, if I may. First, the schism-or even chasm-that separates

spectacle-driven productions like Gladiator

and “artistic” productions like Traffic ,

Erin Brockovich and You Can Count on Me suggests that a

double award might avoid the absurdity of Best Picture Oscars being denied to

artists of the stature of Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges. Back in 1928, the

very first Best Picture award was split for the only time in history between

the Best Production (William Wellman’s Wings )

and Best Artistic Quality of Production (F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise ).

Such a distinction seemed particularly necessary this year,

when the best English-language picture, Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me , was not even nominated for Best Picture.

Making matters worse was Mr. Lonergan’s defeat by Cameron Crowe ( Almost Famous ) for Best Original

Screenplay-the biggest upset of the night. It so happens that I told Mr.

Lonergan before the Oscars that his screenwriting award was a “snap,” and he

modestly demurred, which makes me look in retrospect like a pompous fool, and

the Academy shouldn’t do this to one of its erstwhile defenders.

Another Best Picture issue, though one I am not quite

prepared to go to the mat for, is the idea of chaining together the Oscar votes

for Best Picture and Best Director like the votes for President and Vice President

in politics. Such an argument began to circulate among my colleagues after this

year’s Oscar telecast: How could the Best Director not have the Best Picture? This separation of excellences has

occurred quite often in Oscar history, particularly in the early years. In

1928, when Wellman and Murnau split the Best Picture award, neither was even

nominated as Best Director. The Oscar went to Frank Borzage for Seventh Heaven , and the other nominees

were Herbert Brennon for Sorrel and Son

and King Vidor for The Crowd .

John Ford is the most honored of all directors in the number

of Oscars won (four), yet three were won in years in which his pictures lost

out to someone else’s. Hence, Ford’s The

Informer in 1935 was beaten out by Frank Lloyd’s Mutiny on the Bounty , The

Grapes of Wrath in 1940 by Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca , and The Quiet Man

in 1952 by Cecil B. DeMille’s The

Greatest Show on Earth . The only Ford-directed film to win a Best Picture

Oscar in tandem with its director was How

Green Was My Valley in 1941, the same year Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane was released. (Overlooking

Welles’ masterpiece has always been treated as a joke on the Academy, but I

have always argued that aside from Sunrise ,

Ford’s How Green Was My Valley was

the best picture ever to win an Oscar.)

The trend in recent decades has leaned more to a linkage

between Best Picture and Best Director, and the reason is not an outbreak of

auteurism among the Oscar voters but, rather, the greater frequency with which

contemporary directors function also as producers, with the result that they

control the money and publicity more often than did the studio-bound directors

in the 30’s and 40’s.

This year, it was clear very early in the evening that no

film was going to “sweep” the awards. Gladiator

was losing too many minor contests-to Traffic

in some instances and Crouching Tiger,

Hidden Dragon in others. The key precinct category for me was the Editing

Award, because another tendency over the years has been to assume that the Best

Picture of the year must have the Best Editing, whatever that is. When Stephen

Mirrione’s Editing Oscar was followed by Oscars for Stephen Gaghan for Best

Screenplay Adaptation and Steven Soderbergh for Best Direction, the momentum

for Traffic seemed inexorable, and

victory for Traffic as Best Picture

seemed inevitable. After all, the conventional wisdom had been that Mr.

Soderbergh would have his votes fatally split between Traffic and Erin Brockovich ,

costing him Best Director, perhaps to Ang Lee, since Ridley Scott was curiously

never in the running (this despite the favored status of Gladiator in most audience polls). In the end, Gladiator took the top honor in one of

the night’s big disappointments.

