Monday, January 17, 2011

I Would Not Like To Thank The Academy...

Would you like to win an Academy Award?

Sure, we all would.

Who amongst us wouldn't like to dress up in a designer gown, glide down the red carpet to the cheers of the fans on George Clooney's arm? Then once seated in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, have their name read aloud as the winner of the Great Golden Guy for the year's best acting performance?

Who would turn up their nose at such a once-in-a-life-time-honor?

How about the people nominated for the Oscar itself?

Believe it or not, ever since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have been handing out the Oscars (84 years and counting) the folks nominated for the award have been insisting they don't want anything to do with the damn thing.

And, no, George C. Scott and Marlon Brando aren't the only spoilsports indulging in this uppity behavior. Over the course of Oscar's checkered history, lots of folks have reacted to the news that they have been nominated and/or won the statuette with all the enthusiasm of being summoned up for tax evasion.

For example, back in 1957 an actress by the name of Joanne Woodward had been struggling for two years in lousy movies for Fox Studios. Then she made "The Three Faces of Eve", where she played a gal with multiple personalities. In one fell swoop she was proclaimed both a new star and the front runner for the Best Actress Oscar. Joanne's reaction to her new found acclaim? "If I had an infinite amount of respect for the people who think I gave the greatest performance, then it would matter."

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Anyway, Woodward showed up on Oscar night and won. But hers was a hollow victory. First, Hollywood columnists reminded readers of Joanne's flip remarks before the Oscars. Then Joan Crawford, of all people, attacked Joanne for wearing a hand-made dress to the ceremonies. Next, a museum in Joanne's home state of Georgia wanted the Oscar winner to donate the frock to their dress collection. Mrs. Paul Newman said no way; she argued that since she bought the material and sewed the dress herself, she had every right to keep it (after all, she might wear it again). The museum wasn't happy and newly minted Best Actress got lots of bad press.

That year's Best Supporting Actress winner Wendy Hiller (for "Separate Tables" who didn't even bother to show up for the shin-dig) was equally unimpressed with her victory. "All you could see of me in the picture was the back of my head", the actress complained. "Unless they give some award for acting with one's back to the camera, I don't see how I could have won." And forget artistic merit; Hiller hoped her Oscar would mean "cash--hard cash" and "lots of lovely offers to go filming in Hollywood" so she wouldn't be forced to endure "the horrid cold" over in her native England during winter.

Flash forward to 1961 and a cranky actor named George C. Scott, who earned critical raves for his performance in "The Hustler". In due time, Scott was nominated for Best Supporting Actor and he promptly asked the Academy to withdraw his name for consideration. He then gave lots of press interviews where he called called the Oscars "a weird beauty or personality contest" and insisted that "actors shouldn't be forced to out-advertise and out-stab each other". Although Scott claimed his behavior was meant to be "a constructive rather than destructive move", he lost the award to George Chakiris in "West Side Story".

When British actress Susannah York learned she was nominated for her role in "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" in 1969 she carped to a writer, "I felt a ghastly sickening thud when I got nominated and tried to get un-nominated." The sticking point for York? The Academy's bad manners. "It angered me to be nominated without being asked," Sue complained. "I was actually appalled." Oh, and another thing: "I don't think I have much chance of winning and didn't think that much of myself (in the film)."

Nobody, it seems, is ever happy with their Oscar experience.

Sidney Poitier, commenting on the stress leading up to his Best Actor win for "Lilies of the Field": "I'm never going to put myself through this shit no more."

Dustin Hoffman: "I hope to God I don't win an Oscar. It would depress me if I did"--he would win two, for "Krammer vs. Krammer" and "Rain Man".

Jane Wyman, on the thoughts rushing through her mind as she walked to the stage to receive her Oscar for "Johnny Belinda": "Did I or did I not put on my girdle tonight?"

Jane Fonda: "I don't care about Oscar. I make movies to support my activist causes, certainly not for any honors." Fonda said this in 1971, when she was nominated for Best Actress for "Klute". This was quite a turn around from Jane's comments in 1969, when she was nominated for "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" and gushed, "You can't imagine what winning an Oscar does for your career! I'd love to get it."

Robert Duvall: "It's a lot of crap." (He won Best Actor for "Tender Mercies".)

Jason Robards: "Tasteless shit, anyway." (He won two Best Supporting Actor Oscars).

Sally Field, who spent years trying to live down her "Gidget" and "Flying Nun" roles gave the following opinion on the Oscars the year she was nominated for the flick "Norma Rae": "I think it's exploitative, over-commercialized, frequently offensive and shouldn't be televised." She accepted the Best Actress statuette anyway. Meanwhile, her boyfriend at the time, Burt Reynolds, was so unglued about Sally's win that they broke- up later that year. (Reynolds wouldn't get an Oscar nomination himself until he took a supporting role in "Boogie Nights" nearly 20 years later.)

