OSCAR Week/Awards Report #10/Are We Ready for our Close-Ups?!
FIRST UP, A COOL LINK TO SEE TRAILERS FOR THE OSCAR-NOMINATED ANIMATED SHORTS. (AT LEAST A PEEK, SO YOU'RE NOT VOTING BLIND ON ALL THE DOWN-TICKET BALLOT ITEMS, EH?)
A scenic artist touches up an Oscar graphic near the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood on Thursday for Sunday's Academy Awards
Oscar Nominees Johnny Depp, Clive Owen, Don Cheadle,and Leonardo DiCaprio Top List
GQ names the top ten greatest actors of our generation in its March issue (on newsstands nationwide February 22nd), including Oscar nominees Johnny Depp, Clive Owen, Don Cheadle, and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Russell Crowe, Nicolas Cage, Benicio Del Toro, John C. Reilly, Gael Garcia Bernal, and Jim Carrey complete the first-ever GQ best actors list. EDITOR'S NOTE: ONE MAGAZINE'S OPINION. BUT A FUN LIST, NONETHELESS.
Russell Crowe: It is a blessing when a great actor just wants to make you feel: "You're watching something, and you're a cynical bloke or whatever, and you find yourself tearing up, and you've got goose bumps on your f***g skin, and you have a real f***g emotional reaction to what's going on, and just in the back of your mind when you walk out of the cinema, you go, 'Thanks, Russell-now I'll get back to whatever else I'm doing,'" he says.EDITOR'S NOTE: THANKS, RUSS. I'M GUESSING YOU'RE NOT GOING TO WIN ANY OSCARS FOR WRITING.
Clive Owen: Hollywood loves a tuxedo-clad Brit; some are Bond material, the others just filler between Bruckheimer explosions. Owen is something else entirely: a steely, charming screen presence that almost never was. "When I got into drama school," he says, "I really felt like someone plucked me out of the life I was in and put me on the path to somewhere else."EDITOR'S NOTE: YUMMY.
Nicolas Cage: A jazz actor whose bizarre, inappropriate choices are almost always the best thing in the movie. Says Cage, "I think everything I've experienced has left its imprint on my mind and my soul, and it comes out in the work, whether I want it to or not."EDITOR'S NOTE: YEAH. DUH.
Johnny Depp: It's tempting to see high-low calculation on Depp's resume -- a little art house here, a little Hollywood there -- but it's the lack of caution that continues to make him irresistible. Johnny does what Johnny wants to do. Want to move to France and start a family? Sure! Want to play Willy Wonka? Yeah! Want to make a Pirates sequel? Why not? In Johnny's hands, it all makes sense. EDITOR'S NOTE: WORKS FOR ME, TOO.
Benicio Del Toro: He has mastered the art of the early death (Snatch, The Pledge, and of course The Usual Suspects), and he's never pimped himself out to the romantic comedy. "I play wackos," he says. Why are they all wackos? "That's something you have to sit down for hours to make sense of."
John C. Reilly: The gut-level empathy Reilly quietly musters for his sidekicks, cuckolds, and second bananas defines his sixteen years on film. "I think of all the parts I play as the main characters in their own story," he says. "When you see great supporting performances, it's because people are committed to their little corner of the sky."EDITOR'S NOTE: I'M THINKING HE AND RUSSELL CROWE WOULDN'T HAVE A WHOLE LOT TO DISCUSS (SEEING AS HOW REILLY APPEARS LUCID. AND SOBER).
Don Cheadle: Whether he's undertaking the complex, profound lead in Hotel Rwanda or supporting roles in Traffic and Out of Sight or those NFL spots that made us reconsider the significance of five seconds, Cheadle demonstrates again and again that it's not what kind of billing you receive, it's what you do with the part once you've got it. "My career has never been like a jet taking off; it's a house built on sand," says Cheadle. "It's nervous-makingfor sure."
Gael Garcia Bernal: Bernal has eschewed crossover career moves in favor of riskier parts -- an amoral drag queen in Bad Education, the man who would be Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries -- and proved that talent always translates. "I want to have an actor's life," he says. "It's not about having a successful career. I don't believe in 'making it.'"
Leonardo DiCaprio: As the sweet, stunted Arnie in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, DiCaprio played the part as if he were in an altered state, from the first frame to the last. And with his intricate Howard Hughes, both swaggering and fragile, he overcomes his perennial boyishness and proves himself the wildly searching, inventive actor we'd always hoped he was.
Jim Carrey: Carrey will go down as our greatest clown, of both the exuberant and sad varieties; in The Truman Show, and particularly in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, he's comically, heartbreakingly unaware of the malign puppeteers pulling his strings. Yet Carrey's ambitions lie beyond clowndom, and even the deep drama he's clearly capable of. As he says, "I will never be satisfied until I burst into a ball of flames on-camera and thedirector yells, 'He got it!'" EDITOR'S NOTE: OUCH. PAINFUL TEST OF WORTH. ME? I'D SETTLE FOR THE CASH, AND AN OCCASIONALY PAT ON THE BACK.
EDITOR'S NOTE: A BRIEF RESPITE TO HAVE A LIBATION......(OSCAR STYLE, NATCH)
Restaurants Put Oscar Noms on the Rocks
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - The wine-country ramble "Sideways" may be the booziest Academy Awards nominee, but five restaurants are toasting all the best-picture contenders with their own cocktails.
Here's the scoop on the drinks available at Beverly Hills establishments, ranging from elaborate concoctions to a sturdy whiskey and Coke:
_ In honor of Martin Scorsese's Howard Hughes epic, the Blue on Blue restaurant at the Avalon Hotel has mixed up "The Aviator," whose ingredients include Hangar One citron and raspberry vodkas, lemonade and raspberry puree. EDITOR'S NOTE: SOUNDS YUMMY!
_ The Writer's Bar at Raffles L'Ermitage hotel offers the "Pixie Stick," inspired by "Finding Neverland," Marc Forster's tale of "Peter Pan" creator J.M. Barrie. The recipe features gin, Midori melon liqueur and 7-Up.
_ Pegged to Clint Eastwood's boxing drama "Million Dollar Baby," the Kate Mantilini restaurant is serving the "Mantilini Knock-Out Punch," whose fixings include Absolut mandarin vodka, Triple Sec liqueur, lime juice and cranberry juice.
_ Mastro's Steakhouse is keeping things simple with "Hit the Road Jack," a Jack Daniels and Coke named after one of the Ray Charles hit tunes featured in Taylor Hackford's film biography "Ray." EDITOR'S NOTE: IF THEY REALLY WANT AN HOMAGE, THEY SHOULD PROVIDE HEROIN. (BAD QOTD, BAD BAD...)
_ For "Sideways," Alexander Payne's tale of two buddies on a wine-tasting spree, Enoteca Drago has created "Pinot Envy," made with Ferrari Rose champagne, vodka, peach schnapps and pineapple juice. EDITOR'S NTOE: THAT SOUNDS DELISH, BUT HERE'S A THOUGHT....HOW ABOUT SOME WINE?!
