It's Oscar time!
Ah, the Oscars. The Oscars! The gala! The excitement! The HISTORY!
And the winner is… Casablanca!
And the winner is… From Here to Eternity!
And the winner is… Ginger Rogers in Kitty Foyle!
And the winner is… Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce!
And the winner is… Diane Keaton in Annie Hall!
And the winner is… Jack Lemmon in Mister Roberts!
And the winner is… Robert DeNiro in The Godfather, Part II !
And the winner is… Frank Capra for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town!
And the winner is… John Huston for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre!
And the winner is… Mike Nichols for The Graduate!
And the winner is… Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind!
And the winner is… Jessica Lange in Tootsie!
And the winner is… Clark Gable in It Happened One Night!
And the winner is… James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy!
And the winner is… Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Field!
Then, in 1989, they changed it. There are no winners or losers. That’s politically incorrect. Let’s make it more politically correct…
And the Oscar goes to… Rain Man!
And the Oscar goes to… Schindler’s List!
And the Oscar goes to… Chicago!
And the Oscar goes to… Kathy Bates in Misery!
And the Oscar goes to… Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking!
And the Oscar goes to… Charlize Theron in Monster!
And the Oscar goes to… Denzel Washington in Glory!
And the Oscar goes to… Alan Arkin in Little Miss Sunshine!
And the Oscar goes to… Oliver Stone for Born on the Fourth of July!
And the Oscar goes to… Stephen Spielberg for Saving Private Ryan!
And the Oscar goes to… Ang Lee for Brokeback Mountain!
And the Oscar goes to… Geena Davis in The Accidental Tourist!
And the Oscar goes to… Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted!
Now, QUESTION: Do you remember who the Oscars “went to” last year?
STOP! DON’T READ THE NEXT FIVE LINES. Try to remember first.
And the Oscar last year went to… Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight!
And the Oscar last year went to… Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona!
And the Oscar last year went to… Sean Penn in Milk!
And the Oscar last year went to… Kate Winslet in The Reader!
And the Oscar last year went to… Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire!
I don’t have to remind you who won Best Picture last year, do I? Here’s a hint: It was one of the five films listed above, and the movie didn’t take place in Germany, the USA, Spain or Gotham.
Hmmm, I wonder if Penelope Cruz will win Best Supporting Actress again this year. She’s nominated for her performance in Nine. If she does win, she will be the first actress in Oscar history to win that award two years in a row. Two other actresses have won the Best Supporting Oscar twice, but they were not in consecutive years. Shelley Winters won for 1959’s The Diary of Anne Frank and for 1965’s A Patch of Blue. Dianne Wiest won for 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters and 1994’s Bullets over Broadway. But those awards were separated by six and eight years, respectively. So will Penelope pull it off? Will she win two back-to-back Oscars? Will she win for 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona AND 2009’s Nine? It doesn’t seem likely.
Winning an Oscar two years in a row has only been done by five performers. Luise Rainer won Best Actress for The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and The Good Earth (1937). Spencer Tracy won Best Actor for Captains Courageous (1937) and Boys Town (1938). Katharine Hepburn won Best Actress for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and The Lion in Winter (1968). Jason Robards won Best Supporting Actor for All the President’s Men (1976) and Julia (1977). And finally, Tom Hanks won for Philadelphia (1993) and Forrest Gump (1994). He was the last one to do it, and it’s been 15 years.
When you figure that in 83 years, only five people have pulled this back-to-back feat, the odds don’t look good that Penelope Cruz will join the ranks of the other five. Besides, it looks like Mo’Nique has the momentum for her bravura performance in Precious. And if she does win, she will be only the second performer with no last name to win an acting Oscar. Who is the other one-name Oscar winner? That’s easy. Cher, who won Best Actress for 1987’s Moonstruck. Duh!
You may have deduced by now that I am an Oscar NERD. Totally. And a GEEK. I am an Oscar nerd-geek.
I have watched every single Academy Awards since 1982. I’m sure I saw some Oscar shows before then, but my memory of the Oscars begins with 1982’s show, which presented the awards for films released in 1981. I was 13 years-old, and the only Best Picture nominees that I had seen were Raiders of the Lost Ark and On Golden Pond. I wanted Raiders of the Lost Ark to win. It was my favorite film of the year (again, I was 13). Well, that Oscar night was my first experience (of many) of being disappointed by who ended up winning. The top awards were won by Reds and Chariots of Fire, which won Best Picture. Neither of those films were teenager-friendly.
I remember being happy that the one Best Supporting Actor nominee whose performance I had seen, John Gielgud in Arthur, won the award. I wanted Best Actor nominee Dudley Moore to win for that same movie, Arthur, because he had made me laugh so hard in his drunk scenes. Well, he lost to Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond. It was another Oscar lesson, two actually: Comedic performances rarely win in the lead categories, and older actors who have never won an Oscar throughout their long careers, will usually be voted the award for sentimental reasons.
Yes, Gielgud wasn't the only old-timer who was finally winning an Oscar that night in 1982; there was also, as I just mentioned, Henry Fonda.
