It's February, we're at wits' end with winter, when along come the Oscar nominations to fill our empty fireside hours. The Academy Awards have become an index of idleness comparable, say, to wondering aloud what Prince Charles will name his next spawn. They're like "The Emperor's Old Clothes" -- everyone has seen the Emperor naked so many times that when he struts his stuff, there's hardly a stir. The only people who seem to care are the Vegas oddsmakers, who, after all, have been known to bet on whether more touchdowns will be scored on the right side of the television screen or the left.
Start with the familiar litany: "Citizen Kane" got only one Oscar -- for Best Screenplay. "Gandhi" beat "Tootsie" and "E.T." Robert Altman, Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks never won Best Director. Cary Grant never won an Oscar, nor did the Marx Brothers. Jack Lemmon has been nominated eight times, primarily for hollering, feeling sorry for himself and kneading the back of his neck, and won twice for same. And so forth.
Lemmon is the newly appointed host for the annual live TV broadcast (watching him torture himself by doling out the statues he sweatily craves may enliven this year's show a little), but recent extravaganzas have been emceed by Johnny Carson, who has never made a movie. The ideal host, of course, would be not Carson but Ed McMahon, the exalted dog food pitchman, since what the Oscars are, above all, are an advertisement for the movie business. Hollywood can pick a movie full of Brits with zippers in the back of their pants, and even if no one's seen it, it doesn't matter -- the Oscars get people talking about movies.
And that's the sadness at the heart of the otherwise comical bumbling of the Academy. Year after year, the yawnfest waxes worse, the nominations and choices become more and more distant from both popular preferences and critical regard, and yet people continue to watch because they love movies. Indulging itself in a ritual of fake high-mindedness, the Academy kicks its audience but, like a loyal dog, we always return to heel. Woof!
Any student of the Oscars has a clear mental picture of the typical Academy member. He hasn't made a movie in years and doesn't go to the movies much, either. Every year he dusts himself off and trundles down Coldwater Canyon to place his ballot; once a long while ago he bought a Harris tweed jacket, and ever since, anyone with "Dame" or "Sir" or "Lord" in front of his name is a cinch for his vote. He is a member of the Democratic Party, who kicked McCarthy (late) and Nixon and all the other "awful" people; he is, by any standard, rich, but he spends his money on the ballet and the symphony and swings at charity balls.
A cartoon, admittedly, but it sure explains a lot; working from this model, you could program a computer to spew out this year's nominations. From the Anglophilism run amok come the nominations for "A Passage to India," for David Lean and Roland Joffe', for Albert Finney, Judy Davis, Vanessa Redgrave, Sir Ralph Richardson, Dame Peggy Ashcroft and Peter Shaffer. The affectation of high culture generates "Amadeus." And because our Mr. Academy doesn't get to many movies, he just checks off the party line for "Amadeus" and "Passage," each of which gets 11 nominations; when that doesn't work (as most notably in the Best Actress category), he tallies for the people he's endorsed in the past.
"The Killing Fields" rides high on liberal piety, as does "A Soldier's Story," as does "El Norte." But the special category for liberal piety is Best Supporting Actor, which this year is almost a James Watt joke -- two Orientals, a black, an actor portraying a blind man and an actor deceased.
This isn't to say that some of these nominations aren't deserved. And the Academy made some admirably out-of-character selections, such as Christine Lahti ("Swing Shift") for Best Supporting Actress and "Splash" for Best Screenplay. But some of the choices are so patently screwball that they cast suspicion upon the rest. How could even the most devoted "Amadeus" fan make a case for Tom Hulce's grating one-note performance? Sissy Spacek is a terrific actress, but in "The River," she's just a piece of scenery; Denzel Washington, not Adolph Caesar, gave the great performance of "A Soldier's Story"; whatever you think of "The Killing Fields," its real strength is the cinematography, not the writing and direction; and on and on.