'Aviator,' 'Sideways' Have Most Curses
And the $@"! award goes to ... "The Aviator" has the most profanity of all the best-picture Oscar candidates, according to the entertainment ratings firm PSVratings, Inc. EDITOR'S NOTE: OK, THERE'S A JOB FOR YOU....SITTING IN A THEATER AND COUNTING NAUGHTY WORDS!
There were 125 curses in the Howard Hughes biopic, the company said, followed by 118 in "Sideways," 95 in "Ray," 53 in "Million Dollar Baby" and a mere 4 in the Peter Pan tale "Finding Neverland." EDITOR'S NOTE: THAT ALONE SHOULD GIVE IT A SCREENWRITING AWARD. (I'M NOT AGAINST VEXING VERBIAGE BY ANY MEANS, BUT OVER-USE OF THE VERNACULAR, AS IT WERE, IS OFTEN A SIGN TO ME OF A DEARTH OF LANGUAGE SKILL OR A FAILURE OF CREATIVE SCOPE).
When it came to the gold standard of profanity, "Sideways" was tops with 70 F-bombs.
PSVratings (profanity, sex and violence, get it?) grades movies and video games for parents. It has tracked the number and kinds of curses in more than 2,000 movies. EDITOR'S NOTE: PEOPLE WITH TOO MUCH TIME ON THEIR HANDS?
The all-time record for a best picture winner, according to PSVratings, was "Platoon" in 1986, with 337 curses.
Play Oscar pools, but bet on Net
Ignore the hype about the sudden momentum that will propel "Million Dollar Baby" to a best-picture Oscar. "The Aviator" will take it, just as oddsmakers have predicted since the day nominations were released.
At least that's what Internet gamblers are betting on.
At BetWWTS.com, for example, "Aviator" is still a short-odds favorite, commanding a $200 wager just to win $100. Those who play the office Oscar pool would be wise not to dismiss the collective wisdom of thousands of folks who risk their cash on the outcome of the Academy Awards.
Last year, BetWWTS.com let players bet on the top six categories, and they correctly picked all six winners. Another Internet gambling site, Bodog.com, also has pegged "Aviator" as the favorite, as does Cantor Odds. At the latter, a $100 bet would return just $140 if "Aviator" wins (a $40 profit). By way of contrast, a $100 bet would return $300 on "Million Dollar Baby," $800 on "Sideways" and $4,000 on both "Finding Neverland" and "Ray."EDITOR'S NOTE: AND IN THE OTHER CATEGORIES?
The Oscars: Based on a True Story
History in the Movies/By Cathy Schultz
To get an Academy Award, Hollywood has learned that the truth is more powerful than fiction.
Biographical films-or 'biopics' in Hollywood lingo-have recently proven irresistible to Oscar voters. EDITOR'S NOTE: AND MORE IS THE PITY, IF YOU ASK ME. (MY LEAST FAVORITE GENRE. SOMETIMES MORE LOATHED EVEN THAN CHICK FLICKS).
In the last decade, at least one (usually more) of the Best Picture nominees has been a film focusing on real people or events. And in nine of the last 10 years, an Oscar has gone to an actor playing an actual person.
This year the trend has exploded.
Three best picture nominees-"The Aviator," "Ray" and "Finding Neverland"-are biopics, and eight of the acting nominations went to actors portraying real people, who range from the very famous-Ray Charles, Howard Hughes, Katharine Hepburn-to the not-so-famous-Senator Ralph Brewster (who?)
There's an undeniable power to the phrase "based on a true story." Historical reality lends biopics an emotional heft. These events really happened to these people, we think. His heart broke in just that way, she overcame that particular challenge and he triumphed (or self-destructed) just like that.That façade of realism is the attraction of biopics, but also their risk.
For even though we know (don't we?) that biopics tell many "white lies" to simplify the story and make it more cinematic, we still get annoyed when films alter the history they depict.
Biopics, then, have two hurdles to clear in their path to glory and profit-they must resonate as a film, but also pass muster as history. If a film is too cavalier with the facts, if the little lies add up to less justifiable "big lies," the resulting historical criticism can derail a film's potential faster than you can say "JFK."EDITOR'S NOTE: OH NOT FAIR. IN OLIVER STONE'S MIND, IT WAS ALL COMPLETELY REAL. (THE LITTLE MEN THAT LIVE IN HIS HEATING DUCTS TOLD HIM SO!)
Such was the fate of the 1999 film, "The Hurricane." Denzel Washington was nominated for an Oscar for his mesmerizing portrayal of real life boxer and convict, Rubin Carter. As a film, "The Hurricane" is a compelling drama. Its message-an indictment of America's racism-is powerfully conveyed. We watch, appalled, as racists destroy Carter's boxing career and send him to prison on trumped-up murder charges.Early buzz had "The Hurricane" pegged for multiple Oscar consideration. That is until critics began raising troubling questions about the film's use of history. A key antagonist in the film-a loathsome, racist cop-turned out to be fictional. Critics charged that Carter's character was misrepresented. And "Sports Illustrated" raised questions about the depiction of his boxing career, claiming that Carter lost bouts to legitimately better boxers, not because of racism. Under the onslaught of negative publicity, the film lost steam, and ultimately it, and Washington, were shut out of Oscar wins.
A similar fate seemed in store for 2001's "A Beautiful Mind," starring Russell Crowe as mathematician John Nash. Pegged as an early Oscar leader, the film's prospects began to wither under attacks on its truthfulness. Critics charged that Nash was in reality an adulterer, father of an illegitimate child, possibly gay and maybe even anti-Semitic.The filmmakers fought back, enlisting Nash's wife, his biographer and Nash himself to buttress the film's credibility. For the record, they admitted to Nash's first marriage and child (claiming it wasn't important for the story) but vehemently denied that Nash was gay or anti-Semitic. The counter-offensive worked; "A Beautiful Mind" triumphed at the 2002 Oscars with Best Picture and Director wins. (Crowe, though, lost in the Best Actor race, ironically, to Denzel Washington.)
This year, with three biopics nominated, you might expect to find some controversy, some carrying on about truth versus fiction, some outrage over mangled historical records. But oddly, it's been very...quiet.
An occasional criticism has surfaced. Some have questioned whether the real J.M. Barrie ("Finding Neverland") liked boys less innocently than shown in the film. (His biographer claims otherwise.) It's the kind of criticism that would get more press if the film were considered a frontrunner for the Oscar, which it isn't.EDITOR'S NOTE: AND MORE IS THE PITY, SNIFFLE.