In a celebrated film career spanning five decades, Henry Fonda had only been nominated once, in 1941, for The Grapes of Wrath. His own daughter, Jane, had won two Best Actress Oscars before he had even won his first, and been nominated six times. It was definitely Henry’s turn to win. Not only for the aforementioned reasons, but also because he was in such poor health, that he couldn’t even attend the ceremony. It was obvious that he did not have much longer to live. Despite my having favored Dudley Moore for having made me laugh in Arthur, I was very moved when the envelope was opened, and Henry Fonda’s name was called out.
At that age, I was still very ignorant about classic Hollywood, and knew nothing about Henry Fonda's career except that he was great in On Golden Pond, had appeared in that 1970s attack of the bees movie, The Swarm. The reason I was moved was not because of the body of his work, but by the father-daughter aspect of the award. Jane Fonda was at the ceremony, herself a nominee, and accepted the award for her ailing father, with tears in her eyes, and a trembling, joyful, emotional voice. Later, she brought the statuette home to her dad, who looked frail in a gray beard and a thick sweater. The pictures appeared everywhere the following day. It was all very dramatic and moving, and it got me hooked on Oscar.
In the following years, there was always an aspect of the competition that attracted my attention, and the Best Actress award became my favorite contest, as the 1980s ran their course…
Shirley MacLaine finally winning after many nominations, for Terms of Endearment, beating out her younger co-star Debra Winger, and saying, “I’m going to cry because this show has been as long as my career!”…
Sally Field winning for the second time, for Places in the Heart, prompting her to say, “You LIKE me! You really LIKE ME!”…
Geraldine Page finally winning, for The Trip to Bountiful, and the presenter, F. Murray Abraham saying, after he opened the envelope, “I consider this woman the greatest actress in the English language,” and then genuflecting on his knees before her, in front of an audience that was on its feet…
Marlee Matlin winning for Children of a Lesser God, and being the first deaf person to win an acting Oscar (and the youngest Best Actress winner ever), signing her acceptance speech as her co-star and then-boyfriend William Hurt stood beside her, having just presented her the award due to his Best Actor win the year before …
Cher winning for Moonstruck... Cher! CHER winning an Oscar! CHER!...
Jodie Foster making the transition from child star (and obsession of Reagan shooter John Hinkley) to serious adult actress, by winning for her searing portrayl of a gang rape victim in The Accused...
Jessica Tandy, esteemed theatre legend, winning on her first nomination, for Driving Miss Daisy, and becoming the oldest Oscar winner ever; she was 80 going on 81...
But it wasn't just the Best Actress competition which drew my attention. I was drawn to all things Oscar. My teenage interest in the Oscars grew to such an extent, that one of my high school graduation gifts was an 800-page book called, Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards. I devoured that book, reading every page, fascinated by the behind-the-scenes stories, the politics, the publicity, the scheming, the slights, the paybacks, year after year after year, going from 1927 onwards. I became an expert in Oscar trivia, the firsts, the onlys, the irregularities... this new interest coincided with the birth of cable TV and old movies on videotape for rent at video stores. I began to rent Oscar-winning films, and set about watching every performance that won the award for Best Actor and Best Actress. Often I would be amazed that certain leading role actors and actresses won for THAT performance...
Humphrey Bogart winning for The African Queen, beating out Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (most likely because Bogart hadn't won for Casablanca, or ever before, for that matter)...
Bette Davis winning for Dangerous, beating out Katharine Hepburn in Alice Adams (most likely because Davis had, outrageously, not even been nominated for Of Human Bondage the year before, and Hepburn had already won the award 2 years prior)...
Katharine Hepburn not winning her second Oscar for her amazing performances in Alice Adams, The Philadelphia Story, Woman of the Year, The African Queen or Long Day's Journey into Night, but rather, winning her not-so-amazing performance in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (most likely because her her co-star and long-time lover Spencer Tracey had recently died)...
William Holden winning for his brief, remarkably average performance in Stalag 17 (most likely because he had lost for his lengthy, magnificent performance in Sunset Boulevard three years earlier)...
Elizabeth Taylor winning for the trashy Butterfield 8 (most likely because she had just had a tracheotomy, and because had just lost for two years in a row, for her two performances as Tennessee Williams heroines, in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly Last Summer)...
Julie Andrews winning for Mary Poppins (most likely because she had lost her Broadway role of Eliza in the film version of My Fair Lady, to the dubbed, weak-singer Audrey Hepburn, who as punishment, wasn't even nominated that same year for her performance in the film)...
John Wayne, in a year of ground-breaking performances by his younger, fellow nominees, winning for True Grit (most likely because he was an old John Wayne who had never won an Oscar)...
Art Carney, in a year of ground-breaking performances by his younger, fellow nominees, winning for Harry and Tonto (most likely winning because he was an old Art Carney who had never won an Oscar)...
Peter Finch winning the lead award for his supporting role in Network (most likely because he had died of a heart attack just before the ballots were cast)...
...and I haven't even gotten to the 1980s, '90s and '00s yet.
