Oscar Reading

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Movie Awards
By Tom O'Neil (Perigee, 804 pages, $19.95)

"Critics should not discuss the Academy Awards," one of our most venerable film critics cautioned. That they indulge Oscar babble anyway only shows their nonseriousness. Critics' overreliance on Hollywood as the measure of artistic standards makes them no different from the rest of the media and the happily duped moviegoing public. In the new Oscar Fever, Emanuel Levy boasts, "No other award so well combines critical and popular judgment. The Oscar is the only award to exert a direct, pervasive influence on every element of the film world: the movies, their filmmakers, and their audiences."

But put that observation in proper perspective. The Oscar fever Levy refers to is part of the unexamined phenomenon of awards and lists becoming founts of alternative buff, nerd and unconsciously "expert" histories of film culture. Awards?and the yearly spate of books about awards?help create crackpot canons, respected by laymen, academics and pundits alike. Variety editor Peter Bart states that "there were 3,182 awards given last year just in the entertainment business alone. Imagine all the 'I would like to thank's that they generated. Think, also, of all the dollars that changed hands in the process."

Cultural currency is also exchanged?the vaunted reputation of some films, the obscurity of others. Simply due to the way honor is bestowed upon financially successful films, enshrining them as worthwhile, popular taste gets perverted (Ben-Hur leads to Titanic, Braveheart leads to Gladiator). Yet it also happens that awards history, if carefully observed, highlights distinguished work that might be forgotten in the rush of competitive pop culture (Michelangelo Antonioni's Le Amiche honored at Cannes, Cicely Tyson in Sounder prized by the National Society of Film Critics, Agnes Moorehead in The Magnificent Ambersons awarded by the New York Film Critics Circle?achievements that surpass fashion).

Suppose all films were destroyed and what remained was simply the historical record, the awards lists. Often, this is the way students and fans most readily learn movie history. Checking the list of prize-winners, they then seek out the notable films. A book like Cobbett Steinberg's irreplaceable Reel Facts (1982, now out of print) brought together 10-best lists as well as awards lists, box office reports and festival prizes, facilitating a broad insight into passing movie eras. It enabled me, as a film student, to gauge established award-winners by the handy comparison of industry facts and journalistic tallies, gaining a better picture of how earlier generations thought and what mattered in the culture. (Such revealing facts as both Preston Sturges' Hail the Conquering Hero and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek being more esteemed in 1944 by the National Board of Review and The New York Times than the Oscar winner Going My Way.) Hindsight could be tested against the judgment of the times. Reviewing history this way, I could adjust my own preferences while observing how film culture was developed. One understands the way canons?ridiculous or not?are formed.

In Movie Awards, a compendium of "13 top film prizes," writer Tom O'Neil prioritizes the Oscars using Variety slang: "As long ago as the 1930s, Variety began referring to the Oscar race as a 'derby' and employed the metaphor frequently and playfully to declare who was out front, falling back or totally out of the running. When the film critics, the showbiz guilds and the foreign press saw how much fun the contest was, they launched their own kudos and positioned theirs ahead of the Oscar race so they could decide the early front-runners. Pretty soon the many awards match-ups composed one big overall derby stretching on the calendar (or two calendars) from mid-December to late March or early April, and all of the kudos orgs were aggressive about pushing their horses out of the gate."

This view unheathily presupposes film culture as a race; critics are reduced to film industry factotums without mentioning year-end wrap-ups, plenary journalistic assessments. But awards are not simply a way to make money (at one time only trade magazines thought so; now that's the emphasis of the entire media). The best use of these books is to convert their awards histories into a way of investigating and remembering history?which is no longer the media's mandate, as proven by the passing celebrity parade that makes even last year's award-winners difficult (if not irrelevant) to recall.

Awards books can be an innovative, postmodern way to read history without authors' personal biases getting in the way. Leafing through the data?printed by years, categories or assorted groups?inspires a reader's immediate research and analysis. The best of these would be the Mason Wiley, Damien Bona Inside Oscar; with its complete list of nominees and periodic glance at other prizes, it is by far the wittiest and most detailed Oscar tome. The first series of National Society of Film Critics compilations (1967-1973) were also significant (and a real find in used bookstores). They were invaluable resources for thinking about movies and understanding how critical processes evaluate such particulars as performance, direction, writing, acting and cinematography. That series disclosed critics putting their votes where their opinions are in order to create an official historical record. In recent years the Society has gotten so large (13 members in 1966, 52 members today) that reprinting the group's often contentious voting tallies has become impossible. Today O'Neil cites that process as "mysterious." (Or are there still readers?and publishers?who'd like to know?)

With only spurious facts on display, awards books facilitate the diligent reader's need to peer between the lines of the current awards shows. "Since [Hollywood] was also interested in something more pressing than industry problem solving?that is, making money from their collective hard work?they created awards to trumpet some of the titles that movie-goers might miss if they weren't reading the reviews penned by newspaper critics," O'Neil writes. "Even better: if the crix were dead wrong about a pic, academy members got to pipe in with their own opinion about what's good." But this gainsays critics' influential public voice, that crucial alternative to Oscar babble that keeps films like Short Cuts, Naked and George Washington afloat. O'Neil's insider/fan approach doesn't acknowledge the audience's need to counter the official blandishments of both Hollywood and critical organizations. He misses the importance of personal taste and a rational view of history.

Movie Awards explains, "New York and Los Angeles film critics groups have been in agreement only eight times in twenty-five years on the Best Picture category. The Oscars, meanwhile, usually march to an entirely different drummer." But the reason for this critics/Hollywood split is the membership overlap, not so much critical consensus as critics' discernment becoming as slack as Hollywood's. In recent years the critical profession has burgeoned (no doubt inspired by the media's intensified?and glamorized?attention to film culture-coverage). Ironically, as readers of the National Society of Film Critics books longed to put their fingerprints on the historical record?and eventually did?the critical profession went into lockstep. Were those eight "consensus" winners?Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), Terms of Endearment (1983), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), GoodFellas (1990), Schindler's List (1993), Leaving Las Vegas (1995), L.A. Confidential (1997) and Saving Private Ryan (1998)?really that unarguable? Now the record mostly show signs of likeminded sensibility rather than scrupulous, unanimous judgment.

O'Neil may be on to something when he begins Movie Awards saying, "There is no such thing as a Best Picture of the Year"?or else that's just trade paper diplomacy. With significance rarely appreciated in film and the power elite's wisdom always open to question, the creation of individual canons happens more avidly than ever. But without a sense of history, movie fans won't know what they're talking about.

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