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Commentary : THE TROUBLE WITH OSCAR : He’s Only a Doodad, an Icon, a TV Star

When Jane Fonda handed Dustin Hoffman his Oscar for “Kramer vs. Kramer” in 1980, the actor, who is slightly larger than the statuette, leaned over its shoulder, paused, then made the wry observation that “he has no genitalia and he’s holding a sword.”

Would that that were Oscar’s only shortcoming.

On the eve of his 60th giveaway, Oscar is an icon on the verge of kitsch, an indiscriminately dispensed doodad resting on Hollywood mantels like so many “World’s Greatest Dad” cups.

In China, where some of ABC-TV’s claimed 1 billion viewers will be watching Monday night’s telecast, they may think that Oscar is a healthy, imperious figure. Among those who care about what he represents, however, he has long since lost his luster. He’s just an ordinary working stiff these days, the Ed McMahon of the awards circuit, serving as the sideline butt of Johnny Carson’s--or Dustin Hoffman’s--jokes.

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What’s wrong with Oscar? For one thing, the statuette--the symbol of excellence in movies-- has become a TV star!

“When I won my Oscar, I felt I was partaking in one of the true national rituals,” said “Star Wars” film editor Paul Hirsch. “There are only two or three (such rituals)--say the World Series, the Super Bowl and the Oscars.”

There you go, three of the biggest television events on the planet. The difference between them is that in the sporting events, there is at least direct competition and legitimate champions. In the Academy Awards, it’s a sort of badly organized election, and who knows what factors are involved?

“Voting is always an imperfect institution,” said Bob Gale, who co-wrote “Back to the Future” with director Bob Zemeckis. “Some people are voting for somebody, some are voting against somebody, some are voting for who they want to see win . . . and some people are voting for who they think could win because they know that the person they want to vote for isn’t going to win. It’s the same as in politics.”

Oscar Attitudes

In the film industry, attitudes toward the Oscars can be described as three general types.

The Celibates. “There should be no awards. I wouldn’t have one if you gave it to me.”

The Semi-Celibates (also known as the “Half-Pregnants”). “It’s ridiculous to think you can determine the best in any category. Let’s have five nominations in each category and stop there.”

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The Orgiasts. “The more categories, the merrier. Let’s give Oscars for best trailer, best poster, best Oscar campaign!”

“There was a while where they were getting so ridiculous, I was expecting there was going to be a category for ‘best James Bond picture of the year,’ ” said Gale. “The more categories, it seems, the longer they can make the awards show go.”

As to the length of the Oscar telecast, which now consumes slightly more time than the Super Bowl and slightly less than the World Series, people tend to believe one of two things:

The show will always be long and overproduced and there is nothing that can be done about it.

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Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, will be along any minute to trim it with her magic wand.

Each year, the show’s producer promises a shorter show and then falls long of his goal. Last year, Samuel Goldwyn Jr. privately assured people he would get the telecast down to about 2 1/2 hours. It came in at nearly 3 1/2 hours, but that was close enough for the academy’s Board of Governors. They rehired Goldwyn for this year.

Most people who complain about the length of the Oscar show point specifically to its bloated production numbers as trimmable excess. Goldwyn proposed cutting some of the presentations for minor categories (he failed) and, like other producers before him, put a lid on the length of acceptance speeches.

"(The acceptance speeches) are the only moments of spontaneity in the whole show,” said film editor Hirsch. “There are too many Vegas-style acts with star comedians doing bad card readings. . . . Cut the production numbers (not the speeches).”

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Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel called the time limit (usually 30 seconds) silly and said, “When Sean Connery wins for ‘The Untouchables,’ I want him to talk for more than a minute.

“I’d love to hear him talk about what it’s been like to be an outsider in the Hollywood film industry,” Siskel said, “never having been nominated after giving so many fine performances and finally getting some recognition. . . . Let the big guys talk as long as they want. That’s what we come for.”

The show has indeed lost its spontaneity in recent years. Heightened security has prevented streakers and party crashers, policy changes have prevented surprise speakers (since Sacheen Littlefeather accepted for Marlon Brando in 1972, the only proxy recipient allowed was Jane Fonda, for dad Henry in 1981), and post-Vietnam, Reagan-era materialism has discouraged winners from political grandstanding. (Hanoi Jane is now Buy-My-Video Jane.)

But the tarnish on Oscar’s electroplated skin can’t be blamed solely on the pandering instincts of the TV producers. The little guy is plagued by genetic defects that--despite the clumsy surgical techniques occasionally attempted by the academy’s rules committees--will follow him to the grave. Or, at least to the next undeserving fireplace mantel.

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The academy puts on a good show of credibility. But it will take more than two tuxedoed guys from Price-Waterhouse to make those in the know forget what’s really wrong with Oscar. No one seriously questions the veracity of the accounting firm’s voting tabulations, and it has honored its vow of silence with a dependability that would have Trappists mumbling under their breaths. (Too bad, too. If the “Gandhi” sweep had been leaked to the press, millions of us would have been spared that evening.)