The Academy would veto the idea of joining the director and

picture awards, or any idea that serves to diminish the sadistic intensity of

its “suspense.” Furthermore, I suppose they would reject splintering the Best

Picture category. Hence, even the most brilliant comedies, like Sydney

Pollack’s Tootsie (1982), are

condemned to play second fiddle to lugubrious spectacles like Gandhi . The Academy is also unlikely

ever to release the actual vote totals for each nominee-which I have suggested

before-perhaps because of something I read about there generally being only an

80 percent turnout of eligible Oscar voters. Then again, some nominees might be

embarrassed to discover how few votes they obtained. But they should seriously

consider not staging the embarrassingly tuneless songs from today’s movies and

rather pay tribute each year to the great composers, directors, choreographers

and performers of the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals, an age that ended

sometime in the late 60’s.

For an old geezer like me, trapped in a Jerome Kern time

warp, this year’s five musical nominees were as excruciating as ever, despite

the assorted (if occasionally bizarre) charismas of such well-thought-of

performers as Sting, Björk and Bob Dylan. But all the songs sound the same,

with the same steady beat. Melodiousness seems to have disappeared from pop music

to the point that kids wouldn’t recognize it if they heard it. Am I alone in my

feeling that the Oscars should dispense with musical interludes altogether?

This would put a live orchestra out of work, but, hey, one has to be ruthless

about reforms.

I would recommend keeping the impressive satellite

transmissions-like this year’s of Arthur C. Clarke in Sri Lanka and Bob Dylan

in Australia-but avoiding any further embarrassments like this year’s

trivialization of the nation’s space program by bringing the astronauts aboard

for some Hollywood horseplay.

The Academy might also keep Steve Martin. Unlike most of my

colleagues, I thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Martin’s contributions to the sadistic

spirit of the Oscar evening with his gibes at the sheer crassness of the

occasion, without absolving himself from the cascading silliness of unbridled

narcissism. Mr. Martin-and the cruel camera-seemed obsessed with Russell

Crowe’s catatonic expression, which merely showed on the outside what many

people were feeling on the inside under their mandatory good-sport smiles, even

after they lost the big prize. Indeed, what could be more sadistic than using

possible or probable losers like Tom Hanks and Kate Hudson as

late-in-the-evening presenters so people could speculate about their true

feelings under their sang-froid façades?

Still, even Mr. Martin seemed to be flogging a dead horse

when he kept complaining about how long the show was running. What do you

expect with 23 competitive awards, many with multiple collaborators, three

special awards with film clips and standing ovations, and the usual commercial

interruptions, dominated this year by Britney Spears and Bob Dole? Here I think

the commercials get a free ride, because they are designed for the television

audience, whereas the Oscar numbers are designed for the invited audience and

lack the optical pizzazz one gets from fitting the medium to the message.

All night, there was only one pleasant surprise: Marcia Gay

Harden ( Pollock ) beating out the

favored and overrated Kate Hudson ( Almost

Famous ) for Best Supporting Actress. Ms. Hudson is prettier than her

mother, Goldie Hawn, but not nearly as colorful and talented-the difference

between a mere starlet and a real star. Speaking of actresses, in the 30’s,

they actually wore designer gowns in the movies they made. When was the last

time you saw a 90’s actress dressed to the teeth on a movie screen?

Among the disappointments were Traffic ‘s Benicio Del Toro winning Best Supporting Actor over Erin Brockovich ‘s Albert Finney, whom I

was rooting for along with my esteemed and eloquent colleague Ron Rosenbaum.

For the record, Mr. Finney never got an Oscar for Tom Jones (1963), contrary to popular opinion, though the movie and

its director did.

Finally, I had no problems with the victorious Julia Roberts

and Russell Crowe. I liked Julia’s swagger with the speeder-uppers, and I

thought Mr. Crowe conveyed a peculiarly Australian identification with

underdogs everywhere. Besides, he deserved the Oscar for being passed over for The Insider and L.A. Confidential . It is the same kind of compensation award that

Joan Fontaine received in 1941 for Suspicion

after being passed over for Rebecca in

1940, and the one James Stewart received in 1940 for The Philadelphia Story after being passed over for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939.

Oh, let’s face it. I’m an Oscar junkie.