"Ray" has held up fairly well under historical scrutiny. It's been reported that the film fabricated the plotline featuring the state of Georgia's ban against Ray Charles. But that story, while true, didn't pick up much steam. And "Ray" probably inoculated itself against any charges of misrepresentation by giving such a warts-and-all portrait (addiction to heroin, frequent adultery) of the man.EDITOR'S NOTE: ANYONE ELSE NOTICE HOW MANY MORE CHILDREN ARE LISTED IN THE END CREDITS THAN WERE DEPICTED IN THE MOVIE? 'WARTS AND ALL', BUT ONLY A FEW OF THE WARTS. (YOU LEAVE OUT ENOUGH OF THEM, AND IT IS ALMOST A...PARDON THE PHRASE...WHITE-WASH, EVEN IF YOU SHOW SOME OF THEM).
Which leaves "The Aviator." It's hard to view that film as a whitewash of Howard Hughes during the scenes when he's in the full throes of his obsessive compulsive disorder, particularly when-in a cinematic first, I believe-we watch as he collects his urine in bottles.But a few lonely voices have attacked its history, shouting out their outrage to an uncaring world. Their criticism can be boiled down to this-Hughes was meaner than the movie shows.
Not much clout to that one.
The biggest reason biopics have had an easier ride this year is because a fictional story, Best Picture nominee "Million Dollar Baby," has played the role of lightening rod, generating controversy not over historical accuracy, but over a moral question raised toward the end of that movie (and, no, you won't get any more details than that since this is a spoiler-free review.) Attacked by some, praised by others, "Million Dollar Baby" is doing what the best movies can-generate discussion and debate over significant issues.But it is odd that in the year of the biopic, we don't have more historical criticism filling the media. Its absence leaves us simply discussing whether we like the Best Picture nominees as, well, movies.
What a concept. EDITOR'S NOTE: OF COURSE, IN A NOTORIOUSLY ANTI-INTELLECTUAL ENVIRONMENT SUCH AS WE HAVE AT PRESENT, NON-DISCUSSION OF BIGGER ISSUES DOESN'T NECESSARILY MEAN WE'RE ON THE RIGHT TRACK IN HOW WE PERCEIVE THESE FILMS.
Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois.
Politics will take backseat to art at Sunday's Oscars
Two years ago, an actual war threatened to upstage the Academy Awards as the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq overshadowed Hollywood's annual exercise in glittering prize-giving.Last year, the Great Screener War -- a metaphoric war, but a war nonetheless -- turned the months that led up to the Oscar ceremonies into a pitched battle between the studios and their unruly specialty labels.
But this year, it's as if a truce had been declared.
With the 77th Annual Academy Awards set for Sunday night, somehow Hollywood finds itself at the end of a kinder, gentler Oscar season where, much to the press' disappointment, potential controversies evaporated into thin air.
Having spent much of his tenure as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences attempting to stomp out the excessive campaigning that sometimes has surrounded the awards, Frank Pierson couldn't have been more pleased. Meeting with the nominees this month, he congratulated them by saying that the recognition they had earned wasn't the result of any of the campaigns that might have been waged on their behalf but a reward for "opening us all to something that is fresh, unexpected and new."
Desperate to stir up an 11th-hour contretemps, some rabble-rousers trained their sights on producer Gil Cates' choice of host -- the irreverent Chris Rock.
In one interview, Rock had made some off-the-cuff remarks suggesting that watching the Oscars wasn't high on the leisure-time activities of most straight black men. Seeking to stir it up, some commentators tried to turn that wisecrack into an attack on both gays and the Academy itself. In response, Cates only laughed, "That's why we've chosen Chris -- he's a comedian."
But while some viewers might well tune into ABC's broadcast to see whether Rock crosses the line, as the 77th Oscars takes over the stage of the Kodak Theatre at Hollywood & Highland, most of the suspense probably will be the result of more predictable questions.
The evening's biggest showdown should involve those two lions in winter, Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese, as they vie for the best directing prize. With five directing names and no wins to date on his resume, Scorsese probably would be considered the sentimental favorite in any lineup that didn't also include Eastwood. A nominee last year for "Mystic River," Eastwood is something of a Hollywood hometown hero for his rugged determination to stick to his artistic guns.However, Eastwood won both best director and best picture for 1992's "Unforgiven." So that could make it easier for Academy voters to decide to honor Scorsese.
The British Academy Film Awards, which took place this month, don't bode well for Scorsese, though. Since Eastwood's movie was ineligible for this year's BAFAs, Scorsese faced off against British director Mike Leigh, who is also an Academy nominee for "Vera Drake." In British film circles, Leigh is just as much of an individualist as Eastwood is in America, and it was Leigh who claimed the BAFA directing mask.Similarly, the best picture prize also appears to be up for grabs, with neither Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby" nor Scorsese's "The Aviator" guaranteed to score the final knockout.But even though boxing cliches are sure to play a prominent part in the postshow commentary, this year's contest really hasn't been much of a slugfest.
In a year when the wine-soaked epiphanies of "Sideways" and the winsome, escapist fantasies of "Finding Neverland" set at least part of the tone, the Oscar battles were almost genteel.
When the season began to take shape -- back in September as the first of the fall releases began popping up at film festivals from Venice to Toronto to New York -- the common wisdom was that it was a wide-open race.What that really meant was that there was no "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" on the horizon.
As much as Hollywood came to love Peter Jackson's tripartite epic, "Return of the King" was a bit of a heavy last year, scoring in all 11 categories -- including best picture -- in which it was nominated.But with the "Rings" cycle out of the way -- and only a couple of would-be epics like Oliver Stone's ultimately short-lived "Alexander" on the horizon -- Hollywood's studios and specialty labels alike geared up for an Oscar season in which any movie that could curry critical support, a modicum of boxoffice success and the good favor of at least a fifth of the 5,808 voting members of the Academy could stake its claim for the gold.
As Oscar campaigners jockeyed for position at the starting gate, a few whispers popped up here and there: Could "Sideways," though a critical favorite from the start, be too lightweight for the august Academy? What about that J.M. Barrie, whom Johnny Depp portrays in "Neverland" -- wasn't he a bit of a pederast? And speaking of kinky guys, how about Alfred Kinsey, whom Liam Neeson portrays in "Kinsey" This season, though, the whispering campaigns seemed to fall on relatively deaf ears.
Late in the game, ideologically motivated critics aimed their guns at "Million Dollar Baby," painting Eastwood as a conservative turncoat who was promoting euthanasia. But most film journalists, leery of giving away the movie's plot twists, failed to take the bait.And the two movies that had generated the most controversy during the course of the year -- Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" and Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" -- proved not to be major Oscar players when the nominations were announced Jan. 25.
While "Passion" could claim three noms, Moore opted for a television airing, which, because of the rules in place for this year's documentary competition, meant his film couldn't compete in the docu category.
Among the films that were nominated, "The Aviator," buoyed by its crafts nominations, glided above the fray with its commanding 11 nominations. Its two nearest competitors -- "Finding Neverland" and "Million Dollar Baby" -- have seven nominations each. The remaining best picture contenders, "Ray" and "Sideways," had six and five noms, respectively.But the consensus has been that no one film towers over its competition.
