In those days, the most glamorous and coveted invites were to über-agent Swifty Lazar’s annual fete at Spago, where the Minnellis, Rosalind Russell, Cyd Charisse, Audrey Hepburn, Billy Wilder, the Goldwyns, Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, Joe Mankiewicz, Irwin Shaw and Claudette Colbert pigged out on caviar and Dom. The Bonnie and Clyde brigade saddled off to Kenneth Hyman’s to get drunk, and when somebody asked Supporting Actress winner Estelle Parsons why the movie didn’t win more prizes, she said candidly, “I guess because nobody likes Warren Beatty.” The rest of the action ended up at the popular watering hole the Factory, where Raquel Welch, Tony Curtis, Peter Lawford, Kevin McCarthy and Elke Sommer were all eclipsed by Angela Lansbury in a braless floor-length white satin Harlow dress, and by Carol Channing, who ate her own organic peaches from a Mason jar because she thought she had been poisoned by the bleach in her hair, wearing a beaded rhinestone turtleneck sunshine-yellow jumper coat and grinning widely. “I can’t dance, because my dress weighs 36 pounds and I fall down when I stand up.”
It was all over at 4 a.m., when Dame Edith Evans threw down her menu after two sips of that chlorinated Los Angeles water that tastes like Geritol, stuck her fingers in her ears to drown out the noise, marched grandly toward the elevator, fed up with Oscar and his bogus one-night Camelot, and went home for a bowl of cornflakes.
I VOWED I had learned my lesson, but like flu shots, every year I come back for more. Nineteen seventy-two was nothing to be proud of. I almost gave up on the whole sorry debacle when the entertaining but simple-minded French Connection, a typical action-genre movie with one good chase scene, won Best Picture in a year that produced A Clockwork Orange, Carnal Knowledge, Sunday Bloody Sunday and The Last Picture Show. And how else do you explain Gene Hackman as Best Actor? Bogart, Cagney, Widmark, Edward G. Robinson … the list of actors who never won Oscars for playing tough cops is endless. To single Hackman out for Best Actor over Peter Finch or Malcolm McDowell (who wasn’t even nominated!) was simply ludicrous. And so it was with the forgotten Nicholas and Alexandra winning Best Costume because of a lot of fur hats; William Friedkin winning Best Director, because he staged a subway crash, over Stanley Kubrick, whose work elevated the medium to the front ranks of artistic achievement. The musical numbers were uniformly loathsome, especially the gruesome, trashy music from Shaft, which turned the stage into a holocaust of sweaty confusion, with people stepping on each other in an explosion of pink smoke, like open warfare in a Harlem powder room.
In 1972, the disintegration of Hollywood began. Even in years when merit was ignored in favor of guilt (Elizabeth Taylor won for Butterfield 8, one of her worst films, because she almost died that year, and told the press,“I still think it stinks!”; and at the end of his career, John Wayne won an Oscar for falling off a horse!), you could count on glamour. Instead of Loretta Young, Esther Williams or Cary Grant, 1972 was the year we were saddled with Joe Namath, Jill St. John, Timothy Bottoms and Joey Heatherton. It was also the year Charlie Chaplin was finally honored with a Lifetime Achievement award, a tribute to his genius, on a stage crowded with some of the tackiest people in show business. Why didn’t someone have the intelligence to ask Jackie Coogan to once again don his cap from The Kid and make the presentation? He was in the audience, unidentified. Then to crudely shove a hat and cane at Chaplin (which he dropped), flash credits for Shell Oil and Cool Whip across his face in his moment of triumph, then desert him onstage surrounded by women who looked like Times Square hookers was vulgar, mindless and stupid.
Nineteen seventy-three: I was there when the Oscars got scalped. Marlon Brando, who should have won for A Streetcar Named Desire, got an undeserved Best Actor consolation prize for The Godfather, a film in which the star was Al Pacino, not Brando. Everyone booed when a pretty Apache named Sacheen Littlefeather walked onstage and announced Brando’s refusal to accept, citing the film industry’s barbaric treatment of Indians, “especially with the recent happenings at Wounded Knee.” Quel crap. Sacheen turned out to be an actress named Maria Cruz, who had once been crowned “Miss American Vampire of 1970,” and I wonder what, to this day, the Indians at Wounded Knee ever did with an ugly doorstop.
It was the year for kicking the shins of overpublicized Swedish import Liv Ullmann after her American debut in the catastrophic Lost Horizon, and Bette Midler dined out on it: “I call it ‘Lost-Her Reason.’ I never miss a Liv Ullmann musical!” The nominated songs were a love song about a rat called Ben, a love song about an ark, a love song about a bear, a love song about the S.S. Poseidon and a love song from a movie nobody ever heard of called The Stepmother—proving at last that this is a category that should be eliminated by default. Raquel Welch was nearly assaulted at the exit by Jesus freaks shouting, “Repent now or die!” All was not lost. Liza Minnelli, Joel Grey and Bob Fosse all won for Cabaret and headed back to New York, followed by Best Supporting Actress Eileen Heckart, who went straight to the unemployment office near her home in Connecticut, where she got a standing ovation. “I’m very well known there,” she told me.
Like weddings, divorces and firstborn children, Oscars take on a special significance for dedicated movie buffs. Depending on who won and what happened, I can tell you where I was on almost every Oscar night. I was there in 1974, when a dull year was enlivened by Best Actress Glenda Jackson’s caustic appraisal (“I felt disgusted … as though I were attending a public hanging”) and by a 33-year-old sex shop proprietor named Robert Opel, who got his five minutes of fame when he sneaked backstage with a phony press pass, stripped stark naked and streaked across the stage in the middle of David Niven’s introduction of Elizabeth Taylor. Viewers at home were spared the details, but anyone who got a firsthand view, genitals and all, will tell you it was no big deal.
I was there again the year noisy protestors surrounded the Los Angeles Music Center with rude signs screaming “A vote for Jane Fonda is a vote for the Viet Cong!” (She won anyway, for Coming Home, and for proving she was right about Nixon.) Some dignity at last, with traffic control by Jack Haley Jr. Old film clips to introduce Ruby Keeler and Laurence Olivier worked, Johnny Carson replaced Bob Hope, the girls looked like real people instead of Zoroastrian zombies, but very few presenters could tell the difference between Coming Home and The Deer Hunter. A lot of folks in Hollywood thought they were the same movie; it’s like Bel Air trying to explain Vietnam to Beverly Hills. Once again, you needed a stomach emulsifier to get through the songs. Debby Boone singing “The Magic of Lassie”? Were they kidding? Why did 350 million viewers in 54 countries tune in? Same reason they tune in today. To see big stars. Instead they got Telly Savalas, Paul Williams and Margot Kidder. There was a full moon that night, which may explain why Barry Manilow, wearing more pancake than Carol Lynley, looked like Dracula.
NINETEEN EIGHTY: Felled by a bad back, I watched it in bed, fortified by Demerol. The only way, really. Johnny Carson got his only laughs when he introduced Jack Valenti as the man who “filled the charisma void left by Conrad Nagel” and congratulated 8-year-old Justin Henry from Kramer vs. Kramer for being “the only actor in Hollywood not mentioned in Britt Ekland’s memoirs.” Ann Miller’s famous wig must have been on a plane from New York that didn’t land on time. Instead, she came as herself and Miss Piggy came as Ann Miller. When the song category is stolen by Kermit the Frog, you know you’re in trouble. Melissa Manchester sounded like a singing telegram and looked like an army of mice had spent the winter in her hair.
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