Our Finest Losers

Oscar voters favor 'important' films,

and spurn the ones they truly love


January 25, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

When watching the Oscars on TV, it's difficult to gauge clapping and shouting except in the cases of standing ovations or stunned silences. In person, levels of enthusiasm become thunderously clear.

Sit in the audience and it's easy to see that that the biggest conflict in the Academy is waged in the Academy members' minds, between their urge to award weighty, "worthy" movies and to acknowledge the pictures they actually enjoyed.

I learned this firsthand 21 years ago, when E.T. went up against Gandhi.

As critic for the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and then Rolling Stone, I regularly attended Oscar ceremonies as a guest. But this one made the split in the Academy's mindset emphatically, audibly obvious. The dressed-to-kill audience strove to be respectful, but any mention of Steven Spielberg's masterpiece shook the rafters while Gandhi evoked at best polite applause.

Yet Gandhi beat E.T. and that other sublime 1982 entertainment, Tootsie, in almost every category, including best picture and director. Gandhi even won best costume design -- a hilarious choice considering Gandhi's austere clothing.

By the time Gandhi's producer-director, Richard Attenborough, accepted his second Oscar, for best picture, my row-mates had decided they'd had enough. Once Attenborough declared after an exhausting buildup, "You honor Mahatma Gandhi and his plea to all of us to live in peace," co-host Dudley Moore asked "Is it still this year?" -- and before Moore finished his question they began their rush to the exits.

In an instant classic and oft-stolen quip, Herald-Examiner columnist Joe Morgenstern (now critic for The Wall Street Journal) theorized that Gandhi won because Gandhi himself was everything Academy voters wanted to be: moral, thin and tan.

As E.T. demonstrated, Academy voters -- a Hollywood and international elite open to membership by invitation only -- often don't know what to make of towering achievements that are smack in the middle of the richest American film traditions. In directing, artists who've brought time-tested genres to new psychological depths or artistic heights often go unrecognized. So do actors who have seamlessly melded their star personalities with vital new characterizations.

Sam Peckinpah made the two greatest Westerns of the last 50 years, Ride the High Country and The Wild Bunch, but wasn't nominated for directing either of them. Spielberg should have been given an award for Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind as well as E.T., but he found Academy approval only when he turned indisputably serious with Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan.

Thriller-master Alfred Hitchcock won the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for "the most consistent high level of production achievement" instead of any best director prize. Only an honorary Oscar went to the immortal Ernst Lubitsch (Trouble in Paradise, The Shop Around the Corner). The same with Howard Hawks, who throughout the '30s, '40s and '50s was equally adept at crime films (Scarface), screwball comedies (Twentieth Century, Bringing Up Baby), Westerns (Red River, Rio Bravo), private eye films (The Big Sleep), science fiction (he produced the original The Thing) and exotic adventures (Only Angels Have Wings, To Have and Have Not). Even Frank Capra didn't become an Academy favorite until he stopped making sensual, morally ambiguous movies like The Miracle Woman (1931) and The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), showcasing the greatest actress of the early sound era -- the fierce and luminous Barbara Stanwyck.

Undervalued actors

In acting, Stanwyck and Cary Grant and most recently Peter O' Toole accepted honorary Oscars, not best actor or best actress awards. Robert Mitchum never got a "real" or honorary Academy Award. William Powell and Jean Arthur were nominated (Arthur only once) but didn't win, and one of the most influential stars and talented actors of them all, Edward G. Robinson (Little Caesar), failed to grab a single nomination. Compensation for Robinson, too, came as an honorary Oscar.

Last year, the Academy outrageously ignored The Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson. If Academy members vote their hearts this year, The Return of the King, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Finding Nemo and Seabiscuit will loom large in the nominations, along with smaller movies like In America, The Station Agent, and the inexplicably beloved Lost in Translation. If they vote for what they think they're supposed to like, look for those twin monuments to torpor, Mystic River and Cold Mountain, to weigh heavily on the list.

One thing's for sure. Many of the best performances of the year will not be mentioned.

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