While it's true that there's only so much anyone can say about the Oscars, remember it can be said again and again. As a reader (and writer), I know by now that there are 10 abiding Oscar stories. Here they are, all in a single article:
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences started as a cover-up. Hollywood was so rife with scandals (drugs, sex, murder, money — the usual suspects), its leaders knew they needed better public relations and a distraction from beautiful young people behaving badly. There was also a growing fear of unionization eating into the picture business profits. So some said, let's have an organization where, theoretically, all labor disputes can be worked out (in the producers' favor). The public will say, "Look, an academy. They must be respectable." And we will award prizes to prove we are making good films. Let's think of a suitable prize. The set designer Cedric Gibbons drew a picture of a figure standing over rolls of film. "It looks like my Uncle Oscar," said Margaret Herrick, the first librarian at the academy. They turned the sketch into a bronze statuette, 13.5 inches tall and weighing 81/2 pounds. And so the awards began, on May 16, 1929, with a private dinner in the Blossom Room at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, with Douglas Fairbanks presiding. "Wings" won as best production and F.W. Murnau's "Sunrise" as best artistic Achievement. Next year, the academy settled on just best picture. The "artistic achievement" concept was altogether too confusing.
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What is the academy?
You thought it was something ordered up by God? No, the driving force behind the enterprise was Louis B. Mayer, the West Coast head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and only he mistook himself for God. In fact, the academy consists of a sleek and sophisticated building on Wilshire Boulevard that contains a superb theater and the Margaret Herrick Library on La Cienega Boulevard. The academy supports the motion picture arts and sciences, though the business gets ample attention, too. It works at preserving films. It plans to have a museum one day. The academy has more than 6,000 invited members. For the awards, the various craft sections nominate contenders and all members vote on them. The final tallies are not reported. This leads to the live awards show on ABC, an event that raises 80 percent of the academy's annual revenue and supports the library, one of the finest places for film research and scholarship in the world.
Why does it go longer than three hours? Because there's a lot of junk in it, too many lesser awards, and because ABC and the academy want time for as many ads as possible. So you get musical routines and songs that are mostly forgettable (once upon a time, "The Way You Look Tonight" and "Over the Rainbow" won for best song). It was all on radio at first, and in those days the awards were a banquet with tables for every studio or contending picture. After the war, television changed everything, so the event went to a theater. But the dinner party setup is more intimate, gossipy, boozy and friendly, and we get to see more of the stars schmoozing and relaxing. That's one of the things that has boosted the Golden Globes awards night. Once its sponsor, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, was a target for scathing humor. The jokes continue, but the Globes night has flourished. It's not just the dinner party atmosphere. The foreign press strike early in the season. They include television as well as movies, and they have a more creative attitude toward the host. Thus, they turned Ricky Gervais loose and he was unexpectedly nasty — and fun. This year Tina Fey and Amy Poehler set fresh standards at the Globes. They were so smart that Oscar now has to catch up.
Of course, there are too many, but these are show people, so they ought to be good. Take your pick: Cary Grant presenting an honorary Oscar to Laurence Olivier, incoherent but heartfelt; William Holden thanking Barbara Stanwyck for being such a great lady to him, and Stanwyck hit by tears; John Wayne (near death) coming down a long staircase to give the best picture award to "The Deer Hunter"; Stanley Donen (at 74) tap-dancing when he got an honorary award; Roberto Benigni in torrents of bilingual exhilaration when he won for "Life is Beautiful"; Jack Palance doing one-armed push-ups when he won for "City Slickers"; the streaker of 1973 and David Niven's impromptu commentary — "The only laugh that man will ever get is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings"; "Sacheen Littlefeather" in 1973 speaking on behalf of the absent Marlon Brando; the Chuck Workman montages of movie scenes; Hattie McDaniel walking all the way from a small corner table to accept for "Gone With the Wind"; she was not invited to sit at that film's big table. But topping them all is a sentimental occasion worthy of the movies: In 1972, a star came back to America after years of exile. He was nervous and white haired (he was 83). He got the greatest standing ovation the academy has ever given anyone. His name was Charles Chaplin.
They never got an Oscar?
Among directors: Alfred Hitchcock, Preston Sturges, Orson Welles, Ernst Lubitsch, Stanley Kubrick, Otto Preminger, Sidney Lumet (four nomination and no wins), Arthur Penn, George Lucas, Howard Hawks, Fritz Lang, Robert Altman. Among actors: Cary Grant, Robert Mitchum, Montgomery Clift, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Deborah Kerr, Margaret Sullavan, Richard Burton (seven nominations, zero wins), Peter O'Toole (eight nominations, zero wins), Irene Dunne, Barbara Stanwyck. Among movies for best picture: "Avatar," "Citizen Kane," "The Grapes of Wrath," "Double Indemnity," "It's a Wonderful Life," "The Red Shoes," "A Place in the Sun," "Bonnie and Clyde," "Chinatown," "Jaws," "Taxi Driver," "E.T.," "The Right Stuff." And not even nominated: "Rear Window," "My Man Godfrey," "Bringing Up Baby," "His Girl Friday," "Vertigo," "The Shop Around the Corner," "Touch of Evil," "The Shining," "Laura," "The Lady Eve," "The Night of the Hunter," "Kiss Me Deadly," "East of Eden," "The Miracle Worker," "Blue Velvet," "Magnolia."