So if being nominated and/or receiving an Oscar is such a drag, why are they given out every year?

Believe it or not, when the Academy of Arts and Sciences was first created in 1927, it was seen by founder and MGM head Louis B. Mayer was a way to halt the spread of unionism in Hollywood. It was hoped, too, that the Academy would encourage innovation and help spruce up the industry's image in the wake of some very messy scandals, such as the over-dose of Wallace Reid, the trial of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and the mysterious death of director William Desmond Taylor (still unsolved to this day). Giving out "awards of merit for distinctive achievement" was practically an after thought.

Nevertheless, the idea of actors, writers, directors and other film folks getting some kind of recognition from their industry struck a cord. From the beginning, the Oscars were meant to be a very select club; only people who were part of the Academy could participate. What's more, there were no supporting actor categories and Hollywood extras were denied membership.

As the years passed, however, the Oscars expanded to reflect to the growth and changes within the film industry. For example, the category of "Title Writing" had to be done away with when sound arrived. The award for Best Achievement in Black and White Cinematography was discontinued as color film became the standard. Likewise, the Best Achievement in Black and White Costumes and Best Achievement in Color Costumes was merged into one award, Best Costume Design. The coveted Thalberg Award was created to honor the memory of "Boy Wonder" Irving Thalberg, who died unexpectedly at the age 36. It wasn't until 1936 that actors could be nominated for the Supporting Actor category--and the winners got plaques, not Oscars.

Foreign films were originally not suppose to get Oscar recognition, at least in the major categories. Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper was always fit to be tied when a film from another country struck Oscar gold. She was especially angry in 1963 when Britain's racy "Tom Jones" nabbed a lot of awards. Still, the Academy felt it was necessary to recognize the cinematic achievements of other nations, especially when The New York and LA film critics began doing so with their own awards. Thus, Oscar handed out a Best Foreign Film Award, but that eventually morphed into Best Foreign Language Film, as even "American" films began to be made and financed internationally.

At first, the Oscars were a private party. Then World War II broke out and the Academy decided to sell tickets to the general public and the armed forces to raise money for war relief and The Red Cross. Newspapers claimed it was unfair that radio had the rights to broadcast the Oscars and that waiting around for the winners to be announced interfered with their morning editions' deadlines. The secret ballot, meanwhile, was introduced in 1940 precisely to keep newspapers from blabbing the names of the winners to their readers before the winners themselves were notified at the ceremony.

The tradition of the accounting firm of Price, Waterhouse tabulating the Oscar ballots and keeping them under lock and key was brought about by the exclusion of Bette Davis from the Best Actress list in 1934. She had given what many considered the break out performance of the year in "Of Human Bondage" and the fact that she was not nominated caused a huge out cry--even fellow nominee Norma Shearer felt Davis had been rooked. So for the first and only time, the Academy allowed voters to write-in nominees they felt had been unfairly excluded. Davis did not win (the Oscar went to Claudette Colbert for "It Happened One Night") and Price, Waterhouse were duly hired to handle the ballot counting. Years later, Bette claimed in her autobiography that Warner Brothers studio head Jack Warner had released a memo ordering employees not to vote for her. She would win the Best Actress statuette the following year for "Dangerous", but Bette always felt her first Oscar was "a consolation prize". As she saw it, "Even if the honor had been earned, it had been earned last year."

Perhaps the biggest thing to happen to the Oscars was the arrival of television. The studio heads, nervous that TV was eating into their profits, were originally against the new medium broadcasting their show. But they changed their minds when the networks began offering big bucks for the broadcasting rights. Thus, splashy production numbers, film clips, tributes and star presenters grew in size and scope. And just who was going to host to Oscars grew in importance, too. The general consensus is that Bob Hope, Johnny Carson and Billy Crystal have done the best job hosting. David Letterman, on the other hand, was a surprising disappointment as master of ceremonies.

So it's probably no wonder that as the Academy Awards bulged and grew into a multi-media extravaganza slash fashion parade with tacky production numbers and endless technical awards that the actors began to feel, well, slighted. And because the original intent of the Academy of Arts and Sciences was to stop actors from creating a union (which failed), you can see how performers might be a little suspicious of the Oscars intentions.

Or not. As Frank Yablans, former head of Paramount Studios, shrugged, "Personally, I think (dissing the Oscars) is foolish. I always accept my awards."

This article is indebted to the book "Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards" by Mason Wiley and Damien Bona.

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