Oscar and Me

rexh Oscar and MeThe Oscars are like dividend statements from Bernie Madoff. You know they’re coming, you expect the worst, but you open the envelopes anyway, with your fingers crossed, hoping this year will be better. It never is, but despite rock-bottom ratings, and dwindling interest in too many nominees nobody ever heard of, too many categories nobody cares about and too many movies nobody wants to see, the people who put on this annual clambake never stop trying.

The grim previews of the 81st Academy Awards show on Feb. 22 at the Kodak Theatre, designed by David Rockwell—the modern-day Rube Goldberg responsible for the Mohegan Sun Indian casino, the ugly sets for Hairspray and the Jet Blue terminal at J.

The Oscars are like dividend statements from Bernie Madoff. You know they’re coming, you expect the worst, but you open the envelopes anyway, with your fingers crossed, hoping this year will be better. It never is, but despite rock-bottom ratings, and dwindling interest in too many nominees nobody ever heard of, too many categories nobody cares about and too many movies nobody wants to see, the people who put on this annual clambake never stop trying.

The grim previews of the 81st Academy Awards show on Feb. 22 at the Kodak Theatre, designed by David Rockwell—the modern-day Rube Goldberg responsible for the Mohegan Sun Indian casino, the ugly sets for Hairspray and the Jet Blue terminal at J.F.K.—are already being described as “community theater on steroids,” and include a curtain made of 92,000 crystals, a thrust stage requiring an orthopedic surgeon in residence for presenters in stiletto heels, 20 monumental Art Deco arches, the removal of the traditional orchestra pit, lights filtered through silver-rope curtains and strands of silver-leaf balls, 19 screens flying through space and fluted chandeliers floating above the audience, all dominated by the color blue. It sounds like a vulgar stage show in Atlantic City starring Siegfried and Roy, designed to turn passionate movie lovers into dyspeptic movie critics—only a handful of whom will still be awake by the time the five final (and only important) prizes of the night are announced. Gone are the days of Cary Grant, Garland and Garbo (none of whom won an Oscar). Today we get J.Lo and Meatloaf. It’s all banana oil anyway. Any industry that pins a Best Film label on a brainless, boring cornball like Around the World in 80 Days over a timeless masterpiece like George Stevens’ Giant obviously cannot be taken seriously. But, eternal masochist that I am, I’ll be watching again on Sunday—hopefully, in pajamas.

>>Rex Reed assesses this year’s nominees

After a lifetime of surviving this bloated, backslapping office picnic in every venue from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to Elaine’s, I am here to tell you pajamas and pizza is still the best way. Since the Oscars turned into an electronic monster, it’s the only way. (Maybe it always was. Joseph L. Mankiewicz once told me, “The Oscars have always been an awful, disorganized mess. The first year I went, it was a small dinner party at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel that went on half the night; Jackie Coogan fell asleep in Marie Dressler’s lap, and the emcee suggested every man in the room stand up and thank his own wife.”) The year I went with Angela Lansbury, who stopped the show cold riding in from the top of the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on a camera dolly singing “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” I was treated like a rajah. The years I attended as a working journalist, I was treated like the rajah’s donkey. Either way—as an invited guest with an aisle seat, or as a lowly member of the press shoved into a rodeo chute backstage—I couldn’t see a thing. It’s a television show, not a theatrical event; the cameras block every view; and you are better off in bed. I no longer remember who won what in any given year, but my memories of the rotten, boring and humorless chaos of these circuses are as vivid as those of the circus elephants. I still have my program from 1968, soiled with coffee stains that happened when I got shoved into the coffee urn backstage, where more photographers and press agents than you could beat off with a stick chased Rod Steiger—who was shouting “I gotta get outta here!”—out of the auditorium.