So who won the most?
Among actors: Katharine Hepburn (12 nominations, 4 wins); Bette Davis (10 nominations, 2 wins); Jack Nicholson (12 nominations, 3 wins); Spencer Tracy (9 nominations, 2 wins); Meryl Streep (17 nominations, 3 wins). Among directors: William Wyler (12 nominations, 3 wins); John Ford (5 nominations, 4 wins); Billy Wilder (8 nominations, 2 wins); David Lean (7 nominations, 2 wins); Fred Zinnemann (7 nominations, 2 wins). The all-time champs are Billy Wilder, for writing (12 nominations, 3 wins); Alfred Newman, for music (43 nominations, 9 wins); Sammy Cahn, for best song (26 nominations, 4 wins); Edith Head, for costumes (35 nominations, 8 wins); and Walt Disney (with 22 Oscars in a variety of categories).
The academy soon realized that several great figures had never won, so they devised the idea of a lifetime award, and they have given it to many individuals and institutions, including: the National Film Board of Canada, Eastman Kodak, the National Endowment for the Arts, the film department at the Museum of Modern Art, the Bausch & Lomb Optical Co., Technicolor, The March of Time, Fred Astaire, Groucho Marx, Buster Keaton, Bob Hope, Louis B. Mayer, Gene Kelly, Stan Laurel (but not Oliver Hardy), Lillian Gish, Satyajit Ray, Akira Kurosawa.
Some say this is the most important job of all, for a host can define a show and give it a mood. Fey and Poehler demonstrated this a few weeks ago at the Golden Globes. They were so sharp that some people were asking for fewer awards and more hosting. Equally, Gervais introduced the idea that awards shows were so bogus and nauseating they might as well curl up and die. It's hard to define the ideal host: They must be known; they must be funny and fast on their feet (there could be a need to improvise); and they should be trusted by the academy members who tend to be mature, if not elderly. And they need absolute assurance. It was probably the last item that most distinguished Bob Hope, whose legend still hangs over the position. Hope knew every wisecrack ever written. He had played to many live audiences. And he was cheeky enough to make a routine out of never winning himself: One year he started, "Welcome to the Oscars. Or as we call it in my house, Passover." Hope ran the show 19 times between 1940 and 1978, and he ended up with no less than four special awards.
Hope was a movie person, but he had a genuine love of show business. The same attitude distinguishes probably the best host in recent years, Billy Crystal, who also has the capacity to be very funny. But David Letterman, used to the intimacy of his TV set (with a wry sidekick), did not work as well on stage. Years earlier, Jerry Lewis — allegedly the funniest man in the world at the time — was a disaster who ended up with a show that finished too early. Johnny Carson did it five times, and he was trusted, funny and cool, even if he wasn't a natural on that big stage. Alec Baldwin did it one year (with Steve Martin), and he was good enough to make one wonder now if someone won't put him with Tina Fey. Some people simply didn't know what they were doing (most recently, Anne Hathaway and James Franco in a desperate attempt to give the awards show a young slant). This year the host is Seth MacFarlane, animator, actor, comic and writer — but an unknown quantity in this arena.
Who will win this year
Best supporting actress: Anne Hathaway in "Les Miserables." This tip has been nearly universal and unquestioned, but Sally Field in "Lincoln" is a possibility for her third Oscar. Best supporting actor: Tommy Lee Jones in "Lincoln." Best director: David O. Russell for "Silver Linings Playbook." I have a hunch the academy will want to look past Steven Spielberg, and they now feel sheepish that Ben Affleck is not nominated. Best actress: It's either Jessica Chastain in "Zero Dark Thirty" or Jennifer Lawrence in "Silver Linings Playbook" — I think Lawrence sneaks it because of her energy and the feeling that she will do great things in the future. Best actor: It has to be Daniel Day-Lewis, if only because he is nearly as hallowed now as his role. Best picture: All along I've guessed "Lincoln," but the groundswell for "Argo" is strong. It's the film that makes Hollywood feel good about itself, and that has always been important at the Oscars.
Who should win
Supporting actress: Helen Hunt in "The Sessions" turns in so good a performance that it deserves best actress; supporting actor: Alan Arkin in "Argo," the dry joker of the year; director, Michael Haneke for "Amour," easily the film of 2012; actress, Emmanuelle Riva in "Amour"; it shouldn't even be close, but Amour will be fobbed off with best foreign film, which only shows what an offshore island kingdom the Academy is. actor: Daniel Day-Lewis; picture: "Amour." The last shouldn't even be close, but "Amour" will be fobbed off with best foreign film, which only shows what an offshore island kingdom the academy is.
David Thomson is the author of "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film." His latest book is "The Big Screen."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun