Friday, February 23, 2007

My Oscar predictions


Hatred of the Oscars unites all true film buffs. This indecent orgy of back-slapping, vanity, inanity, insularity, self-absorption and cultural poverty becomes more intrusive every year, seemingly in direct proportion to the rate at which the work it celebrates grows less and less worthy of even passing interest. (Be honest: have you ever seen a more boring list of nominations than this year’s sorry crop?)
‘Twas not ever thus, of course. The original Academy Awards in 1929 were issued light-heartedly, in less than an hour, in a room that held two hundred people. The judges were studio heads and producers, the idea cunningly conceived by Louis B Mayer on the grounds that directors and stars were more likely to make the kinds of films he wanted them to if they competed for a few tacky statuettes every year. It was all very small-scale, modest and inherently self-mocking.
How could it not be, when all it ever amounted to was one small group of high flyers in the same industry commending and congratulating each other? How can it be a badge of objective quality for a film to be a big Oscar winner when the people pocketing them are the same people dishing them out? How about some independent assessment of the kind demanded of every other business and service in the western world?
In the golden age, when Hollywood really did have something to shout about, the awards were characterised – as were the principal players – by modesty, restraint and good humour. Peter Bogdanovich’s terrific book Who The Hell’s In It? records conversations in which Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant expressed their exasperation with the pomp, self-adoration and remoteness from reality that was coming increasingly to characterise the bash:
“Nobody took it all that seriously… it was swell if ya won because your friends were givin’ it to you, but it didn’t mean this big deal…” (Jimmy)
“There is something a little embarrassing about all these wealthy people publicly congratulating each other: ‘… we know you’re making a million dollars, now come up and get your little medal for it!’” (Cary)
And this was in the seventies! It’s hard to imagine just how ghastly it would all seem to them today.
There are encouraging signs that our attitude towards this farce, in Britain at least, is mutating rather healthily into that bemused fascination that characterises our take on the Eurovision Song Contest; a kind of mocking incredulity to be found nowhere in any of the other participating countries. The appalling behaviour of the pampered princesses involved is now the reason most often cited for tuning in.
This is good, but the notion that the awarding of an Oscar still carries some objective weight as assessment lingers still. Come on, folks! How does one really decide that one acting performance is better than another? If all the nominated stars had played the same role it would still be totally unscientific, but in what kind of madhouse can one take seriously decisions as to whether Richard Burton makes a better fist of playing a New England history professor than Paul Scofield does of impersonating a real life sixteenth century statesman? Where is the slide-rule they use? How ridiculous to compare Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz and Goodbye, Mr Chips solely on the basis that they all happened to be made in 1939! This sort of thing can be fun, but there’s something a bit unpleasant about taking it seriously.