Our country has become so disparate that only three annual events bring the majority of us together as a nation.
The oldest is the Fourth of July, when American patriotism glows for a few hours until the final Chinese fireworks fade from the night sky. The other two are televised contests.
One is the Sunday afternoon when parochial behemoths struggle to put a leather pouch filled with air over a goal line in a Super Bowl identified in Roman numerals; the other, that long Monday night when British, Italian and Swedish film makers accept Hollywood's emblem of excellence during the Motion Picture Academy's awards ceremony.
There have been XXI Super Bowls to date, all heralded by increasingly strident media hype, and 59 equally publicized film farragoes with perhaps as many books written about them. That probability has not deterred publishers from adding two more volumes to the stack with release dates shrewdly timed to coincide with this year's epidemic of Oscar fever.
Ungar Publishing offers Emanuel Levy's "And the Winner Is . . ." in hardcover, while Harper & Row presents the paperback, "Oscar Dearest," which authors Peter H. Brown (a movie star biographer) and Jim Pinkston (a trivia maven) compiled as "six decades of scandal, politics and greed behind Hollywood's Academy Awards."
Both nonfiction works cover the history of the celluloid carnival from the first meeting in 1927, when it was a simple local affair, through the dazzling international event the awards had become by 1986. And both volumes carry disclaimers that they are neither authorized nor endorsed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a salute to the collective wisdom of an Academy whose abundant library is the acknowledged source of the factual details the authors elected to rehash.
Their texts demonstrate the common eclecticism of the authors, confirmed by bibliographies both books contain: They all read much of the same material. But Brown and Pinkston, for their breezier account, also combed gossip columns and conducted interviews to glean nuggets that serve their arch purpose in putting "scandal, politics and greed" in close-up, leaving the larger background for college professor Levy to bring into sharper focus.
The collaborators gossip with us over a backyard barbecue; film scholar Levy, a Columbia University teacher, instructs and theorizes from a lectern. His classroom approach is not entirely devoid of gossip but is more precise, cautious and reasoned. Levy also has a fascination with statistics that sometime clutter his narrative. ("The Oscar is 13 1/2 inches tall and weighs 8 1/2 pounds. It is gold-plated over a composition of 92.5% tin and 7.5% copper.")
Levy's caution is reflected in his frequent use of qualifiers like "apparently," "attributed to" and "is believed to be." His reasoning is exemplified in his final chapter when the sociologist is at his best summing up the pre-eminence of the Oscar in the American culture.
Brown and Pinkston display no effort to question facts or anecdotes as they blithely smirk and sneer at every branch of the Academy. In an unfortunate reference to "Oscar's internal rottenness," they claim that the cinematographers "have repeatedly honored nonsense (such as 'Cleopatra')"!
"Cleopatra," it so happens, was shot by a four-time Oscar winner, the legendary Leon Shamroy, who later walked off a movie being directed by a hot, young French import (who eventually disappeared) because, Shamie said, "the s.o.b. is trying to perpetuate as art the mistakes we corrected years ago." Perhaps Brown and Pinkston know more about cinematography, the only discipline in cinema that combines art and science, than the men behind the camera.
On the other hand, the extent of their scholarship may be more aptly demonstrated in a questionable bonus their book contains, "The Ultimate Oscar Quiz," a taxing intellectual exercise that asks such meaningful posers as, "What Best Song was introduced by an insect?"
In fairness, Brown and Pinkston cannot be accused of boring a reader; their book is generously illustrated, and their detailed captions are often amusing if almost always judgmental.
But then, in both books, the authors offer their opinions about films, scripts, players, music and directors who "should have won but didn't," setting themselves up as arbiters of excellence. And that, perhaps is the ultimate appeal of the awards: Everybody knows who and what should win; the experts in every category be damned!
In "Oscar Dearest," the authors contend that all acceptance speeches are too long, a hoary complaint. They then quote what they consider examples of "short, clever and amusing" remarks from several winners, unabashedly or unknowingly extracting a few phrases from what were actually longer speeches.
And they refer to screenwriters only where scandal is attached to their names, demeaning their craft by allusions to "such clunkers as 'Designing Woman,' 'Operation Petticoat' and 'Pillow Talk' . . . ," screenplays nominated by the Writers branch, a group of literate but seldom entirely philanthropic Academy members.
For the reader/film fan whose taste runs to lemon meringue and sour cream, "Oscar Dearest" should be a satisfying, mean-spirited excursion backstage at the Oscars. But for substance and insight, this reader prefers the more engrossing "And the Winner Is. . . ." Emanuel Levy, no ponderous pedant, offers logical explanations and valid theories as to Oscar's global impact on society and why the awards show brings Americans together on a Monday night each year.