The Oscars

The Secret History of Hollywood's Academy Awards

Anthony Holden
Little, Brown and Company, 1993.
Source Notes, Index and listings of winners and losers.
Hbk. 766 pages. £20.00.

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Does the mere thought of the Academy Awards send you straight to sleep? It seems an odd idea to reward Hollywood superstars who are already far too rich for their own good. Even worse, the star presenters and winners often feel they have to say something important to the world at large. 

At the ceremony held on 29 March 1993, Emma Thompson, after winning her Best Actress award said "This is such a great honour to receive this in the year when we recognise and celebrate and honour women." 

That was nothing compared to Richard Gere's declaration that China should withdraw its troops from the Buddhist homeland. 

"I wonder if something miraculous and really kind of movie-like could happen here, where we could send some kind of love and truth and kind of sanity to Deng Xiaopeng (the Chinese dictator) in Beijing, that he would take his troops and take the Chinese away from Tibet and allow these people to live as free, independent people again." 

The producer of the show, Gil Cates, also had to wrap the knuckles of Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, after Robbins had stated during the presentation for Best Film Editing, "We'd like to call attention to 250 Haitians being quarantined in Cuba - their crime? Testing positive for the HIV virus." 

These are but small outbursts of political correctness compared to Marlon Brando's protest about the treatment of American Indians in films, delivered by Sacheen Littlefeather. What made matters worse was that she was a fake. John Wayne for once was correct, when he observed that, "If he (Brando) had something to say, he should have appeared that night and stated his views instead of taking some little unknown girl and dressing her up in an Indian outfit." 

Two years earlier, in 1970, George C. Scott had shown his disapproval of the Oscars in a Time magazine interview, "I don't give a damn about (it). I'm making too much money, anyway. ' He thought the show itself was full of "phoney suspense and the crying actor clutching the statue to his bosom and all of that crap." His views are regarded as being coloured by his loss of the Best Supporting award in 1959, and subsequent failures to clutch a statue to his bosom. His wife, Trish Van Devere, thought that, "He...wanted it so badly that he became almost completely wrapped up in it. When he didn't win, he took a hard look, and came to believe it wasn't healthy to want something so much. " 

In such a profession your career stands or falls on your last picture in terms of critical reaction, peer-group recognition and most of all, box-office performance. When you are at the top of the pile you have a long way to fall. There are many box-office 'certainties' who make films that are monumental failures. Every film is a gamble, so it is not surprising that everyone concerned with their production seeks to become a respected and sought-after part of the film making establishment. Then, of course, Academy Awards do help feed and nourish the ego. 

All the dissenting voices, controversy and political statements about deprived minorities are but mutterings in the background compared to the shouting of the hype that goes on to garner nominations and votes. The industry and individuals, pay small and large fortunes, to advertise their worthiness in the Hollywood trade papers. Some of these are excruciatingly bad. John Wayne's campaign for his 1960 film, The Alamo, should win an award for bad taste. The film itself cost him most of his personal fortune and assets, so there was an air of desperation in his ads that regarded viewing the film as every U.S. citizens' patriotic duty. A flavour of the Oscar campaign can be gathered by the following, which was the climax to 43 days of consecutive trade ads: 

Born 1907 AD - Died 3000 AD 

When the motion picture industry's epitaph is written - what will it say? 

Will another civilisation, coming upon the ruins, find something of worth: a spool of film spelling out a great dream? Or a sequence that merely featured a sex measurement or an innuendo that 'got by' the censors? 

Will there be left behind, for the ages to come, an enduring screen literature that played a vital role in the Twentieth Century? Or do you care? 

The sincere and the dedicated do care. 

This includes every man and woman who contributed to the making of 'The Alamo'. 

Holden's book provides an enjoyable guide to the origins, organisation and history of the Academy Awards. Besides being a very useful reference work, it shows the vanities, back- stabbing, politics and hype over that thirteen-and-a-half inch golden idol. 

Nigel Watson

Also see Oscar Reflections by Alan Pavelin.
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