The nomination of Glenn Close for Best Supporting Actress provides an illuminating case in point. In "The Natural," she's nothing but a stony icon dressed in white, luminously photographed so that a halo emerges around her head. This is beaming, but is it acting? This isn't the first time this has happened for Close -- she was nominated for her somewhat earthier Madonna in "The Big Chill," a movie notable for crummy women's roles of which hers was the worst. The explanation is simple: Close once got an Oscar nomination for a remarkable performance in "The World According to Garp," she works in the so-called "legitimate" theater, and she's always trumpeting how "serious" she is about her "craft." That stuff in "The Natural"? Great acting!
You can't appreciate how doggedly humdrum and out of sync the Academy's choices were until you try out some alternatives. Contrast, for example, some awards of the National Society of Film Critics. That body chose Jim Jarmusch's "Stranger Than Paradise" as Best Film, followed in the balloting by "Stop Making Sense." ("Wha'?") French director Robert Bresson was named Best Director. ("Who?") Steve Martin won Best Actor for "All of Me"; Melanie Griffith won Best Supporting Actress for "Body Double." None of these was even nominated by the Academy.
Or try instead the movies that the public, voting at the box office, made the Best Pictures of 1984. Even people in Hollywood agree that, for whatever reasons, it was a year for comedy; so where have all the statues gone? "Ghostbusters," which sold some 60 million tickets, took two puny nominations (for Best Visual Effects and Best Original Song); then again, why should Bill Murray be nominated for Best Actor when W.C. Fields, the comedic genius he most resembles, never was? "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," another huge hit, wasn't nominated at all (come to think of it, add Spielberg to that litany). An even better example is "Beverly Hills Cop," with gross receipts of upwards of $140 million, which got only one nomination -- Daniel Petrie Jr. for Best Screenplay. This for a movie in which, according to every report, almost all of the dialogue was improvised; only the structure was Petrie's, and that was the weakest element in the movie. Those Academy guys sure have the inside skinny.
The Oscars are intended to honor the nominated, but the real intent is to honor the nominators. It can be seen in the kind of political movies favored by the Academy, movies espousing those positions (anti-imperialism, anti-Vietnam War) that, now that they are no longer hot issues, have become badges of good breeding. Turn next to the female leads of last fall's barnyard triptych (Jessica Lange, Sissy Spacek, Sally Field), Strong Women all, at a time when not a single woman runs a major studio, and when talented women directors like Amy Heckerling and Martha Coolidge are channeled into acne jokes. With the same tartuffery, minority actors are pigeonholed in the Best Supporting Actor category (it's no mystery why Howard Rollins wasn't nominated as Best Actor, nor why Sam Waterston, not Dr. Haing S. Ngor, got "The Killing Fields' " nod for Best Actor). Of course, black actors can't get work in Hollywood -- that's why you find a Paul Winfield in a small role in "The Terminator," an Ossie Davis doing the same in "Avenging Angel."
You can see "Amadeus" as a parable of life in Hollywood, which vibrates with professional jealousy and the scheming of the mediocre; the movie's view of Mozart's talent (that it descended upon him at random) seems like wisdom to out-of-work directors, producers, screenwriters and actors who comfort themselves with the idea that success comes not from character or hard work, but from the luck of the draw.
And as a pure matter of artistic standards, the same pattern holds. The Oscars exist to proclaim to the world that Hollywood knows art from shlock, that its taste is irreproachable -- which is to say, unadventurous, doggedly middlebrow taste. "Amadeus" sweeps because classical music is something everyone agrees on (that's why they call it classical). The Brits run riot because, ever since Harvard built a fake Cambridge on the Charles, British style has been an American middlebrow ideal, a way for immigrants to signal their acceptance, a lowest common denominator of classiness impervious to fashion.
And comedy is ignored precisely because it's popular, because anyone can laugh, but it takes a cultivated man to savor art. There's no moral superiority to be gained in honoring comedy; and for the dedicated middlebrow, the greatest art (symphony, ballet, the great stage dramas) implies suffering, specifically the suffering of sitting stone bored through the greatest art in a vain attempt to appear cultivated.
Ben Hecht, the notable newspaperman turned screenwriter, knew what an Oscar was worth. He won the first Oscar for screenwriting for "Underworld," and later copped another one (with his partner, Charles MacArthur) for "The Scoundrel." The Coveted Statuettes were featured prominently in his home -- as doorstops.