"So many people perceived it as a weak year, but there were a lot of great contenders with only a few slots. So I feel that this year, the nominations are spread out over many more films than usual," Sony Pictures Classics co-head Michael Barker observed.
True, some of the performances and films that were touted as Oscar-worthy at the season's start fell by the wayside. The best actor field proved particularly crowded. And critically acclaimed work such as Neeson's performance or by Paul Giamatti in "Sideways," Javier Bardem in "The Sea Inside" and Jeff Bridges in "The Door in the Floor" all were overlooked.
Yet though this year's nominations might have occasioned disappointments, they didn't provoke outright condemnation, for, if anything, the Oscars have become more cosmopolitan.In a year that saw a number of subtitled features find favor in the art film market, there was actually a logjam in the foreign-language film category. Because the current rules permit only one entry per country, Pedro Almodovar's "Bad Education" was left out in the cold when Spain chose to submit "The Sea Inside." The globe-trotting "The Motorcycle Dairies," whose creative team hails from Brazil, Mexico and the United States, also found itself a film without a country.
But Academy voters looked beyond the subtitles, inviting a number of foreign-language films into other categories. "Motorcycle Diaries" was rewarded with noms for adapted screenplay and original song. France's "A Very Long Engagement" caught the attention of art directors and cinematographers. And the official French submission, "Les Choristes" (The Chorus), also took a song nomination.
Equally heartening was the fact that this year, the Academy's acting awards looked diverse. Three years ago, when Denzel Washington and Halle Berry cracked the Academy's color barrier, winning both best actor and best actress, their story was impossible to ignore.But this year, the fact that so many black actors scored acting nominations hardly seemed to merit special mention. Certainly, there was no denying the talent involved with Jamie Foxx earning two nominations (for "Ray" and "Collateral"); Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo both representing "Hotel Rwanda"; and Morgan Freeman, scoring his fourth acting nom for "Million Dollar Baby."
And if there is one genuine upset Sunday night, it will be if anyone but Foxx is called to the stage when the envelope for best actor is opened.EDITOR'S NOTE: I LIVE IN HOPE....(NO OFFENSE TO FOXX, BUT ALL THE OTHER GUYS WERE BETTER. IMHO).Meanwhile, as the hours to showtime tick down, Pierson is hoping for just two things.
As he has put it, "May we be spared rain, and may the wardrobes function."
EDITOR'S NOTE: MAY WE GET SERIOUS FOR A SEC? AN INTERESTING PERSPECTIVE ON THIS YEAR'S OSCARS.....
Race and 'Ray'
By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Watching 'Ray,' white America sees a biopic of a legendary performer. Black America sees a film that speaks intimately to a cultural zeitgeist. What does it mean for 'Ray' to succeed – or fail – in the Oscar race?
This weekend, a collection of well-coiffed, well-dressed, and well-endowed celebrities will stand on a Southern California stage in front of a glamorous, celebrity-filled audience and millions of television viewers, opening envelopes that announce the winners of the 77th Annual Academy Awards. For most Americans, it will be a one-night diversion, a meaningless opinion poll – the results of which would be quickly forgotten but for the millions of dollars of followup advertising hawking the prize winners.
For many African Americans, however, this year's Oscars will have a far different meaning: the awards will be a symbolic referendum on whether America has finally come to see and accept African Americans – the real African Americans, what and who we are when we go back to our communities at night and toss off our shoes and shut out the outside world – or if we will have to wait a little longer.
They will be watching what happens to the movie Ray, both in the Best Picture category, and in the nomination of Jamie Foxx as Best Actor.
This quiet vigil in black neighborhoods and bars and living rooms has gone largely unnoticed outside the black world. The mainstream media tends to paint race with the broadest of all strokes – are there minorities represented, or are there not? – often overlooking the subtleties that actually make up the American racial world. And so there was intense mainstream coverage of the selection of Sidney Poitier as best actor in Lilies of the Field in 1963, because no black actor had ever done that before. And 39 years later, after the sweep by Halle Berry (Monster's Ball) and Denzel Washington (Training Day) of the Best Actor/Actress categories, it was widely considered that black acting had arrived, that blacks were now fully appreciated in the movie industry, and that story line was dead.
Part of why black concerns over this year's Oscars have been overlooked is the obvious question: what could black folks possibly have to be concerned about this year? Foxx himself has two nominations – one for Ray, one for Collateral – while fellow black actors Morgan Freeman (Million Dollar Baby) and Don Cheadle and Sophie Okenedo (both for Hotel Rwanda) are also up for Oscars.
Among African Americans, however, Foxx's nomination stands out. And that is because Ray is a far different major-release movie than we have ever seen on American screens. In a combination of content, pace, and presentation, "Ray" is a black movie.
From the Spielberg-Oprah Winfrey Beloved collaboration to Carl Franklin's Denzel Washington vehicle Devil In A Blue Dress, John Singleton's Boyz n The Hood, and Spike Lee's entire body of work, black-themed movies with black lead actors and majority black casts are no longer an anomaly in American film. But in many ways, these movies were like Gershwin's 1920's era folk-opera Porgy: black themes showcased – sometimes highly successfully – in a white form. Ray, however, almost literally flips the script, blending content and form in a way that only can be described as "black." Only Charles Burnett's 1990 To Sleep With Anger comes close, and Anger, despite an all-star pairing of Danny Glover and Mary Alice, went unnoticed at the box office.
One of the major themes in Ray Charles' work was his combining of blues and gospel music into a single piece, bridging a secular-spiritual split that had divided the black community since the days of the slavery-time cotton fields. (That split is highlighted in the movie in the "all y'all going straight to hell" devil music scene, when a minister and his flock try to bust up one of Charles' club sets in the middle of his straight-out-of-gospel song "Hallelujah, I Just Love Her So.")
But an unstated theme of the movie is bridging the often-overlooked split between African-American Christian spiritualism and the older African spiritualism many thought was permanently discarded in the holds of the slave ships in the Middle Passage.
Photographer-historian Bill Steber, who has documented many of the older African practices in his blues photo essays on the South, says that "remnants of African culture and religion are woven into the fabric of American culture in so many ways, they often remain hidden in plain sight."
One visual symbol of that old African spiritualism – should we call it the real "old-time religion?" – is the tinkling, multi-colored bottle tree, first making its appearance in Retha Robinson's Greensville, Fla. yard, later recurring, periodically, in Ray Charles' remembrances of his childhood and the drowning death of his younger brother. Steber dates the trees back to ninth-century Congo, describing them as "colorful bottles (traditionally cobalt blue) ... placed on branch ends to catch the sunlight. When an evil spirit sees the play of light, it enters the bottle and, like a wasp, is thereby entrapped." There is something clearly both old African and non-Christian in the bottle tree images in the movie, even for those who don't know the details of its symbolism.