The Academy Awards process has more fundamental problems. For starters, its 4,523 voting members are not obliged to be proven moviegoers. Those who care to vote for nominees in the foreign language, documentary and short film categories are required to validate their attendance at special academy screenings for each nominee. But for the other categories--best picture, let’s say--they were allowed to vote for “The Last Emperor” even if they hadn’t been to a movie since Pu Yi was still sitting on his Peking poddy.

“They ought to at least make an effort to see all the films,” said Gene Siskel. “The critics do, why can’t the people who work in the industry? They should also fill out the ballots themselves. I know of a number of examples of people who hand the ballots to their spouses and/or assistants because they haven’t seen the films, or simply don’t care about the process.”

Canceling Votes

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Academy members respond to charges of ballot promiscuity with the outrage of husbands explaining away lipstick stains on their collars. (“A woman jumped off a building and her mouth hit my neck on the way down. I’m lucky to be alive!”) But there are contradictory yarns galore.

A few years ago, a gathering of journalists on the set of a Blake Edwards movie were discussing the Academy Awards when Syd Cassyd, a former documentary film maker, confessed guilt over failing to mail his Oscar ballot in 1969, the year Barbra Streisand (“Funny Girl”) and Katharine Hepburn (“The Lion in Winter”) tied for best actress.

“I voted for Katharine Hepburn, but I had to go to New York on business and I left my ballot sitting on my desk at home,” Cassyd said. “I’ve always felt bad because (Hepburn) would have won if I’d just mailed my ballot.”

The story drew a laugh from Jim Bacon, former Los Angeles Herald-Examiner veteran columnist and one of the assembled scribes.

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“Isn’t that something?” Bacon said. “I filled out Jack Oakie’s ballot that year, and I voted for Streisand.”

Bacon, who has since left the Herald-Examiner and is now working on his book “I Never Met a Nymphomaniac I Didn’t Like,” expanded on the story recently. He said Oakie, who died in 1978, had been a neighbor of his in 1969 and that he often invited him over to chat over a quart or two of scotch.

“Oakie used to go through a bottle of scotch in about 90 minutes,” Bacon said. “One night, he brought out his Oscar ballot and said, ‘I’ve only seen one movie this year, you’ve seen all these movies, so why don’t you fill it out for me?’ He had seen ‘Oliver!’ so he voted for it as best picture, and he voted for Ron Moody as best actor. I did the rest.”

The incident would have been forgotten if there hadn’t been a tie. That’s the only time you can be sure your vote counts. Bacon’s proxy for Streisand carried as much weight as Streisand’s own vote, presuming she found herself worthy, and it gave us all the opportunity for a lingering look at that remarkable see-through pantsuit she wore to the stage that year.

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The academy voting apparatus is outright clumsy. The academy is composed of several specialty branches, with each one determining its own slate of nominees. Art directors nominate art directors, actors nominate actors, and so on. Then they take the final ballot and fire it off to their master mailing list.

That list includes 287 publicists and 320 executives. The publicists and executives only participate in the nominations for best picture (thankfully, the academy hasn’t created the categories of “best hype job” or “best ego-basher” yet), but they are eligible to vote for everything else on the final ballot.

That means nearly 15% of the entire voting membership of the academy is made up of people whose business it is to either produce and profit from the films nominated, or to market and publicize them. Since careers and stock options can be affected by Oscars, it seems fair to say that members of the executive and public relations branches don’t hand their ballots over to Bacon.

For the Better . . .

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Singling out films, performances and craft achievements as individual bests-in-class is an arbitrary function, at best. Woody Allen once told a marketing executive at United Artists that he would come to Hollywood and promote “Annie Hall” for Academy Award nominations if the executive could tell him upon what grounds “Annie Hall” would be compared with “Star Wars.”

The executive couldn’t do it, so Allen stayed in New York and was playing his clarinet in Michael’s Pub when Jack Nicholson announced “Annie Hall” as the best picture for 1977.

Allen isn’t the only one who has observed the discrepancies of Oscar competition.

“If you want to know who the best actor is, they should all be playing the same part,” said writer-director Nicholas Meyer. “You want to know who the best director is? They should all be directing the same script. . . . Then you would have a reasonable comparison.”

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A year with 300 versions of “Ishtar” would be pretty daunting, even if a couple of them turned out OK. The reality, given the economics of the Oscar show and the cosmic irrelevance of the awards themselves, is that the academy is going to do whatever it wants to do. If major overhauls were made in the system, imagine the headache in trying to explain them on “Entertainment Tonight” or in USA Today.

In a perfect world, one where people might do what’s right without a threat of litigation, there are several things the academy could do to better itself.

Let the individual branches decide the winners as well as the nominees.

In one fell swoop, they could do away with the dull sweeps. People voting for excellence in their own fields are far less apt to get carried along on the emotional tides that build for one or two movies every year. It is hard to imagine that the members of the costume branch would have given their award to “Gandhi"--where the daily dress code was “Everyone wear white"--if it had been their decision.

