Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A History Of The Oscars—Blowing It From The Start

Before I really launch this blog, I thought I'd share some historical notes about the Academy Awards, courtesy of probably Danny Peary's Alternate Oscars or one of Roger Ebert's movie reviews, TCM's Robert Osborne, The Internet Movie Database or my good friend Bellotoot—who knows, I can't remember:

The first Oscars were awarded on May 16, 1929, and right from the start the Academy blew it—and the Academy has pretty much been blowing it ever since.

First, for reasons known only to Louis B. Mayer, the MGM studio head who thought up the Academy Awards, the first Oscars were awarded to movies that had premiered in Los Angeles County between August 1, 1927, and July 31, 1928. Why he chose to straddle two calendar years like that I can't imagine but it confused the hell out of voters who initially gave the award for best picture to Buster Keaton's masterpiece, The General, which would have been a truly brilliant pick, one of the few in Academy history, except that The General had come out in early 1927 and wasn't eligible for the award.

Then when it looked like independent film maverick and all-around pain-in-the-industry's rump Charlie Chaplin might walk away with an award, the Academy—that is, Mayer meeting in a smoke-filled room with the other heads of the various studios—took Chaplin's name off the ballot and handed him an honorary Oscar instead.

They also figured that handing a bunch of awards to the most popular movie of the year, The Jazz Singer, wasn't going to help sell extra tickets, to The Jazz Singer or anything else, so they arbitrarily declared it ineligible and handed its producers an honorary Oscar as well.

Further, the Academy's leaders couldn't even figure out what they meant by "best" when it came to awarding the best picture, so they had two best pictures, one called Best Production (Wings), the other called Unique And Artistic Production (Sunrise). Neither of which, apparently, was the popular choice. That would have been The Crowd. But Mayer didn't like The Crowd or its director, King Vidor, so he vetoed that pick even though it was a product of his own studio.

Crazy motherhumper, that Louis B.

And finally, when even all those machinations were not enough to guarantee results to their liking, the studio bosses said to hell with the voters and split the awards between themselves, ensuring the major studios were well-represented and everyone else take the hindmost.

The result was a mess, motivated not by Hollywood's desire to recognize what was good, but to sell tickets, settle scores and congratulate themselves on what a wonderful job they were doing.

Nothing much has changed.

And except for maybe the Nobel Peace Prize, it's the most successful set of awards ever created, generating more blather and second-guessing, I suspect, that all the other awards combined. And what more, really, do you want from an award, especially one named after Bette Davis's ex-husband—other than maybe fewer dance numbers and shorter acceptance speeches.

Why am I telling you this? We'll talk about that tomorrow ...

8 comments:

lupner said...

And here I've been thinking the Oscars began as something relevant and only became ridiculous over time . . .

Jean Siskill said...

I would actually like longer acceptance speeches. But then a panel of judges [but no Paula Abdul] would comment on their delivery, sincerity, boredom factor, cleavage, and whatever else comes to their minds. . . .

Mister Parker said...

Do we get to vote Meryl Streep off the show?

Mister Parker said...

And welcome, lupner. You'll be glad to know you were the one person I was absolutely counting on to show up and suffer through this blog ...

lupner said...

With pleasure, Mister Parker. I live to suffer over such beautifully constructed thoughts and sentences . . .

Also, I like the pictures.

lupner said...

Re: Jean's comment -- I like it. Then we could drag it out through the nite and all thru the next day -- perhaps declare Monday as Oscar's national holiday . . .

Donald J. Rickles said...

blowing it from the start

Mister Parker said...

If you thought that was funny, Don, just wait until I write about "Pandora's Box" ...