Another subtle slip into a black world view in Ray is the manner in which the movie looks at the death of Ray Charles' brother George, and Charles' relationship with his long-dead mother. Perhaps reflecting Christianity's divided views on the subject and American society's tendency to ridicule those who believe in such things, American motion pictures are generally uncomfortable with the subject of ghosts, most often either treating them as supernatural demons to be run from or destroyed, as virtual cartoon characters (such as in Ghostbusters) or seeing their appearance as aberrations – sometimes welcome aberrations – but nonetheless deviations from the normal order of things (such as in the movie Ghost).
For many African Americans, however, ghosts and spirits are not imaginary phantasms, but familiar beings whose makeup is so gossamer they can travel unhindered through the veil that divides this world with the other. Particularly in Ray Charles' pivotal conversation with his mother and George near the end of the movie, as he is trying to kick his heroin habit, Ray treats those spiritual beliefs with both a respect and a matter-of-fact naturalness that the usual behind-the-hand tittering is not possible when those scenes come on the screen.
Ray also steers closer to the black side of the water in its treatment of sex. For all the "wardrobe malfunction"-bared breasts and gyrating booties of rap videos, a majority of the African-American community is really quite conservative and modest at heart when it comes to issues of public nudity, and get particularly fidgety when it is black women who are doing the baring. There was an undercurrent of black grumbling – generally ignored by the mainstream media – when Halle Berry left little to the imagination in her Monster's Ball on-screen intercourse with her husband's executioner, and a quiet "Yeah, see what you open yourself up to?" when, a year later, actor Adrien Brody considered Berry as part of his prize when winning the 2003 Best Actor Academy Award.EDITOR'S NOTE: OK, THAT LAST BIT WAS A BIG OLE STRETCH. "MONSTER'S BALL" WAS LUDICROUS ON MANY MANY LEVELS, NOT THE LEAST OF WHICH HAVING TO DO WITH HALLE BERRY'S GRATUITOUS NUDITY. BUT SOMETIMES...ADRIEN BRODY, INCLUDED....A CIGAR IS JUST A CIGAR.
In Ray, Regina King plays one of the more pulsingly sexual singers of our lifetime – Raelette Margie Hendrix (after Foxx as Charles tells her his room number is "69," King's throaty "you're so nasty, that's what I love about you" goes down as one of them all-time sex line deliveries of movie history). And yet, amazingly for these times, King does it all without baring her body. That theme is carried throughout the movie, dealing with Charles' legendary womanizing without a single obligatory sex scene. That is one of the reasons why Ray bridges the black generation gap in a way most American movies do not – it is a movie where children, parents, and grandparents can sit in front of the same screen, and neither twitch with boredom or quiver with embarrassment.
It does not hurt Ray's attraction to younger black audiences, either, that the King line is encompassed within what is essentially an MTV-style music video within the movie itself, the story of the supplanting of singer Mary Ann Fisher with Hendrix as Charles' on-the-road lover, interspersed with nightclub performance scenes, all while Fisher sings "What Kind Of Man Are You?" While almost every American movie tries to attract young audiences, few of them have managed to tap into the hip-hop style and form of young viewers in such a way, while never disrupting the movie's flow. And that black generational bridging is not hurt either, of course, by the fact that Ray Charles' music looked both backward and forward, drawing from the hog-calling, barrelhouse blues of the early 20th century, participating in the founding of rhythm & blues, and (such as in the opening riff of "What'd I Say") anticipating rap.
Couple that with Sharon Warren's portrayal of Charles mother Aretha, an outstanding portrait of the intuitive intelligence and strength and suffering of African-American women (without the obligatory sex) in a medium that showcases far too little of that, and it becomes easier and easier to see why black audiences would see Ray as both special and vastly different from the usual attractions.
Still, few of these issues are being articulated even by African Americans themselves, either outside or inside the black community. It is doubtful that many black folks know why they like Ray so much, or even care.
Instead, during a TVOne interview with Ray stars Foxx and King, host Catherine Hughes describes scenes of black people coming out of the movie sharing thoughts with people they do not even know, feeling that they have shared a special experience, an honoring of black life with all its flaws, without pretense. Most often what you hear in black neighborhoods, in chatrooms, or over the telephone, from friends and cousins and acquaintances alike, is simply, "You gotta see it." Flying under the public radar, it is a bringing-black-folk-together phenomenon we have not witnessed since the 1970's, with the much-discussed and widely publicized reactions to the Roots television series.
And so, this weekend, even if they do not watch the actual ceremonies, large numbers of black Americans will pay special attention to this year's Academy Awards. In many ways, the results will not matter. The release of the movie Ray has already affirmed something for many African Americans – their secret selves, long-nurtured in dark corners, but kept from general public view. In years to come, we are going to see the coming out of this movie as a river crossed, and it is as yet unknown what will be found on the far bank. EDITOR'S NOTE: I HOPE THAT THE CREATION AND SUCCESS OF THE MOVIE IS VIEWED AS THE RIVER-CROSSING AND THAT THE AWARDS GIVEN WON'T HAVE ANY BEARING. (SINCE THE OSCARS ARE A CRAP SHOOT AND BOX OFFICE IS FAR MORE A GAUGE OF A MOVIE'S OUTREACH, YES?)
J. Douglas Allen-Taylor writes for the Berkeley Daily Planet.
Hollywood Catches Case of Oscar Blahs
By SHARON WAXMAN
In the days leading up to the movie industry's most glamorous night, the Oscars, the word heard frequently around Hollywood this year is not glitz, or hype, or excitement. It is fatigue. EDITOR'S NOTE: KINDA LIKE ALL THE READERS OF THE DWEEBLOG (WITH THE POSSIBLE EXCEPTION OF KRAZYKARLA) ARE FEELING ABOUT NOW VIS-A-VIS OUR OSCAR REPORTAGE?
Strange, perhaps, and unexpected.
The same millions of dollars as in years past have been spent on pitched Oscar campaigns, with their color, full-page newspaper advertisements and their earnest television spots.
The same publicity muscle has been put into cocktail parties and question-and-answer sessions led by Oscar nominees at the guilds and the movie industry's home for the aged.
But the fatigue is palpable nonetheless. A combination of lackluster box office and a certain awards overload, along with an underlying fear of prosecution for potentially pirated Oscar movie DVD's, seems to be contributing to a malaise.
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters have taken less joy than usual in participating in the national movie ritual, which is being broadcast Sunday on ABC.
It hasn't helped that viewership for the Golden Globes plunged by nearly 40 percent this year, and that the Grammys, just two weeks ago, suffered poor ratings, too. What if Hollywood holds an awards show and America doesn't show up? EDITOR'S NOTE: WE'LL BE THERE, WE'LL BE THERE!!! (WITH PIZZA AND CHIPS, BABY!)
