GOLDWYN TOUCH FOR OSCARS
“Too much pomposity.” “Need for more irreverent humor.” “Entertainment should be generic to film.” “Need to know how to use TV to sell our achievements.”
Samuel Goldwyn Jr. was reading from the yellow legal pad on which he has been jotting down notes, criticisms and suggestions about the annual Academy Awards show, which he has agreed to produce this year. He has had no trouble getting people to speak up.
“Everybody has a love/hate relationship with the show,” Goldwyn says. “You just mention it and people start going on about why don’t you do this, or why don’t you do that? The problem is that everybody doesn’t love or hate the same things.”
If we did, it would make the producer’s job easier. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, ABC-TV and nearly every viewer on Eastern Standard Time would like the show to be shorter than the 3 to 3 1/2 hours it normally runs. And Goldwyn, like most of his predecessors, says cutting the show’s length is his first priority.
“The show has to be shorter,” he says. “We have to find ways to convey more information in a shorter time. When the show goes over three hours, that means it is after midnight on the East Coast. That is just too long.”
Yes, it is, and combined with other factors--changing television viewing habits, the deglamorization of Hollywood, the mediocre run of movies up for awards--the Oscar show has been on a ratings skid in recent years.
Goldwyn says there is no panic about ratings. It is still the most widely watched event in the world. But there is concern about reversing the trend, and the way to do that, he says, is to pick up the show’s pace and concentrate more on the reason it is on the air.
“The old line with movies is, ‘Trust the story or don’t make the movie,’ ” Goldwyn says. “If you don’t trust the story, that’s when movies get overproduced and bloated. Maybe that’s what’s happened here. Over the years, we have tended not to trust Oscar. But Oscar is the drawing card. That is the story.”
Goldwyn says he has made no major decisions about the format for this year’s show, other than his commitment to use more clips from nominated films to help viewers understand why certain films or individuals were singled out by the industry as the year’s highest achievers.
“The use of clips has gotten shorter and shorter to the point where most people get no sense of the movies,” he says. “Most of the people watching only see maybe two or three movies a year. They will probably be making video (rental) decisions based on what they see on the show, and we have to show them enough to help them make their decisions.”
Goldwyn says clips will be selected to illustrate specific achievements in each category and will be shown during the presentations. For instance, when the winner for best art direction is announced, technicians will “punch up” a clip showing an example of the winner’s work while that person is on the way up to accept the award.
Other priorities on Goldwyn’s mind:
Enhance the glamour. Goldwyn says he’s convinced viewers turn on the show expecting to see “beautiful people looking beautiful” and he wants to make sure they get an eyeful. Taking a page out of Oscar history, when Edith Head choreographed the clothes that presenters and nominees wore, Goldwyn has asked Broadway and film costume designer Theoni Aldredge to handle that colorful chore this year. (Can you imagine Whoopi Goldberg in pumps?)
Hold the focus on suspense. Goldwyn says he doesn’t agree with those people who have suggested having analysts call the show play-by-play (“Universal has just taken a 4-3 lead over Fox with Paramount running third. As we head into the major categories, ‘Out of Africa’ has clearly got the momentum over ‘Prizzi’s Honor’ . . . "). But Goldwyn does believe something can be done to keep viewers focused on the evening’s trends.
“I want to get them focused on the suspense of the evening and never let go of it,” he says. “When we sit and watch that show (in Hollywood), we keep track of what is going on. We have to keep the audience aware of it too.”
“Prettier and wittier” are the objectives Goldwyn has given himself for the atmosphere of the 59th Academy Awards, and “trusting Oscar” is the theme he says he will follow in establishing a format. There may be fewer production numbers, but however many there are, he says they will be simpler, designed for the TV camera rather than the stage, and they will be thematically related to Oscar.
Goldwyn says his “marching orders” from academy President Robert Wise allow him to do anything he wants, as long as he includes presentations of all the awards and presents the best picture award last. He says he hasn’t decided how the awards will be spaced, but he acknowledged that the second hour of the show is where things tend to bog down. And that’s where he wants to cut the fat and add protein.
“The Oscars are the Super Bowl of movies,” he says. “When you talk about the Super Bowl, you build toward the last two minutes. The Oscar show has tremendous power in the last half-hour. We just need to move that half-hour up.”
SINCE YOU ASKED . . . The middle hour more than bogs down. For the average viewer, that middle hour can be interminable. In recent years, the show has started out strong, with arrivals and introductions, followed by the immediate Oscar presentations for best supporting actor and actress.
Then, about the time the two penguins from Price-Waterhouse are introduced and various academy officials welcome the world to the show, and they start handing out awards for excellence in the categories that no one knows anything about, viewers may start looking for a good basketball game.
The schedule could be rearranged to make the mandatory bloat less apparent, but as the academy insists on presenting the low-profile awards during the show, those presentations and the subsequent winners’ speeches will have a drag-co-efficient on the pace.
The academy’s position is that the winners in the less glamorous categories are as deserving as those for acting and directing, and that they are part of a program which just happens to be on worldwide television. That’s a noble stand, but it is also one of the reasons the show’s popularity is beginning to erode.
Most movie lovers have a love-hate relationship with the Oscar show and will, given a willing ear, spout off about those things that irk us most. If the academy wants to shorten the show and promote the movies, here are some cuts that should be made:
--The Price-Waterhouse spot. Nobody cares how the votes are counted, and it’s embarrassing to watch those two guys stand there grinning while somebody reads or sings a few paragraphs of accounting procedures.
--Eliminate the presentations for short films and documentaries from the live TV show. Some of the best work in film is done in these categories, and it can be easily argued that they deserve an awards show of their own. But only a fraction of the viewing audience for the Oscars has any knowledge of the films or the nominees and without any rooting interest in the outcome, the time devoted to those presentations and speeches is dead time.
--Eliminate the best song category altogether. The record companies and recording artists who are the major beneficiaries of the award would suffer, but these are the Oscars, not the Grammys, and the truth is that most songs nominated today have nothing to do with the movies for which they are nominated.
--Eliminate the foreign-language film award. A best movie is a best movie. Last year, Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran” would probably have been a best-picture nominee (it got four other nominations, including one for best director), but it wasn’t eligible. Besides, the nominations are made by the country of origin, not by academy members, and as everybody knows, the criteria are more often political than artistic. (It is a paradox of reasoning that the academy, so proud of its post-war record of voting integrity, allows outside entities to contaminate the process.)
--A final suggestion: Don’t be so adamant about nominees having prepared acceptance speeches ready. Run them off if they talk too long, but don’t make them recite memorized lists of names of people to be thanked.
The show is live TV, but the only moments where spontaneity can occur is when the winners come to the podium and fall apart. The show needs to be less controlled, not more. Sacheen Littlefeather, come back!