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On the other hand, what does a costume designer know about music composition? What does a composer know what special effects? What does a special-effects person know about acting? What does a studio executive or a publicist know about any of them?

The fact that everyone votes for everything turns the Academy Awards into a popularity contest, and explains why you have to hit about 18 out of 22 categories to win the office Oscar pool. Savvy handicappers don’t gauge the quality of work among the nominees, they gauge the popularity of the film or the mood of the academy.

Most viewers don’t know whether the Oscar winners are elected by their peers or flagged by the Publishers Clearing House computer, so the show itself could not be hurt by this reform. On the contrary, the unpredictability of the individual branch voting would make it more interesting.

Dump the foreign-language category and judge all films alike.

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It is a remarkable paradox that the academy draws so much attention to its own credibility while ignoring the politics and corruption that often determine which films will be submitted as official Oscar entries from non-English-speaking countries.

A few years ago, Bertrand Tavernier’s “A Sunday in the Country” would likely have won the foreign-language Oscar. It was, in fact, regarded by many people as the best movie in any language that year. But another, already forgotten, film was submitted by France, amid charges that the country’s Oscar selection body wanted to promote a lesser-known film maker.

The academy’s murky rules concerning foreign-language films actually allows foreign-language films to compete in all the general categories, including best picture, providing the film was not submitted as the official foreign-language candidate from its country of origin. It is conceivable, in other words, that one foreign-language film could win the best foreign-language film Oscar and another foreign-language film could win the best-picture Oscar.

In the confusion, the best best picture may get shunted aside. Two years ago, when “Out of Africa” swept the boards, Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran” was nominated for neither best picture nor best foreign-language picture, though many critics would have judged it to have deserved both.

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The academy should either stick to English-language films, or become truly global by simply melding foreign-language films into the mainstream.

Dump the best song category.

This category meant something when songs were written for--and meant to be part of--their films. Remember “Over the Rainbow”? “When You Wish Upon a Star”? “White Christmas”? “High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’)”?

More recent winners include Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” which had nothing to do with “The Woman in Red,” and Lionel Richie’s “Say You, Say Me,” which was written independently and introduced over the end credits of Taylor Hackford’s “White Nights.”

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Best song nominees today have less to do with moving film stories along than they do with moving sound-track album sales along. Having a best-song category patronizes the Oscar show (and bogs it down) and is unworthy of the attention.

Revamp the music composition awards.

The music categories are the only ones where the artists themselves must submit materials in order to be considered for nominations. The process can be personally humiliating.

Both composer Alex North, a 15-time Oscar nominee, and Abigail Mead, who wrote her debut score for her father Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket,” had their work rejected this year on the grounds that they were not sufficiently original. When a composer, often at the insistence of the director, uses source material for a new score, is that score any less honorable? If it’s a great score, doesn’t it deserve recognition?

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Until recently, the academy had an adaptation score category. In 1984, the music branch dropped it, apparently on the grounds that there weren’t sufficient distinguished adapted scores that year to justify it. Two years later, the branch rejected North’s score for “Prizzi’s Honor” on the grounds that it wasn’t sufficiently original, and North has been at odds with the academy ever since. (See article on North, Page 4.)

The original-adaptation debate was exacerbated last year when Herbie Hancock’s score for “ ‘Round Midnight,” which included a lot of jazz standards, got a nomination for best original score, then won the award. Had the music branch alone voted, said several of its members, the winner would almost certainly have been Ennio Morricone for his score for “The Mission.”

The problem, they said, is that once the nominations are given to the general body to vote on, the most familiar music or the music from the most popular film invariably wins. As is the case with most other categories, the voters do not have to be familiar with the nominees to vote for them.

“I think that somehow the people who are going to vote on the nomination should be forced to see them all,” said veteran Oscar-winning composer Elmer Bernstein. “There’s always been a conflict about whether these are artistic awards or popularity contest success awards.”

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Said fellow composer Fred Steiner: “The man in the street is not supposed to vote on this. It’s (supposed to be) the vote of your peers.”

Serious Problems

If Oscar is flawed, it seems within the academy’s ability to set him right. The complaining that is done among movie fans and in the media every year invariably focuses on matters of taste, judgment and voting idiosyncrasy. Changing the rules cannot alter this. How could “Fatal Attraction” be nominated for best picture and not “The Dead”? How could “Broadcast News” be nominated for best picture and James L. Brooks not be nominated for best director? How could Steven Spielberg have been snubbed again ?

The academy can weather those debates because the debates themselves fuel its publicity engine and create interest in the awards show, which, in effect, is its benefactor and its master.

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The annual fussing and fuming over the Oscar nominations serves to camouflage the more serious problems with Oscar, and it has helped turn the award into an oxymoron--a tribute of colossal insignificance.

“I have a feeling that a lot of people in the music branches--in all the branches--don’t take their jobs seriously enough,” said Elmer Bernstein. “When so-called purists talk about improving the quality of the selection process, I’ve heard others say, ‘Look, this isn’t the Pulitzer Prize!’

“No, but it should be.”

Steven Smith contributed to this article.

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