Awards fatigue "is always a concern, even when the ratings haven't dropped," said an academy spokesman, John Pavlik, who acknowledged an active discussion of the issue in his organization. "How often can you see the same person win the same award and not be fatigued by it?"EDITOR'S NOTE: IS IT SOMEONE WE LIKE? He added: "And it's not just the awards shows - it's 'E. T.,' it's 'Access Hollywood' and all the shows that have clips from the awards shows, and show people winning again and again. You see the same thing for a week at a time."
The shifting ground under the Oscars, with declining ratings and a rising thicket of competing awards events, was one reason for this year's choice of host, the irreverent and sometimes outrageous Chris Rock. Mr. Rock, whose fan base tends more toward an MTV demographic than the famously conservative one of the motion picture academy, seems to be making some Oscar voters nervous, judging from interviews about the awards with insiders, Oscar handicappers and academy members themselves.
The telecast producer, Gilbert Cates, seems to relish the debate over Mr. Rock and has said he intends to shake up the established order by having some nominees go on stage before the Oscar announcement and by taking cameras into the audience, where some awards may be presented.
Mr. Cates addressed skepticism about the format at a meeting this week with the academy public relations committee, one member who was there said, speaking on condition of anonymity because it was an internal academy matter. The member said Mr. Cates told the group: "Could it backfire? We're going to try it. If it works, the academy will do it again. If it doesn't, it won't."EDITOR'S NOTE: WHAT THE HECK!? (ON THE ONE HAND, IT'S MESSING WITH MILLIONS OF DOLLARS; ON THE OTHER HAND, IT'S NOT THE SPACE SHUTTLE LAUNCH).
But another challenge this year seems to be the best picture nominees themselves: none have crossed the $100 million mark at the domestic box office. In previous years when films like "Titanic," "Forrest Gump" or "Gladiator" ruled the box office and the nominations, audience interest seemed built in.
This year the leading contenders for best picture, handicappers and academy members say, are Clint Eastwood's quiet boxing drama, "Million Dollar Baby," and Martin Scorsese's epic about Howard Hughes, "The Aviator." Neither qualifies as a box office blockbuster.
"The Aviator," whose aggressive Oscar campaign has been led by Miramax, a co-financier of the movie with Warner Brothers and the Initial Entertainment Group, has taken in a relatively modest $89 million so far (it cost $112 million). Warner Brothers' "Million Dollar Baby" has taken in $56 million (it cost $30 million).
In the best actor and actress categories, only a few major movie stars made the list, Leonardo DiCaprio and Annette Bening among them. But Americans are probably more familiar with Jennifer Aniston than with the rising favorite for best supporting actress, Sophie Okonedo ("Hotel Rwanda").
The best picture nominees - the director Alexander Payne's wry comedy "Sideways," the gentle "Finding Neverland" and the biopic "Ray" in addition to "The Aviator" and "Million Dollar Baby" - took in just $20 million, combined, according to boxofficemojo.com.
"This year, 'Ray' has done very well with its sector, 'Aviator' did well with its sector, but none of them have crossed over," said the publicist Tony Angellotti, who worked on the "Ray" Oscar campaign for Universal. "Most of these five pictures have not been wildly successful attracting more than their core target audience."
The veteran producer Peter Guber, an academy member, agreed. "Generally I think you'll find the ratings go down this year," he said. "It doesn't have those kind of big, visible icon films. It's just the nature of the thing. Why are people watching? Because of the noise of the film, the stars of the film, the media attention, what they're wearing. We in the academy like to think it's a cultural experience, but it's really a collection of stars and what they're wearing that gets the viewing audience."
As every year, the studios have done their best to compete for the Oscars. Universal has taken care to release the DVD for "Ray," about the singer Ray Charles, in recent weeks, as academy members vote.
For "The Aviator," Miramax, led by its co-chairman, Harvey Weinstein, has bought extensive television advertisements featuring comments from Alan Alda, nominated for best supporting actor, and the co-producer Michael Mann explaining the film's importance and Hughes's significance. Bloggers have noted that in some television spots, the studio paired "Aviator" images with music from the opening credit sequence of Mr. Scorsese's boxing masterpiece, "Raging Bull." The music, from the opera "Cavalleria Rusticana," is a detail that older academy members would be likely to notice, though the average television viewer might not. Mr. Scorsese, a nominee for best director, has never won an Oscar.
Meanwhile, "Million Dollar Baby" has been running promotional segments several minutes long on New York cable channels about the making of the film and its importance to the director and star, Mr. Eastwood. A dispute over the movie's treatment of assisted suicide, with conservative commentators and disability rights advocates attacking the film, seems only to have increased academy members' affection for Mr. Eastwood, who has portrayed himself as a Hollywood outsider in making this project. He is a nominee for best director and for best actor.
And while Fox Searchlight's "Sideways" seems a longshot for best picture, the movie has been a ringing success for the mini-studio, taking in $58 million so far and winning a Golden Globe for best movie, comedy, as well as the Screen Actors Guild's best ensemble award.
But it all remains confusing, truth be told.
Historically, the movie with the most Oscar nominations wins best picture, and in this case that would be "The Aviator," which snagged 11. But the sentimental favorite seems to be "Million Dollar Baby," whose director won the top award from the Directors Guild of America, a good predictor of the best director Oscar.
Take your pick. As Mr. Guber put it, "Tradition's great, as long as it works."
I'd not like to thank...
Not everyone's happy to win an Oscar.
Jennifer Rodger recalls some of the stars who've stuck to their guns and said no
The award season is traditionally fertile ground for the attention seeker - the red carpets, the dresses, the tears - and nowhere more so than at the Oscars. But some stars grab the limelight by refusing an award rather than by accepting one. It's the gong-giving ritual nobody likes to talk about.
Perhaps they don't like what the award represents (the accolade "best actor" is promising, but an honorary Oscar is like your career's premature end credit). Or perhaps it's down to that old favourite, that they don't want to play along with a "media-hyped" event that's completely unrepresentative of their lives on the edge as a highly paid movie star/celebrity.
Whatever their excuse, though, when a star turns down an Oscar it ultimately tells you as much about them as any tearful acceptance speech ever could.
The screenwriter Dudley Nichols was the first to refuse an Oscar, back in 1936, to support a screenwriters' dispute. Few would doubt his sincerity, but it was Marlon Brando who first did it with panache. When Brando sent an Apache girl called Sacheen Littlefeather to turn down an Oscar in 1973 for The Godfather on his behalf, he wanted to draw attention to the plight of the Native American. "You are probably saying: 'What the hell does this have to do with the Academy Awards?'" said Brando, via his spokesperson. "The answer is that the motion picture community as much as anyone has been responsible for degrading the Indian." A heartfelt sentiment, and only slightly undermined when Sacheen Littlefeather was later discovered to be B-movie actress Maria Cruz. EDITOR'S NOTE: OOPS. I NEVER HEARD THAT TIDBIT.
