Friday, February 22, 2013

Oscars, Movies, and Me

The first Oscar ceremony that I remember seeing was in 1964. I was already a movie fan, but I took no interest in this ritual. My mother was watching them, though, and I remember sitting on the couch and glimpsing people in evening wear walk to a stage and collecting those gray statuettes. Back then, you see, television was black-and-white, so the gold in those Oscars didn’t come through. I vaguely recall seeing a film clip from Cleopatra (a nominee for best picture of 1963), as well as repeatedly hearing that “the winner is Tom Jones.”

Tom Jones?

Where was Jason and the Argonauts?

X - The Man with the X-Ray Eyes?

Or The Slave: The Son of Spartacus, the best Steve Reeves movie yet?

Clearly, the Academy and I had very different tastes.

It wasn’t until the 1968 extravaganza that I took any interest in the Oscars. I had matured a bit by then, you see. In 1967, I was ten-years-old. I could trace my obsession with movies to 1962, the year I saw Hercules with Steve Reeves at the kind of third-run neighborhood movie house that no longer exists. By 1965, I had graduated from American International horror flicks and Elvis Presley musicals to the somewhat more adult world of James Bond. Agent 007 was there in 1967, too, in the person of Sean Connery whose fifth Bond movie, You Only Live Twice, was released in June. But that summer I also saw what I now recognize as the first movie for “mature audiences” to cross my line of vision. In August of that year, my family and I visited the Auto Drive-In in Cleveland, Ohio to see In the Heat of the Night, a movie whose title and ad campaign suggested it was a crackling good murder mystery.

Back then, the MPAA had yet to institute its self-censuring ratings system. There were Disney movies, which didn't interest me at all, and there were movies - PERIOD. The ads for some of them included a small warning, "Suggested for Mature Audiences," but even the Bond movie, so popular with kids, carried that designation. A movie was a movie, and except for those raunchy titles that played one downtown theater and whose ads featured grubby text and illustrations, there was no effort to keep anyone out. If you had the money to pay the admission, you were free to enter.

In the Heat of the Night contained some rough language, not the F word or the one that is slang for excrement, but there were a few "damns", and in a couple of scenes, the dreaded N word was uttered by racists unhappy to see Sidney Poitier's black detective help solve a crime in Mississippi. There was also a brief, fleeting hint of nudity when shapely Quentin Dean was glimpsed through her window, topless and drinking an RC Cola, as a police officer (played by the great Warren Oates) stops his vehicle to indulge his voyeurism.

In the Heat of the Night went on to win the Oscar for best picture that year, and I had also seen quite a few of the year’s other nominees, including Paul Newman’s performance in Cool Hand Luke and Audrey Hepburn’s tour de force in Wait Until Dark, so I didn’t yawn through the telecast as I did four years earlier.

Since then, I’ve watched the Academy Awards every year and have yawned quite a bit. There’s nothing I dread more than the scripted interplay between presenters that is meant to be amusing but usually falls flat and is often embarrassing. In living rooms around the country, I suspect that many people are shouting the same words that I’m thinking:

“Read the nominees! Open the damn envelope and announce the winners! Get on with it already!”

The show’s producers who repeatedly try and usually fail to keep the telecast under four hours probably think it’s the awards in the less glamorous categories - film editing, cinematography, sound, etc – that make the show drag. Those are important awards, and the winners in those categories earned their time in the spotlight. It’s the supposedly cutesy repartee, the lame jokes, and the production numbers that need to be cut.

Dreary as they often are, the Oscars are the only such event that I wouldn’t miss. Like everyone else, I often criticize the choices (Dances with Wolves over Goodfellas? The English Patient over anything?), but they have more validity than the other industry awards. Despite some very questionable choices through the years (“and the Oscar goes to . . . Roberto Begnini!”), the Oscars are infallible compared to the Grammys which spent most of the ‘60s and ‘70s pretending that rock ‘n’ roll didn’t exist. While history suggests that maybe Citizen Kane was the film to honor in 1941 instead of How Green Was My Valley, and that Raging Bull may have been a worthier choice for 1980 than Ordinary People, there are just as many examples of the Academy getting it absolutely right. I’m thinking of Casablanca, On the Waterfront, West Side Story, Lawrence of Arabia, Midnight Cowboy, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Unforgiven, Schindler’s List, and many others.

And so I’ll watch this year to see if Argo trounces Lincoln, as the “experts” are predicting, or if Silver Linings Playbook pulls off a surprise. Most of all, I’ll tune in for the 50th anniversary salute to 007 and to see who they neglect to include in the dead people montage.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


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