I have a friend who won’t even read my columns at this time of year because of the Oscars. Indeed, he has it in mind that I need to take some kind of boycott stance on the whole thing. In many ways, I understand his ire. It’s only two columns ago that I wrote, “When I start thinking like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, I’ll know I’ve been doing this too long.” This past Wednesday I remarked on the radio that a Best Picture win for Avatar or The Blind Side would be embarassing, and that the last thing the Oscars needed was another embarassment.
I cannot be counted among Oscar’s biggest fans. I follow them and am as capable as anyone of being delighted when I see virtue rewarded and cheesed when I see mediocrity hoisted into the pantheon of supposed greatness. But do I take them seriously? Not really. At the same time, I don’t especially feel like waging a pointless war against them. If George C. Scott refusing his Oscar for Patton (1970) or Marlon Brando sending the utterly bogus Sacheen Littlefeather to refuse his Oscar for The Godfather (1972) didn’t do any serious damage to the Oscars, I doubt I’d have much impact. And what would the point be anyway? Taken as nothing but a fun event, the Oscars are enjoyable and harmless. Getting worked up about them in a negative sense seems as foolish as thinkiing they mean very much as a barometer of genune quality.
The question naturally arises as to whether or not there really are people who place great stock in the question of who does or doesn’t take home the little genitally-challenged naked man stauette. I suspect there may be—especially in a world where there are folks who are so nervous about their own judgment that they get actively belligerent if anyone dares to say something against a movie they like. I just don’t happen to know any such people personally. But then the people I know let out a collective groan each year when Turner Classic Movies does their 31 Days of Oscar schtick. The only thing that keeps that from becoming trapped in the cinematic equivalent of oldies radio “Greatest Hits” packaging hell is that a movie can get included because it was nominated for best sound mixing. (That’s not really a stretch. Frank Borzage’s magnificent Moonrise  was run this year based on a nomination for sound recording.)
Actually, the whole 31 Days of Oscar frenzy has an educational component that’s quite at odds with echt Oscar-lover Robert Osborne’s Academy worship fest. Why? Because you get to see that Louis B. Mayer’s little brainchild (aka: the Oscars) has always evidenced some peculiar tastes. The first few years are confusing, owing to their split year layouts that have 1928, 1929, 1930, 1931 and 1932 appearing on two sets of nominations each. In other words, you look at the nominees for 1928-1929 and think, “What the hell? Where is The Love Parade?”—and then you find it’s on 1929-1930.
That to one side, the very first year—or years—1927-1928 tells us a lot. The Best Picture is William A.Wellman’s Wings. If you’re up on the era, the first thing you’re apt to wonder is just what poor, benighted group actually thought this was superior to F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, which isn’t even among the nominated. Then you find that for this year only, there’s a separate category for “Unique and Artistic Picture,” and that Sunrise won that—beating out Chang and The Crowd. (Chang is obviously in there on the unique tag more than the artistic one.) The issue, however, is that Sunrise is so far and away the Best Picture of the year in any capacity that this feels like it was being thrown a bone.
Seems the original idea was to make a distinction between commerical movies and artistic ones, which isn’t unreasonable as a concept. But that concept finds Frank Borzage’s 7th Heaven tossed in with the hoi polloi. If ever a picture deserved the accolade of “art,” 7th Heaven is it. And even at that, it gets beaten by Wings. Wings, on the other hand, apparently made itself because Wellman isn’t among the nominated directors. (This Oscar thing was obviously the love child of a studio boss and the producers.) Instead, Borzage won Best Director—a category that also managed to include King Vidor for his “Unique and Artistic Picture” nominee, The Crowd. (Where is Murnau in that case?) That year they also divided the directors into two categories—those who made real movies and those who directed comedies.
OK, so it’s possible to excuse the first year as a case of teething troubles. That doesn’t excuse the fact that The Broadway Melody won Best Picture for 1928-1929. Even without trying to sort out what other films might have been up against it due to that split year concept, The Broadway Melody is a stiff. Leaving it at the nominated films, Roland West’s Alibi and Irving Cummings’ In Old Arizona are clearly superior by several hundred miles. Ernst Lubitsch’s The Patriot (the only nominee I haven’t seen) is probably better, even if Josef von Sternberg called it “scheisse.” A case, however, could be made that The Broadway Melody is better than Hollywood Review of 1929, but not much of one. And considering that Borzage’s Street Angel secured an art direction nomination—meaning it must have been eligible for a Best Picture nomination—the whole thing gets sillier. But the fact was that The Broadway Melody was a big backstage musical drama—no matter how inert—and that made it big talking picture news.