There are easier ways of making your point, as George C Scott demonstrated. He was nominated four times in total and always refused to attend, because he believed that artists shouldn't be in competition with one another. In spite of his remarks that the Oscars were "an annual orgy of self-adulation, a mere meat parade, offensive, barbarous and innately corrupt,"EDITOR'S NOTE: YES, BUT OTHER THAN THAT, MRS. LINCOLN, HOW DID YOU LIKE THE PLAY?! so good was his performance in Patton that the Academy refused to strike him from the 1970 nomination list. Fittingly, however, after his portrayal of a great military man, Scott won the stand-off. He stayed at home watching ice hockey while his producer picked up the statuette. The latter returned it to the Academy the next day, and there it remains.
Scott's no-show tactic caught on. In 1978, Woody Allen failed to collect his Oscar for Annie Hall, though the audience in Michael's Pub in New York were lucky enough to have him playing the jazz clarinet for them that night.
Dustin Hoffman, too, has sporadically shunned the Oscars, describing them as "obscene, dirty and grotesque, no better than a beauty contest". EDITOR'S NOTE: LIKE THAT'S A BAD THING?
Sometimes, though, the stars' impassioned arguments backfire. When the surrealist film-maker Luis Buñuel's Tristana was nominated for best foreign film in 1970, he remarked: "Nothing would disgust me more, morally, than receiving an Oscar. I wouldn't have it in my home." He wasn't forced to make the choice: after that, he didn't win it. EDITOR'S NOTE: FAR BE IT FOR THE VOTERS TO DISGUST HIM MORALLY. (THEY WERE JUST BEING CONSIDERATE)
Recently, nominees have developed a less risky method of upsetting the Academy - namely, by causing offence during their acceptance speeches.
The documentary-maker Michael Moore used his thank-you time at the 2003 Oscars to condemn the invasion of Iraq, a few days after it was announced. He was greeted by a chorus of boos. EDITOR'S NOTE: AND APPLAUSE.
However, it did get the public's attention - arguably his goal. And Moore would later say that his reception motivated him to make Fahrenheit 9/11. He said: "Someone told me that this is the first movie made to justify an Oscar speech. In essence, it's true. When I gave that speech, it wasn't embraced by majority opinion. Maybe I needed to clarify myself. That probably had a lot to do with making this [Fahrenheit 9/11] film."
In the end, the star who turns down an Oscar has their eye on a bigger prize - that of reminding everyone that their talent and principles are so exceptional they don't bear comparison with anyone else's. But sometimes, doing nothing is the most effective protest of all. Jane Fonda, dubbed "Hanoi Jane" by her detractors for her anti-Vietnam activities, won a best actress award for Klute in 1972, and kept her speech to the point. "There's a great deal to say," she said, "but I'm not going to say it tonight." EDITOR'S NOTE: ALMOST BRITISH IN ITS BREVITY AND WIT. (NEITHER THINGS I THOUGHT FONDAS WERE KNOWN FOR).
When it comes to some of the awards, you can see the refuseniks' point. This weekend, the 81-year-old director Sidney Lumet, who made Dog Day Afternoon and 12 Angry Men, will receive an honorary Oscar.
The bestowing of honorary Oscars is a murky business and not everyone is happy to get one. In 1986, Paul Newman didn't turn up for his. In taped remarks, Newman sarcastically observed how grateful he was that the statuette didn't come "wrapped as a gift certificate to Forest Lawn [a Hollywood memorial park]", going on to complain that his "best work is down the pike in front of me".
Peter O'Toole, too, resisted his honorary award - writing to the Academy in 2003 to say that he was "still in the game and might yet win the lovely bugger outright". He caved in, though, and took it anyway.
The institution is usually a way for the Academy to fill embarrassing lacunae in its voting.
Neither Newman nor O'Toole had won any of their nominations. Barbara Stanwyck and Greta Garbo were nominated - and overlooked - four times; Deborah Kerr missed out six times before picking up her consolation prize. Robert Altman - nearly as old as Lumet and with more nominations - is a likely future candidate. Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant only ever got honoraries.
Not everybody is a popular choice, however. In one of the most infamous decisions in Oscar history, Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront) was given an honorary in 1999. Kazan, a willing participant of the McCarthy purges of the 1950s, remains reviled by the liberal left. TV cameras zoomed in on Nick Nolte, Richard Dreyfuss and Ed Harris conspicuously not applauding during the standing ovation. Theirs was not the only protest.
Luckily for Lumet, his career is not yet over. His last actual nomination may have been back in 1982 with The Verdict, and he's just finished a courtroom drama with Vin Diesel. Find Me Guilty should go on release later this year.
Academy Bashes, 1929 to Now
By DAVID FRIEND
How did an intimate dinner for 300 turn into Hollywood's most exclusive extravaganza? An excerpt from the new book Oscar Night looks back across the glittering arc of 75 enchanted evenings.
On a quiet Sunday evening in January 1927, producer Louis B. Mayer went prospecting for daydreams and, inadvertently, struck Oscar gold.
That night, so the story goes, Mayer was playing an idle game of solitaire at his home in Santa Monica and half listening to an exchange between two of his guests, actor Conrad Nagel and director Fred Niblo. Suddenly, Mayer—the emphatic second M in MGM—stopped his game and cut in. Enough talk. What if they were to actually form a fraternity of their peers, as the two men were suggesting? A fellowship of filmmakers? Such a society could engender studio unity and promote the motion-picture business. And, quite conveniently, it might just help give them leverage in anticipated labor negotiations. (In other accounts, there was no game of solitaire, plenty of brandy and cigars—and it was Mayer who first broached the idea.)
Whatever the initial scenario, their flight of fancy—and what some might call anti-union maneuvering—swiftly took wing.
The following week three dozen studio stalwarts attended a brainstorming dinner at L.A.'s Ambassador Hotel. By May, Mayer, Douglas Fairbanks, and eight others were addressing several hundred in black-tie and ball gowns at Hollywood's Biltmore Hotel.
Fairbanks presented the big picture, Mayer hit them up for $100 a head, and, lo and behold, they had forged an academy (Nagel's term) of cinema's elite. Little did L. B. Mayer suspect that two years later his simple notion would spawn a splendid offshoot: the first Academy Awards dinner dance, held on May 16, 1929, in the Blossom Room of the Roosevelt Hotel. (Early on, Mayer had supposedly regarded both the banquet and the trophies as extravagant, and urged his colleagues not to waste funds on a showy ceremony—to no avail.)
At that historic party, 300 enjoyed fillet of sole or chicken on toast, and reveled as the movie colony's movers and shakers issued special "awards of merit" for cinematic achievement, including a prize for a remarkable new breakthrough: the talking picture. The trophies dispensed that night—statuettes of a naked swordsman cast in gold-plated bronze (now electroplated Britannia metal with a touch of gold)—were designed in a sleek, modernist style by MGM's art director, Cedric Gibbons. And they were handed out in mere minutes; recipients were dissuaded from offering more than perfunctory speeches.
