Historian of awards sees politics replacing ceremony's glamour


Everybody seems to watch the Academy Awards, but few track the annual handing-out of Oscars as closely as Hollywood Reporter columnist Robert Osborne, whose newly published "65 Years of the Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards" is a year-by-year tabulation of vital statistics.

Mr. Osborne cheerfully acknowledges that people will be glued to their TV sets tonight in hopes of witnessing memorable fashion violations and assorted faux pas by the rich and famous. It's all part of the spectacle.

"I have the feeling it's like a national sport that everybody trashes. People have to see it and pass judgment," he says during a telephone interview from a New York airport while awaiting his flight to Los Angeles. "I give a lot of credit to those who produce and appear on the show, because it's a no-win situation for them. Everybody is watching them to see who has a terrible haircut and who has put on weight. That's mean-spirited, but we do it."

He feels some of the most successful Oscar ceremonies were those in which Billy Crystal served as host, but the program as a whole suffers from "never having quite decided if it should be a news event or entertainment."

If the Oscar telecast often seems to lack glamour, he adds, it's because most of the stars in the new Hollywood don't glow like the mega-stars cultivated under the studio system.

"All those girls with three names we have today aren't like the [older generation of] actors who had such strong star personalities," he says. " . . . Our actors today don't have those kinds of personalities. They're more realistic."

They also inject more of the real political world into the Academy proceedings, as when Richard Gere last year instructed everyone to think about Tibet.

"In the old days, the studio bosses would not have allowed them to do that," says Mr. Osborne. "I think [actors who use the Oscar ceremony to make political statements] do themselves a disservice, because however valid their messages may be, the people watching really care more about how Michelle Pfeiffer is dressed.

"It's not the place to talk about causes. And it's a conceited thing for them to do, as if they're so important. They're like children out of control."

While his oral comments about the stars are blunt and witty, Mr. Osborne's book is packed with facts and keeps the gossip to a minimum. Sanctioned by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and published by Abbeville Press, it's a hefty project: 352 pages, 630 photographs and a price tag of $59.95.

But it's the place to go if you want to know every nomination and every change in Academy rules over the years. He even tells us what was served for dinner during the first awards ceremony in 1929. Incidentally, the first awards were presented three months after they were announced. Hollywood soon wised up and switched to the system of envelope-opening suspense.

Like any archaeologist of early Hollywood, Mr. Osborne had to sort out legend from fact in writing his book. Even the Academy records to which he had access were less than complete in some matters, he says.

The famous statuette, for instance, is easily described yet bears a name nobody can definitively explain. Designed in 1928 by MGM art director Cedric Gibbons, this gold-plated naked knight stands 13 1/2 inches tall and weighs a hefty 8 1/2 pounds. (Child actors such as Shirley Temple were often given smaller Oscars.)

Has any nervous winner ever dropped the statue on stage? "The statue has never been dropped that I know of, but when you watch the show there's a split-second moment of truth as it's placed in their hands and they realize how heavy it is."

There are conflicting stories as to how the statue came by its nickname "Oscar" in the mid-1930s. The strangest myth was Bette Davis' claim that she thought it up because the statue reminded her of her then-husband's physique.


What: 66th Annual Academy Awards


When: Tonight at 9 o'clock

Where: WJZ, Channel 13 (ABC)

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