We could keep playing this game year-by-year, but it doesn’t really change much and it rarely gets better. Oddities do occur. There’s the sudden expansion from five Best Picture nominees in 1931-1932 to eight (at least five of which are better than the winning film), and ten nominees in 1932-1933 (where the worst of the lot won), while in 1934 and 1935 they went really wild with 12 nominees before settling on ten up till 1944 when they went back to five. (There’s nothing revolutionary about this year’s ten nominees.) But the pattern of the midcult mindset was quickly established—that and the fact that outside factors would always figure into the mix.
If The Broadway Melody was carried into “greatness” in 1929 because of the novelty of sound, then William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver (1942) got there by sheer topicality and advancing the war effort. The movie is typical MGM fare—complete with Greer Garson (once described as “Louis B. Mayer’s ideal of antiseptic sex”) and the dullest actor of all time, Walter Pidgeon—presenting a thoroughly Hollywooden view of middle class (or maybe upper middle clas) English life. Today, the choice seems pretty ludicrous. It certainly boasts none of the pure joy of cinema found in Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons—even in the mutilated form that that film reached the screen. Neither does Miniver have the thematic complexity or the cinematic punch of George Stevens’ The Talk of the Town—the film that ought to have won, despite Stevens’ typical tendency to go for big laughs that aren’t there on occasion. (There would come a day—post-1943—when you’d kill for a laugh in Stevens’ increasingly self-serious work.)
These aren’t isolated cases really, but it’s very easy to find fault in hindsight, especially when the mood of whatever moment has long passed. It doesn’t even have to be all that long. I can find fault with my own decisions in reviews written in the past decade. (How I gave Signs  four stars is the classic embarassment. That Far from Heaven  made my ten best list has baffled me for years.) But sometimes the Academy choices seem absolutely insane. Why was Love Story (1970) nominated for anything? Does anyone still think that Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) is better than Apocalypse Now (1979)? Did they really think so then? Or was it just a safer choice? (That’s a question you can replay for 2005 with Crash and Brokeback Mountain.) And none of this takes into account industry push and politics involved—the flood of “For Your Consideration” screeners and the full-page ads in the trades like Hollywood Reporter.
You might wonder—and rightly—why then do I bother with the Oscars. Well, again, they’re fun. It’s fun to dope them. It’s even fun to get annoyed with them. On those rare years when you really care about one of the nominees winning, it’s fun—and suspenseful—to watch. But there’s a little bit more than that. They do offer a snapshot of the mindset of the time—in what wins, in what’s nominated and in what’s overlooked altogether—and that has its merits. Moreover, there are the special awards and segments.
The awards themselves often seem a little shallow—like they’re trying to make up for decades of neglect. But there’s another side to this—the introduction of a major figure in film to an audience who has perhaps never even heard of him or her. From personal experience I know this can have a huge impact—notably Charles Chaplin’s honorary Oscar in 1972. I was still a kid at the time, though I knew who Chaplin was and had seen most of his Mutual two-reelers (1916-1917) on TV and even owned an 8mm print of The Cure (1917), but what really fired my interest was the absolutely gorgeous—and brilliantly assembled—montage of clips Peter Bogdanovich put together for the Oscar show. This ushered me in to a whole world of Chaplin I’d only ever seen represented in books. I count it as a pivotal moment in my cinematic education—and that’s a pretty big statement for an awards show of any kind.
OK, so that’s one moment of epiphany from 38 years ago, but it’s a moment I otherwise wouldn’t have had. I suspect I am not the only person who had it either. But more than that I suspect that there have been other such moments along the way for others. This is no small accomplishment, no matter how foolish the straightforward awards may get. I’m not quite ready to dispense with Oscar altogether on this basis alone.
Still, this is apart from the original question, so I’ll ask it again—does anybody really take the Oscar seriously? Does a Best Picture Oscar sway your opinion on a film? Does it make you run right out and see the winning film?