With the conspicuous exception of Dustin Hoffman, who deserved to have his Oscar revoked (and administered to the base of his inflated noggin) moments after being presented with it, the celebrities who paraded to the podium during last week's Academy Awards show were remarkably inoffensive. There was nothing to compare with Bert Schneider's outrageous salute to the conquering North Vietnamese five years ago or Vanessa Redgrave's outrageous allusion to "Zionist hoodlums" two years ago.
Each reference to "The China Syndrome" Monday night was followed by the curious refrain, "the most prophetic film of our time," which I interpreted as a form of tribute requested or demanded by Jane Fonda. It seemed a small exaggeration to pay for the failure of "The China Syndrome" to offer serious competition to either "Kramer vs. Kramer" or "All That Jazz."
There were a couple of inexcusable no-shows. Jon Voight, the 1978 best actor recipient, reportedly declined to honor tradition and present the best actress award this year, in retaliation for the Academy's failure to nominate Hal Ashby for his direction of "Being There." Burt Reynolds, evidently stung by his failure to be nominated for "Starting Over," spurned an offer to present the best film award.
There were some class award-winners: Meryl Streep, Ray Stark, Steve Tesich, Robert Benton and Sally Field, all of whom seemed to know how to compose or improvise a graceful acceptance speech. Alec Guinness, the recipient of a special career award, wittily deflated Dustin Hoffman's pompous, rambling introductory tribute, a shameless recyling of his tortured tribute to James Stewart a few weeks earlier, in which he took a peculiar vain pride in having secluded himself with screenings of the recipient's work, like a schoolboy staying up all night to cram for the next day's exam. After accepting his award, Guinness cleared the air by remarking, "Thank you, Mr. Hoffman, for your overgenerous words and all that deep research you did."
Hoffman's affectations aside, the truly inexcusable conduct Monday night came from the audience rather than the presenters or recipients. Ira Wohl, whose film "Best Boy" was named best documentary feature, and the German director Volker Schlondorff, whose production of "The Tin Drum" was named best foreign language film, were greeted with shocking displays of ignorant impatience from an audibly rude crowd when they struggled to express perfectly sincere thanks and make perfectly astute observations upon accepting their Oscars. William Shatner, an inexplicable choice to present the documentary awards, etched his name in infamy by using the audience's rudeness as an excuse to insult Wohl as he left the stage: "I'm glad he didn't have any more relatives."
Later, the same contingent of privileged barbarians evidently jumped to the misapprehension that Schlondorff was some kind of Nazi when he observed that a German film had never won the foreign language Oscar before and that it was especially satisfying because so many German directors of an earlier generation, fleeing the Hitler regime, had found a refuge in Hoolywood and contributed indispensably to the Hollywood tradition. Absolutely true and quite flattering. Unfortunately, he hadn't anticipated the severely limited attention span and abysmal ignorance of movie history which characterized the knuckleheads he was talking to.
Perhaps it would help protect future minor prize-winners anddkeep the natives from getting restless if at least one major award was handed out during every half-hour segment of the ceremony. Following the rite on television, it's undeniably tiresome to see a biggie announced in the early going (best supporting actress this time) and then have two hours or more elapse before the remaining seven or eight glamor awards are announced, usually in a cluster during the final quarter-hour of the show. Although everyone complains every year about the Academy Awards being borrrrinnnng and will never cease to repeat this annually verifiable cliche, there ought to be a few ways of mitigating the boredom, especially since it appears to be encouraging members of the Hollywood elite to make a spectacle of their stupidity.