Blackwolf @ the Oscars: Gimme one more week.......
Oscar needs a high-tech remake
by David Thomson, film historian and author of The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood
If you have made it to 78 in our world, then your future is rosier than you might think: Chances are, you'll see 85, even if you may not like it altogther. Still, I worry about the future of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which conducts its 78th annual celebration this year.
You see, I love the Academy. I love that 1940 footage of Bob Hope, saying that this must be a "benefit night" for David O. Selznick, as the tide of Gone with the Wind came in. I treasure those 'moments' like Norman Maine tottering on to Vicki Lester's stage in A Star is Born. I even admire that deadpan guy, Oscar, the world's most famous bit of sculpture.
I have friends at the Academy: not least, Sid Ganis, the producer who recently became the new President; and Frank Pierson, his predecessor. (Just like Louis B. Mayer, I have Presidents for friends.) And I absolutely revere, and would defend to the death, the Academy's Film Research Library.
But I worry about the Academy, and if I'm guessing right about Ganis, I suspect that he's worried, too. I can't bear the thought that Oscar Night could be revealed as no more necessary than the Golden Globes or the Grammys, as just a noisy, prolonged bore that demonstrates how far we the audience and many of the onstage performers are from what the Academy was meant to represent. I worry that the night might not be able to compete with some future American Idol, and that the ratings will slide and keep on going --- as if they were attendance figures at movie theatres. And no, I'm not talking about last year's 6% drop at theatres, I'm talking about the way, once upon a time -- back in 1948, to be more precise --- 90 million movie tickets were sold each week in the U.S. And now, with nearly twice the population, it's almost a quarter that number.
Of course, I'm repeating a big white lie in my effort to convey alarm: I'm trying to convince myself (as well as you) that the Academy came into being as a natural result of a heartfelt search for quality. It wasn't so; and, in thinking about how to reform the Academy, it's important that we recall the real history.
Mayer and his fellow first Academicians feared the scandals (sex, murder, drugs -- the same ol' stuff) then underway in Hollywood; they feared that they might draw national ire, to say nothing of federal intervention. So they sought to put up a classy set for themselves --- and prizes for virtue and art and science were a natural part of that. They also feared that unionization (were it to come to pass, especially for actors, writers, and directors) would steal too much of their loot, and they had a blithe hope that this new Academy they were creating would serve as a forum for all grievances (and yet controlled by all the bosses).
In other words, it was all humbug and flim-flam from the very start, and so it has always been. The first Awards were given out at a private party on May 16th, 1929 at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. In the steadfast search for quality that followed, there was never a directing Oscar for Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton or even this year's Honorary Oscar recipient, Robert Altman.
Sure, the Academy acquired the grace along the way to make some amends by awarding Honorary Oscars, often the most touching and meaningful portion of the evening. And, as noted, this year, the Honorary Oscar goes to Altman (thank God). But I noticed with interest that another of this year's previosulsy announced Oscars, the Gordon E. Sawyer Award for "technological contributions," goes to one Gary Demos. I'm sure that many people, even in this town, don't know who Gary Demos is.
I found myself thinking: Altman and Demos --- now, there's an odd pair. For most of his long life, with famous ups and downs, Robert Altman has struggled to put life up there on our screens, as much of it as possible. Real life, real light, real movement, real sound, real muddle, real beauty. It hasn't always worked, but at other times it has given the world M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville and Short Cuts. When I talk about light and life, I suppose I mean something called art: some kind of arrangement of imagery, story, people and feelings that will stay with all of us forever.
And Gary Demos? Well, as far as I can see, he's a pioneering genius who did much of the theoretical work in computer-generated imagery, which now thrives on its ability to put a copy life, light, sound, movement, muddle and beauty on our screens. Now, I'm not knocking the man, even if I generally dislike the victory of digital imagery over photography. He received his award this past February 18th, but I would have preferred to hand it out to him on the REAL Oscar Night --- AND I would have explained about what he has done in detail because, for good or ill, that's where the mind of our movies is today.
But reforming the Academy is just a start. I'd also throw out the awards for sound, costume design ad art direction, along with the dire songs, the shorts, the documentaries and the foreign films. OK, throw your bricks this way, but the Oscars must, I believe, restore the last few bonds of reality between film and the public. This is hard because the moves are not exactly a mass medium anymore. They belong to a few of us.
But the Academy will only last as long as we continue to believe that movies can swep us all up: movies like It Happened One Night, Casablanca, From Here to Eternity and The Apartment. So I'd push the technical awards and the science that has already changed the movies, because I think that that's what the term "movie" means to today's kids now..... and I believe that is precisely the future we're headed for. I'd treat Gary Demos like the very important man that he is.
I'd also give out Oscars for Best Deal, Best Promotional Campaign, Most Outragous Agent of the Year. I'd even give out a Chutzpah Award --- while the very term 'chutzpah' is still understood. Because people are more in love with the business than they are with the story. And I'd cut the show in half. I'd make it a dinner party again, instead of some awkward theatrical event.
These days, some of the betterfilms being made in America are more like novels than old-fashioned movies. The yhave the same weightiness, the same seriousness of intention (not to mention the same limited audience range). While I rejoice in much of that, I also insist on saying that they're not quite movies. They're worthy, interesting, respectable. But movies should be wild, sensational, visceral, overwhelming. Otherwise, the day may come when an audience will wake up and say: "Dad, why do we have the Academy Awards? Shouldn't they be in a home somewhere?"
Simply put, Mr. Thomson, you are just another one of those would-be Oscar retoolers once more indulging in fantasia and ballyhoo that can never honestly be. Frankly, there are a good many people who will never get over the fact that the Academy Awards are what they are: a 4-hour televison show whose sole purpose is to explore the patience of the very art and science of motion pictures while simultaneously watching an annoying live clock.
Still, from your Dragonmaster's perspective, there are some things this old Wizard would change about the Oscars, too. And while space forbids me to share those things with ye hither, I still think we're going to be either surprised or dismayed as to what this year's show will provide the world. Well, we've 6 days left to fantasize about it. I hope you'll stay tuned for my bloggathon of the 78th Annual Academy Awards --- only hither, in my Diary of Magecraft!
Till then, I remain, fearlessly yours, as always,