Oscar Night in Hollywood

"Not only is the motion picture an art, but it is the one entirely new art that has been evolved on this planet for hundreds of years. It is the only art at which we of this generation have any possible chance to greatly excel."
III

I am also intrigued by the voting. It was formerly done by all the members of all the various guilds, including the extras and bit players. Then it was realized that this gave too much voting power to rather unimportant groups, so the voting on various classes of awards was restricted to the guilds which were presumed to have some critical intelligence on the subject. Evidently this did not work either, and the next change was to have the nominating done by the specialist guilds, and the voting only by members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

It doesn't really seem to make much difference how the voting is done. The quality of the work is still only recognized in the context of success. A superb job in a flop picture would get you nothing, a routine job in a winner will be voted in. It is against this background of success-worship that the voting is done, with the incidental music supplied by a stream of advertising in the trade papers (which even intelligent people read in Hollywood) designed to put all other pictures than those advertised out of your head at balloting time. The psychological effect is very great on minds conditioned to thinking of merit solely in terms of box office and ballyhoo. The members of the Academy live in this atmosphere, and they are enormously suggestible people, as are all workers in Hollywood. If they are contracted to studios, they are made to feel that it is a matter of group patriotism to vote for the products of their own lot. They are informally advised not to waste their votes, not to plump for something that can't win, especially something made on another lot.

I do not feel any profound conviction, for example, as to whether The Best Years of Our Lives was even the best Hollywood motion picture of 1946. It depends on what you mean by best. It had a first-class director, some fine actors, and the most appealing sympathy gag in years. It probably had as much all-around distinction as Hollywood is presently capable of. That it had the kind of class and simple art possessed by Open City or the stalwart and magnificent impact of Henry V only an idiot would claim. In a sense it did not have art at all. It had that kind of sentimentality which is almost but not quite humanity, and that kind of adeptness which is almost but not quite style. And it had them in large doses, which always helps.

The governing board of the Academy is at great pains to protect the honesty and the secrecy of the voting. It is done by anonymous numbered ballots, and the ballots are sent, not to any agency of the motion picture industry, but to a well-known firm of public accountants. The results, in sealed envelopes, are borne by an emissary of the firm right onto the stage of the theater where the Awards be made, and there for the first time, one at a time, they are made known. Surely precaution would go no further. No one could possibly have known in advance any of these results, not even in Hollywood where every agent learns the closely guarded secrets of the studios with no apparent trouble. If there are secrets in Hollywood, which I sometimes doubt, this voting ought to be one of them.

IV

As for a deeper kind of honesty, I think it is about time for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to use a little of it up by declaring in a forthright manner that foreign pictures are outside competition and will remain so until they face the same economic situation and the same strangling censorship that Hollywood faces. It is all very well to say how clever and artistic the French are, how true to life, what subtle actors they have, what an honest sense of the earth, what forthrightness in dealing the bawdy side of life. The French can afford these things, we cannot. To the Italians they are permitted, to us they are denied. Even the English possess a freedom we lack. How much did Brief Encounter cost? It would have cost at least a million and a half in Hollywood; in order to get that money back, and the distribution costs on top of the negative costs, it would have had to contain innumerable crowd-pleasing ingredients, the very lack of which is what makes it a good picture.

Since the Academy is not an international tribunal of film art it should stop pretending to be one. If foreign pictures have no practical chance whatsoever of winning a major award they should not be nominated. At the very beginning of the performance in 1947 a special Oscar was awarded to Laurence Olivier for Henry V, although it was among those nominated as best picture of the year. There could be no more obvious way of saying it was not going to win. A couple of minor technical awards and a couple of minor writing awards were also given to foreign pictures, but nothing that ran into important coin, just side meat. Whether these awards were deserved is beside the point, which is that they were minor awards and were intended to be minor awards, and that there was no possibility whatsoever of any foreign-made picture winning a major award.

To outsiders it might appear that something devious went on here. To those who know Hollywood, all that went on was the secure knowledge and awareness that the Oscars exist for and by Hollywood, their purpose is to maintain the supremacy of Hollywood, their standards and problems are the standards and problems of Hollywood, and their phoniness is the phoniness of Hollywood. But the Academy cannot, without appearing ridiculous, maintain a pose of internationalism by tossing a few minor baubles to the foreigners while carefully keeping all the top-drawer jewelry for itself. As a writer I resent that writing awards should be among these baubles, and as a member of the Motion Picture Academy I resent its trying to put itself in a position which its annual performance before the public shows it quite unfit to occupy.

If the actors and actresses like the silly show, and I'm not sure at all the best of them do, they at least know how to look elegant in a strong light, and how to make with the wide-eyed and oh, so humble little speeches as if they believed them. If the big producers like it, and I'm quite sure they do because it contains the only ingredients they really understand—promotion values and the additional grosses that go with them—the producers at least know what they are fighting for. But if the quiet, earnest, and slightly cynical people who really make motion pictures like it, and I'm quite sure they don't, well, after all, it comes only once a year, and it's no worse than a lot of the sleazy vaudeville they have to push out of the way to get their work done.

Of course that's not quite the point either. The head of a large studio once said privately that in his candid opinion the motion picture business was 25 per cent honest business and the other 75 per cent pure conniving. He didn't say anything about art, although he may have heard of it. But that is the real point, isn't it?—whether these annual Awards, regardless of the grotesque ritual which accompanies them, really represent anything at all of artistic importance to the motion picture medium, anything clear and honest that remains after the lights are dimmed, the minks are put away, and the aspirin is swallowed? I don't think they do. I think they are just theater and not even good theater. As for the personal prestige that goes with winning an Oscar, it may with luck last long enough for your agent to get your contract rewritten and your price jacked up another notch. But over the years and in the hearts of men of good will? I hardly think so.

Once upon a time a once very successful Hollywood lady decided (or was forced) to sell her lovely furnishings at auction, together with her lovely home. On the day before she moved out she was showing a party of her friends through the house for a private view. One of them noticed that the lady was using her two golden Oscars as doorstops. It seemed they were just about the right weight, and she had sort of forgotten they were gold.

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