I recovered. The A-list Oscar party in the West was still Swifty and Mary Lazar’s, but by the 1980s everybody who was anybody in the Apple convened at Polly Bergen’s Park Avenue apartment for lavish food, ballot voting and a hefty prize that for some odd reason was always won by David Susskind. In 1981, the 53rd Academy Awards was postponed 24 hours because of he assassination attempt on President Reagan, which prompted a lot of jokes about the industry getting even for Bedtime for Bonzo. I watched on Polly’s bed, propped up on pillows between Paul Newman, who applauded an honorary award to Henry Fonda, and Lucille Ball, who threw popcorn at the TV screen when poor Lily Tomlin was forced to present an award to a machine called the “optic blender,” which Lucy swore had only won after a stiff competition from the Waring blender. When “Fame” won for best song, Milton Berle yelled, “That’s not a song that needs a singer! It’s a traffic collision that needs a paramedic!”
Nineteen eighty-two. Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Gay Talese, Helen Gurley Brown, Nora Ephron, A. E. Hotchner, Myrna Loy, Raquel Welch and horror film icon Barbara Steele were just some of the swells munching enchiladas at Polly’s Oscar-night Mexican fiesta and applauding Chariots of Fire. Fewer blunders, bloopers and boo-boos, a wiser use of clips showing such departed greats as Mae West, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. Liberace’s new face looked like Marjorie Main’s old one. As always, the nominated songs should have been diverted to the nearest trash compactor. A special tribute to the fabulous songs of composer Harry Warren was so badly conceived that Alice Faye, for whom Warren composed his most enduring screen hits, walked off the show during the afternoon rehearsal when she heard Debbie Allen massacre her own historic song “You’ll Never Know” in a key the songwriter never heard of. But true positive energy arrived two hours into the show, when out walked Barbara Stanwyck, who got the only standing ovation of the night. People always ask for definitions of what makes a real star. It’s an undefinable something extra I identify as “presence,” and Stanwyck took over the stage that year with so much of it that the place seemed momentarily radioactive.
AND SO IT GOES, through the years. Call me yesterday’s child, but after the thrill of Doris Day arm in arm with Clark Gable, or Mae West’s carnal gibes at Rock Hudson on a raunchy duet of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” that almost knocked the show off the air in 1958, the sight of Charlie Kaufman and a coven of assorted Desperate Housewives just doesn’t quite make it. I still think Judy Garland should have won for the achievement of a lifetime in A Star Is Born (1954), instead of dreary Grace Kelly. I remain unconvinced that Judy Holliday should have won in 1951 for Born Yesterday over Bette Davis in All About Eve. How can a sane mind explain how The Greatest Show on Earth beat out The Bad and the Beautiful in 1953? Orson Welles never really won anything; neither did Alfred Hitchcock. James Dean changed the face of movie acting forever, but Oscar gave him the middle finger twice—posthumously, too. Kim Stanley, my favorite actress of all time, wasn’t even nominated for The Goddess. Already disheartened, I pretty much stopped covering the Oscars on a regular basis after Titanic swept the awards in 1998, and for no logical reason, a silly, spastic fop named Roberto Benigni beat Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan the following year. When it comes to grousing, I’m just scratching the surface. It all reminds me of what Hunter Thompson once said about the music business: “A dark, plastic hallway where pimps and thieves run free, and good men die like dogs. … There is also a negative side.”
The winds of change have now reached gale force, but here we go again. The songs have been a joke since real songwriters stopped writing them. The last great song with any legs written for the screen was “New York, New York” in 1977. It wasn’t even nominated. In the old days you got musical numbers by Kern, Berlin and the Gershwins. Now you get X-rated rap about pimps. Aware of the negative impact this trash has provoked, the Academy this year is limiting the category to three songs instead of five, and the performance time to one chorus each. No cigar, but it’s a start.
Academy membership is more diverse, the old guard is dying off, a younger crowd is taking over. Which explains why this is the year of the underdog. I like Slumdog Millionaire, the little movie that could, but it’s not on the same planet as Benjamin Button, The Reader or Revolutionary Road (which wasn’t even nominated). Sean Penn will most likely win for Milk, a respectable but otherwise unexceptional biopic without a shred of conflict or narrative tempo. But he didn’t face half the challenge of Brad Pitt or give half the performance of Mickey Rourke. I’m rooting for Kate Winslet, but what happened to Cate Blanchett? Can anyone explain the screenplay nomination for Frozen River, a tiny little movie full of long pauses and big mumbles? Tant pis. If there’s one thing five decades of trying to figure out the Oscars has taught me, it’s how to surrender gracefully.
Which is why I can still smile ruefully when I remember the Oscar night in 1994 at the Russian Tea Room when a talented but clueless young puppy named Leonardo DiCaprio, who had never heard of Gentleman’s Agreement, asked Celeste Holm, “And what is it you do?”