Now is the time for all good men to get terribly serious about the Academy Awards. Many and heated will be the words exchanged as partisans of various contenders pay particular attention to the grave question of merit. Sure, someone will say, you kinda got a kick out of John Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever," but does he really deserve an Oscar?
In this hyperfervid atmosphere the current American Film Institute Theater series "Happy Birthday Oscar! The Academy Awards' Golden Anniversary" comes as a soothing, if unintentional, relief. For the AFI has succeeded all by itself in demythologizing the Oscars - in showing that almost any film, no matter how shlocky, can win an Academy Award for something.
How else is one to explain the presense of out-and-out duds like "Shaft" (Best Song) and "Nicholas and Alexandra" (Best Art Direction and Costume Design); overripe curios on the order of "Wonder Man" with Danny Kaye (Best special Effects); or "Here Comes the Groom," and "The Joker Is Wild," both Best Song selections, as well as other films with but a single redeeming characteristic, if that.
The AFI felt that it would be too easy, too mindless, to merely show the 50 "best films, or concentrate on those that won the major awards. Instead, an all-too-typical decision was made to go far in the opposite direction and drink deeply of cinematic ephemera - to put in films that nobody west of Andrew Sarris would ever guess won any kind of award at all, let alone an Oscar.
So while "Les Girls" a harmless though mindless bit of 1950s froth from George Cukor, is included, no place has been found for one of the best and most literate of American films, six-time Oscar winner "All About Eve." And "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie," a tiresome Bunuel film much in critical favor is picked to represent foreign language films, while a chance is missed to show interesting, infrequently seen films like the massive Soviet "War and Peace."
And when a thorough glance is given at which Oscar-winning films have been left out so the likes of "shift" could be included, one's blood almost runs cold. Missing among actors are Olivier's "Hamlet," Gary Cooper in "Sargent York," Jimmy Cagney in "Yankee Doodle Dandy," Ronald Coleman in "A Double Life" and even Burt Lancaster in "Elmer Gantry," Among actresses no room has been made for Bette David in "Jezebel," Greer Garson in "Mrs. Miniver," Ingrid Bergman in "Gaslight," Olivia de Haviland in "The Heiress," Susan Hayward in "I Want to Live" and Anne Bancroft in "The Miracle Worker," and that's just the beginning.
The 1920s is represented only by "Wings" and "The Last Command," and the 1930s by a mere nine; the generally moribund 1950s inexplicably gets 15 selections. But the decade that has been treated worst is the 1970s. With years of film to choose from, the six selected are "Shaft," "Nicholas and Alexandra," "Cabaret," "The Last Picture Show," "Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" and "Woodstock." Where is "Patron?" Where is "The Godfather?" Where is "Klute?" Where is a really memorable picture from this decade? Is this selection in any way representative of the best post-1970 Oscar films? Hardly.
That doesn't mean there are absolutely no worthwhile films in the series. There are more than several, including such respected chestnuts as "High Noon," "The Best Years of Our Lives," "All Quiet on the Western Front," "On the Waterfront," "The Treasure of Sierra madre," and "Casablanca." Of the lesser-known ones, two of the more interesting, if for totally different reasons, are "A Letter to Three Wives" and "Reap the Wild Wind."
"Wives" won Best Director and Best Screenplay Oscars for Joseph Mankiewicz, who was to win them again with "All About Eve" the following year. Like "Eve," though not as fine, this is a deliciously bitting film, a nasty super soap opera about a trio of women who get a note from their supposed best friend sayign that "as a sort of momento" she has run off with one of their husbands. But which one? A finely tuned entertainment of a type rarely seen anymore. And Thelma Ritter's Sadie Dugan is a classic.
"Reap the Wild Wind" is also typical of things long past. It is a classically hoked-up Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza about salvaging and piracy in the 1840s Florida Keys. The actors all but chew the scenery as they recite lines like "When I'm in your arms, I don't care what they say about you" and "You're in my blood, Loxie, same as the sea," and the film's magnolia-encrusted Old South is of a type seen nowhere outside a Hollywood back lot.
But if you can endure all that, as well as side effects like Louise Beaver's mammy fole, the film is very well worth seeing because of its pristine Technicolor beauty and its classic special effects, especially a helluva giant squid that takes on both JohnWayne and Ray Milland. Special effects were really special in those days.
Yet even if some kind of individual case could be made for each and every film on the list, taken together the choices make up an undeiably skewered and wrong-headed approach to an Academy Awards program. The Oscars in their essence mean solidly constructed, popular films, and those are the ones that should have been selected, no matter if they played the theater last year or even if they're penciled in for some future extravaganza.
This is not a question of quibbing about why certain titles were chosen while others were left out, this is a problem with the overall tone and thrust of the series. While a certain amount of rococo proramming is swell, letting it get out of hand by selecting films that only a small minority of a small minority can appreciate, especially for an Oscar series, is much much much too much of a good thing.