 

AH, YES. Like Chevalier in Gigi, I remember it well. The powerful New York Times critic Bosley Crowther arrived with no studio limo to meet him, rented a Hertz at the airport, drove to the Beverly Hills Hotel where his room had been given away and ended up sitting on top of his luggage at 3 a.m., searching for a place to sleep. (It’s not nice to pan Bonnie and Clyde.) Three hundred stretch limos were locked in a lethal traffic jam so tangled that Warren Beatty and Audrey Hepburn left their cars and walked, dodging what looked like several thousand screaming teenyboppers in madras Bermuda shorts led by head cheerleader Army Archerd, a columnist perched on a platform conducting interviews like a third-rate sideshow barker, in a ritual predating Joan Rivers’ red carpet. “And here she is, folks, stepping up to the stand, a nominee for Barefoot in the Park, Miss Natalie Chadwick!” The great Mildred Natwick promptly looked sick, but she was too much of a lady to punch him in the nose. “It’s Mildred Natwick,” she sniffed coolly. “And how many Oscars does this make for you?” “Well, none actually …” “Thank you very much, Miss Catwick …”

They were coming fast and furious. Natalie Wood. (“I know why I won’t see you up there getting an Oscar, Natalie, it’s because you didn’t make a picture at all this year, har-har.”) Danny Kaye. Edith Head. Sonny, in a sequin taffeta Cossack suit, and Cher, looking like an Egyptian slave girl in an old Maria Montez movie. There was something wet in her navel that bounced off the kliegs. Don’t ask.

No Davis, Crawford or Stanwyck. Just that great American motion picture star Phyllis Diller, in red ostrich plumes sticking out of a chinchilla dress. (“It’s a Brillo pad, stretched.”) George Cukor and Stanley Kramer were disposed of fast—no glamour, folks!—to make way for … yes, it was she … in person … Annette Funicello! Baby Annette! Wearing a hideous banana split nightmare by, if you’ll pardon the expression, Mr. Blackwell!

Lined up like prize cows, Ann Miller, Greer Garson (who forced a change in the rules the year her acceptance speech for Mrs. Miniver clocked in at 40 minutes), Martha Raye in monkey fur thanking General Westmoreland (huh?), men in cowboy hats, Julie Christie and Dustin Hoffman with Senator Eugene McCarthy’s daughter, Ellen, stepped on hemlines and tripped on tuxedo spats while Mrs. Gregory Peck in a lime sherbet Yves St. Laurent (“Yes sir, he’s really great, that Yves,” hollered Army) steered her liberal left-wing husband away from wooden, right-wing conservative Charlton Heston, observing, “He looks like an armoire.” And all the time, the sun was shining! By the time legendary Dame Edith Evans, 80, practically got knocked to the ground by a gang of La-La’s hungriest paparazzi (“You wanna snap her?” “Who is she?” “Dame somebody”), I had seen enough of Hollywood before dark, and become unswerving in my belief that one should never again attend one of these clambakes in broad daylight unless heavily veiled.

Inside, stars, fans and freeloaders pushed, shoved and sweated their way into an illuminated grotto lit by 153 klieg lights with a blast of heat that made you feel like you were being fried to death like extras in Lawrence of Arabia. The curtain rose, in a roar of applause, revealing chandeliers, potted palms and plastic Sears Roebuck flower arrangements, with more gold paint on the walls than on the Oscars themselves, which in those days cost $60 apiece. Actors on the dole used to hock them, which is now illegal, but the Academy will buy them back for $10. They make good doorstops. Claudette Colbert kept hers in the bar in Barbados and used it to crack walnuts.

In the mausoleumlike indifference that followed, Bob Hope bombed; the great Louis Armstrong did a stupid song with a stuffed elephant in total silence because the mikes went dead; stage hands in blue jeans walked across the stage to hand Hope a hand mike because his lectern was stuck in the floor, but the cord wasn’t long enough so he had to kneel on the floor with Diahann Carroll to be heard. Then they were too low to read the cue cards. For the “best explosions, fires, earthquakes or hurricanes,” Natalie Wood gave the Special Visual Effects award to Doctor Dolittle, a film with no explosions, fires, earthquakes or hurricanes. By the time Sidney Poitier presented the Best Actress award to Katharine Hepburn, who didn’t show up, so many yawning people were heading for the exits that there was more speculation about who was going to what party than there was about the Oscars.