Lead Film Critic, Steve Pulaski, offers his thoughts and insight into the Academy Awards ©, from past to present
The biggest … and perhaps most controversial night in Hollywood for the last 86 years has been the Academy Awards ©, where actors, actresses, directors, directresses, among many others involved in the business of filmmaking gather together to recognize the year’s achievements in film. Every year I find myself in front of the TV, complete with snacks, drinks, my hastily-made Oscar ballot ready to cheer for those I feel deserved the award the most, swear impulsively at those whose win I disagree with, and collect myself throughout the night and into the morning to a more calm, reassured state (of course after making dozens of equally-impulsive Tweets).
Oscar-night is a big deal to me because it’s one of the few times mainstream cinema, independent cinema, documentary cinema, foreign cinema, among short films and unrecognized, ignored technical aspects that go into making a film collide in one particular place — on a mainstream TV network nonetheless. Frequently in my film reviews, I remark about how a specific film will go unnoticed or a specific actor or aesthetic in the film will be ignored in favor of something else. While there is almost no conceivable way to include every good/great filmmaker, actor, or behind the scenes-crewmember in one awards show, the Oscars seems to do the most efficient job bringing films we’ve heard a lot about and films we haven’t hear much about together in one place.
Oscar celebration is far and wide. This year, the popular network Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is devoted to bringing thirty-one days of Oscar movies, TV specials, and programs dedicated to talking about the popular awards event. Their first installment in the ongoing series was a comprehensive and well-conducted documentary And the Oscar Goes To…, which will be the bulk of this blog’s focus. The film focuses on the history of the Academy Awards, its controversial wins, its praised wins, the winners themselves, the losers that ultimately result, and commentary from numerous different Hollywood people.
The original Oscar host for many years, Bob Hope, said it best in that “the place is like a maternity ward — everybody’s expecting.” The reality is everyone is but few actually get a special delivery. For almost every category, you have one winner and four losers, each of whom go home with a feeling or honor but also a strong sense of discouragement.
Documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman begin by giving us insight into the first Best Picture Oscar winner, Wings, a World War II epic. Interestingly, the following year saw a drastic change in nominees, as well as cinema, in the regard that all future nominees had sound, while the films of the Academy Awards’ first year in 1929 were silent films. 1927’s first full-length film with sound was The Jazz Singer, which was ineligible for Best Picture but received a technical achievement award. Quite the lasting achievement, I’d say.
Epstein and Friedman get numerous actors’ opinions as to how it feels to be nominated, a feeling many people will never experience. “It’s your Bat Mitzvah times a million,” Jason Reitman states, who received Academy recognition for his film Juno in 2007. Other stars like Tom Hanks, Cher, Jane Fonda, and sound engineer Ben Burtt also weigh in on just how it feels to be granted a nomination, commenting on the incredible rush that overcomes you upon being nominated that suddenly makes your work feel deeply appreciated.
Fonda comments how into the role of a prostitute in her film Klute by meeting numerous other prostitutes in the New York City area, seeing how they live and how they operate, along with visiting the local police station to see a file-cabinet full of prostitutes that were brutally beat to death while with a “client.” Hanks remarks about his motivation behind taking the lead role in “Philadelphia” was because of two very prominent gay men in his life and the HIV epidemic being highly-controversial in the public eye. When the actors elaborate on their choices for roles is when And the Oscar Goes To… puts a magnifying glass up to incredible talent and their reason for choosing the projects they did.
The film also features numerous Oscar acceptance speeches, one of my personal favorites being Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Affleck and Damon won Best Original Screenplay for Good Will Hunting and clearly were excited, shocked, and overwhelmed by being young and at the Academy Awards © with numerous A-listers. Upon getting on the stage, Affleck and Damon can barely stand still, like kids in a candy shop, trying to run down the list of names to thank and the people to credit for their win. Affleck states how they were just two kids from the street of Boston who couldn’t even imagine being up on stage with the plethora of talent that were present.
Another speech that was notable and dangerously political was when Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine won Best Documentary Feature” at The Academy Awards ©. Moore brought every other documentary filmmaker nominated on stage with him, stating they are all a fan of non-fiction and going on to boldly state his opposition for the invasion of Iraq along with George W. Bush’s conservative policies. Moore turned the Academy upside down, with audible cheers and boos reigning from the audience in one of the most ostentatious and unexpected acceptance speeches for an award at the show’s history.
The Academy Awards © is also seen as a showcase for social change, especially in the way black actors and actresses have been honored. Hattie McDaniel was the first black actress to win an Oscar for her role in Gone With the Wind and her acceptance speech is one to remember for its incredible thankfulness and tenderness for being recognized for such a prestigious award. McDaniel sounds nothing but grateful and in awe that she, an unlikely candidate in almost every regard, would be the first black actress deemed significant and impacting enough to receive an Oscar, let alone a nomination. She paved the way for people like Sydney Poitier and, most recently, Octavia Spencer for The Help, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o for 12 Years a Slave.
Then there are dark sides to the Academy’s checkered history, such as the list of blacklisted actors who were put on such a list due in part to their sympathy or speculated relationships with communism in some way, shape, or form – a decision, as we know, that was thoroughly despised and loathed in America just a few decades ago. People’s works would still be nominated if they were blacklisted, but those who took accepted the award would be someone completely different. Blacklisted actors wrote under pseudonyms, some left America and never returned, and some even committed suicide because of such a rash, unfair decision. It was one of the darkest moments in the Academy’s history showing an appalling lack of respect for dissent and alternative thinking.
However, the reason I’ve long supported the Academy is because they give recognition to films that may have gone criminally unseen without their existence, give credit to people who are very well responsible for why people may love a certain film, and to promote cinematic awareness in a way that acknowledges many unheard-of aspects of filmmaking. There are, however, some Academy purists that are almost as fanatical as the Criterion Collection purists, where they take their word for what they nominate/award and if it isn’t recognized by the Academy it isn’t worth their time, in their own opinion. That specific opinion, to me, is asinine; the Academy provides an interesting perspective, not an all-divine answer to what is really the best. “We took a vote, it’s all opinion,” one Academy member thankfully adds in the film.
Epstein and Friedman just last year released Lovelace, a strong film about the pornographic star Linda Lovelace, along with premiering their short-documentary The Battle of amfAR on HBO in January 2014. The two are great directors in the regard that they let several elements shine in order to give a comprehensive and thorough look at a subject in a way that remains interesting and informative. And the Oscar Goes To…, however, may be their strongest work, for they are putting a large, sometimes elusive institution that exists in the largely public film world, under a microscope for examination.
Like them or not, the Oscars fundamentally changed cinema in the regard that it almost made it be taken more seriously. Cheap Nickelodeons, the old-fashioned way of viewing films, morphed into theaters complete with sound, dozens of seats, and a large screen to accommodate any kind of film. Actors were looked up to by many of the public and became movie-stars, and their job became taken more seriously than ever before. Film was changed by the Oscars; for better or for worse is up to you.
Article by Steve Pulaski, Lead Film Critic