There’ll Always Be Oscars, And I’ll Always Be Watching

On the eve of the 74th annual

award celebration of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the

Hollywood hills were alive with the sound of discordant music. Indeed, I can’t

remember a year when the competition was so overloaded with negativity, mostly

directed at the alleged sins of omission in the loosely biographical

A Beautiful Mind . One would have

thought we were in the midst of a Presidential campaign, particularly when some

journalists virtually demanded that academy voters redress the shameful history

of discrimination against African-American movie performers by voting in Denzel

Washington as best actor and Halle Berry as best actress. (Poor Will Smith was

considered out of the running for his Ali .)

Contributing to the unusual tension of the evening was the academy’s

decision to shift the proceedings to a new venue in a Hollywood shopping mall

on the very year that 9/11 dictated security precautions reportedly more

stringent than those applied to President Bush’s visit to perilous Peru. This

played havoc with the small businesses in the Hollywood area, not to mention

the hordes of celebrity-worshipers accustomed to sleeping overnight on or near

the public bleachers so as to get a closer look at the begowned and bejeweled

deities passing by. There was also a comical scrambling for tickets to an

auditorium with 900 fewer seats than last year’s. Another source of incipient

panic was the difficulty anticipated by invited partygoers to pass easily from

one post-Oscar bash to another, not to mention the virtual impossibility of

uninvited people with the requisite chutzpah to crash their way in for free

drinks.

For me, the Oscars are simply a televised spectacle signifying that

2001 is over at last and that, as a consequence, we can begin thinking about

the movies of 2002 more seriously. At least that’s what went through my mind as

I prepared the refreshments for my vigil in front of the television set.

Nothing I had anticipated from my years of Oscar-watching prepared me, however,

for the explosive emotionalism that lay in store. The proceedings went on too

long, as usual-well past midnight-but the technical slickness of the spectacle

made the evening much more bearable than usual. For a time, I thought the

academy had followed my suggestion, indeed my heartfelt plea, that the

nominated songs be eliminated from the show, at least as spaced-out production

numbers. The academy didn’t go that far, but it did group all the nominated

songs together in a single medley that made the overall musical mediocrity more

bearable.

In its first award, for best

supporting actress, the academy ran true to form in honoring Jennifer Connelly

from A Beautiful Mind with what I

have designated as the Eva Marie Saint award. Ms. Saint won in 1954 as best

supporting actress in On the Waterfront

for what would normally be considered a lead role as Marlon Brando’s love

interest. Since then, producers have been cheating like mad in assigning lower

categories to female performers to steal an easy Oscar win for the publicity

department.

Readers of the column may recall that I advised them in a previous

contemplation of the Oscars to keep an eye on the film editing award, which I

described as an “adhesive” category that said more about the voters’ attitudes

toward the picture than about the little-understood technical process itself.

At the time, I thought the contest was between A Beautiful Mind and The Lord

of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring ; hence, whichever of the two

nominated films won for editing could be on its way to a sweep. So what wins? Black Hawk Down . Not to worry, I said to

myself; this only means that the voters are going to spread the awards around.

As it turned out, The Lord of the Rings was

limited to four minor technical awards for cinematography, original score,

makeup and visual effects, while A

Beautiful Mind walked off with four major awards: adapted screenplay,

director, supporting actress and ultimately best picture. Many Hollywood

observers and some unofficial polls of academy voters had made The Lord of the Rings a virtual shoo-in.

Besides, its 13 nominations made it a strong favorite through tradition.

But the voters weren’t buying. The real tip-off was the upset victory of

Jim Broadbent in Iris over the

favored (even by me) Ian McKellen in The

Lord of the Rings . The victories of Moulin

Rouge for costumes and art direction further eroded the prospects of The Lord of the Rings in the overall

award count. Still, Moulin Rouge did

not seem to have much of a chance when Whoopi Goldberg opened her Mistress of

Ceremonies gig with a devastating takeoff of Nicole Kidman’s swinging descent

into the leering males of the audience in Moulin

Rouge.

