Oscar Reading

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Books, Posts.

Tom O’Neil (Perigee, 804 pages, $19.95)

should not discuss the Academy Awards," one of our most venerable film
critics cautioned. That they indulge Oscar babble anyway only shows their nonseriousness.
Critics’ overreliance on Hollywood as the measure of artistic standards
makes them no different from the rest of the media and the happily duped moviegoing
public. In the new Oscar Fever, Emanuel Levy boasts, "No other award
so well combines critical and popular judgment. The Oscar is the only award
to exert a direct, pervasive influence on every element of the film world: the
movies, their filmmakers, and their audiences."

But put that
observation in proper perspective. The Oscar fever Levy refers to is part of
the unexamined phenomenon of awards and lists becoming founts of alternative
buff, nerd and unconsciously "expert" histories of film culture. Awards–and
the yearly spate of books about awards–help create crackpot canons, respected
by laymen, academics and pundits alike. Variety editor Peter Bart states
that "there were 3,182 awards given last year just in the entertainment
business alone. Imagine all the ‘I would like to thank’s that they
generated. Think, also, of all the dollars that changed hands in the process."

Cultural currency
is also exchanged–the vaunted reputation of some films, the obscurity of
others. Simply due to the way honor is bestowed upon financially successful
films, enshrining them as worthwhile, popular taste gets perverted (Ben-Hur
leads to Titanic, Braveheart leads to Gladiator). Yet it
also happens that awards history, if carefully observed, highlights distinguished
work that might be forgotten in the rush of competitive pop culture (Michelangelo
Antonioni’s Le Amiche honored at Cannes, Cicely Tyson in Sounder
prized by the National Society of Film Critics, Agnes Moorehead in The
Magnificent Ambersons
awarded by the New York Film Critics Circle–achievements
that surpass fashion).

Suppose all
films were destroyed and what remained was simply the historical record, the
awards lists. Often, this is the way students and fans most readily learn movie
history. Checking the list of prize-winners, they then seek out the notable
films. A book like Cobbett Steinberg’s irreplaceable Reel Facts
(1982, now out of print) brought together 10-best lists as well as awards lists,
box office reports and festival prizes, facilitating a broad insight into passing
movie eras. It enabled me, as a film student, to gauge established award-winners
by the handy comparison of industry facts and journalistic tallies, gaining
a better picture of how earlier generations thought and what mattered in the
culture. (Such revealing facts as both Preston Sturges’ Hail the Conquering
and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek being more esteemed in
1944 by the National Board of Review and The New York Times than
the Oscar winner Going My Way.) Hindsight could be tested against the
judgment of the times. Reviewing history this way, I could adjust my own preferences
while observing how film culture was developed. One understands the way canons–ridiculous
or not–are formed.

In Movie
, a compendium of "13 top film prizes," writer Tom O’Neil
prioritizes the Oscars using Variety slang: "As long ago as the
1930s, Variety began referring to the Oscar race as a ‘derby’
and employed the metaphor frequently and playfully to declare who was out front,
falling back or totally out of the running. When the film critics, the showbiz
guilds and the foreign press saw how much fun the contest was, they launched
their own kudos and positioned theirs ahead of the Oscar race so they could
decide the early front-runners. Pretty soon the many awards match-ups composed
one big overall derby stretching on the calendar (or two calendars) from mid-December
to late March or early April, and all of the kudos orgs were aggressive about
pushing their horses out of the gate."

This view unheathily
presupposes film culture as a race; critics are reduced to film industry factotums
without mentioning year-end wrap-ups, plenary journalistic assessments. But
awards are not simply a way to make money (at one time only trade magazines
thought so; now that’s the emphasis of the entire media). The best use
of these books is to convert their awards histories into a way of investigating
and remembering history–which is no longer the media’s mandate, as
proven by the passing celebrity parade that makes even last year’s award-winners
difficult (if not irrelevant) to recall.

Awards books
can be an innovative, postmodern way to read history without authors’ personal
biases getting in the way. Leafing through the data–printed by years, categories
or assorted groups–inspires a reader’s immediate research and analysis.
The best of these would be the Mason Wiley, Damien Bona Inside Oscar;
with its complete list of nominees and periodic glance at other prizes, it is
by far the wittiest and most detailed Oscar tome. The first series of National
Society of Film Critics compilations (1967-1973) were also significant (and
a real find in used bookstores). They were invaluable resources for thinking
about movies and understanding how critical processes evaluate such particulars
as performance, direction, writing, acting and cinematography. That series disclosed
critics putting their votes where their opinions are in order to create
an official historical record. In recent years the Society has gotten so large
(13 members in 1966, 52 members today) that reprinting the group’s often
contentious voting tallies has become impossible. Today O’Neil cites that
process as "mysterious." (Or are there still readers–and publishers–who’d
like to know?)

With only spurious
facts on display, awards books facilitate the diligent reader’s need to
peer between the lines of the current awards shows. "Since [Hollywood]
was also interested in something more pressing than industry problem solving–that
is, making money from their collective hard work–they created awards to
trumpet some of the titles that movie-goers might miss if they weren’t
reading the reviews penned by newspaper critics," O’Neil writes. "Even
better: if the crix were dead wrong about a pic, academy members got to pipe
in with their own opinion about what’s good." But this gainsays critics’
influential public voice, that crucial alternative to Oscar babble that keeps
films like Short Cuts, Naked and George Washington afloat.
O’Neil’s insider/fan approach doesn’t acknowledge the audience’s
need to counter the official blandishments of both Hollywood and critical organizations.
He misses the importance of personal taste and a rational view of history.

Movie Awards
explains, "New York and Los Angeles film critics groups have been in agreement
only eight times in twenty-five years on the Best Picture category. The Oscars,
meanwhile, usually march to an entirely different drummer." But the reason
for this critics/Hollywood split is the membership overlap, not so much critical
consensus as critics’ discernment becoming as slack as Hollywood’s.
In recent years the critical profession has burgeoned (no doubt inspired by
the media’s intensified–and glamorized–attention to film culture-coverage).
Ironically, as readers of the National Society of Film Critics books longed
to put their fingerprints on the historical record–and eventually did–the
critical profession went into lockstep. Were those eight "consensus"
winners–Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), Terms of Endearment (1983),
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), GoodFellas (1990), Schindler’s
(1993), Leaving Las Vegas (1995), L.A. Confidential (1997)
and Saving Private Ryan (1998)–really that unarguable? Now the record
mostly show signs of likeminded sensibility rather than scrupulous, unanimous

may be on to something when he begins Movie Awards saying, "There
is no such thing as a Best Picture of the Year"–or else that’s
just trade paper diplomacy. With significance rarely appreciated in film and
the power elite’s wisdom always open to question, the creation of individual
canons happens more avidly than ever. But without a sense of history, movie
fans won’t know what they’re talking about.