To avoid letting this piece become a longer reading experience than War and Peace, I will just focus on one more irregularity in the Oscars that has often caught my attention: leading role vs. supporting role.
It happened just last year with Kate Winslet in The Reader. During the entire awards season, she had been nominated in the supporting category for her brilliant performance as the illiterate, teen-loving ex-Nazi. I had seen the movie, and was insulted that she had been placed in the supporting category, just because her character wasn't the protagonist of the film. She was clearly the female with the leading role in the movie, and I found it unfair that actresses with legitimate supporting roles, and much less screen time, were made to compete with Winslet, whose role was much bigger, and who therefore was winning every award in sight.
The Academy actually fixed the problem, and nominated her in the leading category. Suddenly the Best Supporting Actress category became a wide-open field. With Winslet placed in the leading category, there was no clear victor in sight in the supporting. I had no clue who might win; none of the nominees had won any of the pre-Oscar awards. Penelope Cruz ended up winning, while Winslet took home the lead award. This was as it should have been. This, however, has not always been the case.
Jennifer Connelly in 2001's A Beautiful Mind, Marcia Gay Harden in 2000's Pollock, and Juliette Binoche in 1996's The English Patient, are only three recent examples of actresses in leading roles placed in the supporting category because the competition in the lead category was very tough, and the studios wanted to better their chances of winning an Oscar. There are many more, if you go further back. Tatum O'Neal was in virtually every minute of 1973's Paper Moon, but was placed, and won, in the supporting category because she was a child at the time, and children are almost never put in the leading category.
In other years with less-tough competition, the opposite has been done. Supporting actresses have been put in the leading category, often having less screen time than other actors in the same movie who were nominated in the supporting category. Three memorable examples of this this include 2002's Best Leading Actress winner Nicole Kidman in The Hours, who actually had less screen time than Best Supporting Actress loser Julianne Moore, in the same movie. Another is 1996's Best Leading Actress winner Frances McDormand in Fargo, who actually had less screen time than Best Supporting Actor loser William H. Macy, in the same movie. And yet another is 1975's Best Leading Actress winner Louise Fletcher in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, who actually had less screen time than Best Supporting Actor loser Brad Dourif, in the same movie.
There are many examples of leading Oscar winners who had the same, or less, screen time than those nominated in the supporting categories that same year. Luise Rainer in The Great Ziegfeld (1936), William Holden in Stalag 17 (1953), David Niven in Separate Tables (1958), Simone Signoret in Room at the Top (1959), Patricia Neal in Hud (1963), Marlon Brando in The Godfather (1972), Peter Finch in Network (1976), Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Geoffrey Rush in Shine (1996)... none of these winners for the leading Oscar had much more than 20 or 30 minutes of screen time in movies that were 2 to 3 hours long.
And since we're talking about screen time, which is the performance with the smallest amount of screen time to ever win an Oscar? Beatrice Straight, Best Supporting Actress of 1976 for Network, whose entire performance was barely 6 minutes long, and she had only 8 lines of dialogue. The next most brief Oscar winning performance was 1998's Best Supporting Actress Judi Dench, in Shakespeare in Love. Her performance had a couple of more minutes of screen time than Straight's, and a few more lines of dialogue. And the next most brief Oscar-winning performance....?
ENOUGH! Don't get me started. I need to start wrapping this up, or it'll be as long as an Academy Awards show that never seems to be close to wrapping up.
I'll wrap it up with this: who do YOU think will win Best Picture this year, and how many of the nominees have you seen?
This year, you have more movies to see, because this year they increased the number of Best Picture nominees from five to ten.
For the last 66 years, there have been five nominees for Best Picture. The last time there were ten was in 1944, when the nominees for the Best Picture of 1943 were...
For Whom the Bell Tolls
Heaven Can Wait
The Human Comedy
In Which We Serve
The More the Merrier
The Ox-Bow Incident
The Song of Bernadette
Watch on the Rhine
How many of those films have you heard of? Just Casablanca, right? You've SEEN Casablanca, too, most likely, haven't you? Well, Casablanca was the movie on that list that won. What about the others? Maybe you've heard of For Whom the Bell Tolls because it is a famous novel by Ernest Hemingway. But have you seen it, the movie, or any of the others? I'm a total classic film buff, and besides Casablanca, I've only seen The Song of Bernadette and Watch on the Rhine, and that was only because the former won the Best Actress award for Jennifer Jones, and the latter won the Best Actor award for Paul Lukas.
This should give you an idea of the importance of winning an Oscar as time goes by. In 65 years, the chances are higher that your film will still be known.
So here are the ten nominees for the best picture of 2009. Read the list, and ask yourself which of these films, 66 years from now, will be known by people who haven't even been born yet...
The Blind Side
The Hurt Locker
A Serious Man
Up in the Air
I am certain that I will never know which of these films will still be remembered 66 years from now, because I would have to live to be 107, and that ain't happening. But I will be able to have a fairly good clue on March 7, when the 83rd Academy Awards are handed out at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, California. I'll be watching. I've been watching for 28 years, so I'm sure I'll be watching for many more,
Oscar nerd-geek that I am.