Ms. Goldberg then proceeded to rip apart the whole Hollywood community

with barbed one-liners. Eventually she plumbed the depths with a tasteless

reverse-racist routine at the expense of Robert Redford, who had just walked

off the stage with a special Oscar for his total career-and this after the

now-venerable Sidney Poitier had received a thunderous standing ovation for his special lifetime-achievement award,

and just before Halle Berry and Denzel Washington made a sweep of their own as

best actress and best actor in what was turning out to be white-guilt night at

the Oscars.

Actually, it was strange that A

Beautiful Mind was chosen as best picture with by far the best thing about

it-Russell Crowe’s performance-being rejected; obviously the rumors about the

real John Nash being anti-Semitic had backfired.

Mr. Crowe was being punished for something else entirely, though not perhaps

punished so much as considered expendable in the rush to honor Mr. Washington

for an uneven performance in a thoroughly muddled movie. Indeed, I wonder how

many academy voters had actually seen Training

Day when they cast their votes for Mr. Washington. Only the foreign-film

category

requires the voter to prove that he or she has seen all the films in the

category

before making a choice.

Halle Berry’s award was

something else again, as her almost frighteningly hysterical acceptance speech

indicated. It reminded me of nothing so much as the hysterics she displayed so

frequently in Monster’s Ball . I had

seen her on the Barbara Walters show before the Oscars, and the story she tells

about her life is both fascinating and moving, and we could see it all

re-enacted in her acceptance breakdown, with her ever-supportive white mother

and her husband lending her all the support they could from their seats in the

first row.

On a lighter note, the

unexpected appearance of Woody Allen to introduce Nora Ephron’s short montage

of New York in the movies with one of his casual stand-up routines did not

quite bring down the house, but was one of many reminders throughout the night

that we’re all supposed to still be recovering from 9/11. Mr. Allen made a kind

of pitch for people to return to New York to make movies, and then he announced

his own current project in a comically apologetic tone.

Actually, the funniest thing I

heard all evening came from the lips of Kate Winslet as she was being

interviewed on the red carpet before the Oscars by a particularly fatuous

announcer who kept pestering her about how comfortable she felt in her red designer

dress. I thought I heard her say in response, “Well, I wouldn’t want to pee in

it.” The announcer went positively ashen and hurriedly ushered her away. I

loved her more than ever, and am still sorry that she didn’t win the Oscar for

best supporting actress in Iris . But

there were compensations in the victories of Shrek as best animated film, No

Man’s Land as best foreign film, and Julian Fellowes for best original

screenplay for Gosford Park . Mr.

Fellowes struck an unexpectedly sweet and unforced note when he thanked us

Americans for being kind to foreigners like him, and concluded with a heartfelt

“God bless America.”

It was that kind of night, and

somehow I liked it.

A Post-Oscars Remedy:

Budd Boetticher Revival

Budd Boetticher (1916-2001)

never came close to being considered for an Oscar, and perhaps that’s just as

well. For a director of westerns, toreador tales and other forms of action

melodrama, the slightest inflation of production values and social pretensions

would have destroyed the lean grace of the six “program” westerns being

screened from March 26 to April 4 by the Film Society of Lincoln Center at the

Walter Reade Theatre (70 Lincoln Center Plaza, 496-3809).

I recommend all six films not

only as first-rate genre entertainment, but also as unostentatiously lyrical

morality fables with a single steadfast and chivalrous hero (Randolph Scott),

an archetype with different plot names, strategies and objectives. Ideally, one

should see all six westerns as variations on a theme, but if I were forced to

pick and choose in order of preference, it would go something like this:

1. Comanche Station (1960), 74 min., March 30, 8:45 p.m.; April 4, 1

p.m.

2 . Seven Men from Now ( 1956), 78 min., March 29, 7:15 p.m.; April 2,

6:30 p.m.

3. The Tall T (1957), 78 min., April 2, 8:15 p.m.; March 29, 3:45 and

9 p.m.

4. Ride Lonesome (1959), 73 min., March 29, 2 and 5:30 p.m.; March

31, 8:45 p.m.

5. Decision at Sundown (1957), 77 min., March 30, 7 p.m.; April 2, 4:30

p.m.

6. Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), 78 min., March 31, 7 p.m.; April 2,

2:30 p.m.; April 4, 3 p.m.