In time, the awards became known as Oscars, a nickname coined—depending on which swath of hooey one abides—by columnist Sidney Skolsky or actress Bette Davis (since the figurine's rump supposedly resembled her husband's) or Academy executive director Margaret Herrick, who was said to have remarked, "It looks like my Uncle Oscar!"
The ceremonies were formal and elegant, the mood sometimes spirited when it came to liquor flow. Tables were graced, on occasion, with Oscar centerpieces, champagne glasses (during non-Prohibition years), and cigarettes. (Plenteous Chesterfields were supplied gratis by the Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company.)
From 1929 until 1944, in fact, the Academy Awards dinner was the party. Amid speeches and song and dance (to the strains of Duke Ellington and others), honorees were summoned to collect their baubles from eminent M.C.'s in white-tie (George Jessel, Bob Hope). For a time the voting results were massaged by Mayer and an inner circle of judges;EDITOR'S NOTE: QUELLE SCANDALE! for a dozen years the winners were pre-announced to accommodate press deadlines. (The famously close-lipped accounting firm of Price Waterhouse & Co. first tallied the ballots in 1936. Four years later came "The envelope, please.") EDITOR'S NOTE: SO PRICE WATERHOUSE HAS BEEN DOING THE ACCOUNTING THE ENTIRE TIME? WOW.
Official histories portray those gatherings as dignified and congenial. "It was more like a private party … than a big public ceremony," said Janet Gaynor, winner of the first best-actress honor, for 7th Heaven, a sentiment which the press would soon inflate with gusts of hype. Alta Durant, for example, would write in her 1940 "Gab" column in Daily Variety that the "entrance of Vivien Leigh on the arm of David O. Selznick into the lobby of the Ambassador last night was a signal for near riot."
Some of the most stylish female stars, however, began to shun the event as stuffy and clubbish.
"It's the fashion among many actors and reporters out here," confessed Hollywood correspondent John Chapman in 1942, "to regard the dinner as a bore and to avoid it. Me, I love it."
In the view of fashion historian Bronwyn Cosgrave, "It wasn't cool—it was an obligation.
Louis B. Mayer and Adolph Zukor had to twist arms. The chic women didn't go. Hollywood bred rebels in the 20s and 30s who didn't want to hang out with V.I.P.'s in penguin suits. The moguls had been chasing them around the desk since Hollywood began.
Indeed, neither Greta Garbo nor Louise Brooks, two of the screen's trendsetting renegades, ever attended.
A few winners (Claudette Colbert and Luise Rainer, for example) had to be corralled at the eleventh hour and brought in to pick up their presents. Marlene Dietrich showed up only once, to confer an award, as did Katharine Hepburn, despite a lifetime haul of 12 nominations and four wins. (Hepburn took the podium at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1974 wearing a schleppy pantsuit and clogs.) EDITOR'S NOTE: YOU GO! GOTTA LOVE HER.
The tony banquets of the 30s turned less festive once the Second World War began. By 1944 the ceremony, then hosted by Jack Benny, had been relocated to a theater (Grauman's Chinese), and the parties, held after the main event, became private matters, hosted by studio chiefs or Academy officials at posh nightclubs and restaurants—Ciro's and Romanoff's, Mocambo and Chasen's.
Come 1958, in a bid to accommodate more partygoers, the Academy instituted its Board of Governors Ball, a sumptuous dinner dance for nominees and motion-picture brass that helped revive some of the pre-war glitz. At the same time, in a curious parallel universe, Oscar "viewing parties" became the rage in Beverly Hills and across the country (the awards were first telecast in 1953), where neighbors, famous and otherwise, would come together in front of their smart new cathode-ray tubes. Such gatherings, and post-Oscar parties, took place at the homes of Milton and Ruth Berle, Charles and Doris Vidor, Billy and Audrey Wilder, and other Hollywood hosts. EDITOR'S NOTE: SEE! WE ARE CONTINUING A VERY GRAND TRADITION!
And then, along came Swifty. The Napoleonic agent-impresario, as bald and incandescent as a newly buffed Oscar, Swifty Lazar muscled his way onto the scene in 1964. He convened the first of his storied Academy Awards–night bashes at L.A.'s Bistro, later moving the venue to the Bistro Garden, and finally settling in at Wolfgang Puck's balloon-festooned Spago. The party went on through the swinging 60s, through the decadent 70s, through the go-go 80s.
Upon Lazar's death at age 86, in 1993, there was a disturbing stillness in the Hollywood night, and Vanity Fair swept in as Swifty's natural heir. The magazine of the 20s and 30s had been a cultural bellwether of the Jazz Age. Its editor, Frank Crowninshield, and publisher, Condé Nast, had helped create Manhattan's "café society" via the parties they threw for their acquaintances in the newly intersecting spheres of literature, the arts, sports, politics, cinema, and so-called high society.
The current Vanity Fair, revived in 1983, maintained a comparable mandate as a chronicler and arbiter of the modern age. So the magazine chose to expand upon the decades-old tradition with its own event, which would become the evening's capstone—"the Royal enclosure of Oscar night," in the words of The Daily Telegraph of London.
Oddly enough, a viewer can glean the history of American elegance and ego by browsing through Oscar-night pictures, a wonderfully arcane subspecies of Hollywood images, all shot on a scant 75 evenings, from 1929 to now. (To explain the math: no formal parties were held on Oscar night 1968, six days after the assassination of civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.)
While most of the photographs have a candid spirit, the subjects depicted in them are clearly conscious of the camera. Many have literally dressed for the night—and the lens—in hopes that their glamour and cultivated candor will be witnessed. In picture after picture, one can chart the subtle shifts of politics and war, of pop culture and popular fashion—from flapper-era dresses to 40s frocks, from postwar sophistication to modern glam. One can also gauge the buffeting fortunes of celebrities (for one evening in 1955, Ernest Borgnine ruled) and the absurd escalation of Celebrity itself.
"Oscar night is a prism," observes producer George Schlatter, who has enlivened Academy Awards bashes for half a century. "It's all of movie history distilled into one evening.
"Hollywood," he says wistfully, "was a town at one time. Then it became an industry. Now it's a friggin' philosophy."EDITOR'S NOTE: FASCINATING QUOTE. TRUE? PROBABLY SO. NEAT.
David Friend, who runs Vanity Fair's Web site, is the magazine's editor of creative development. Along with Graydon Carter, he co-edited Oscar Night: 75 Years of Hollywood Parties (Knopf).
EDITOR'S NOTE: IS EVEN KRAZYKARLA WORN OUT FROM OSCAR-DWEEBING? HAVE WE DRAINED THIS PUPPY DRY?! NEXT WEEK, BACK TO OUR DRAB,WRETCHED, NO-GOLD-NAKED-GUY DWEEBING.