When they decided to move the Oscar show back to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, we knew tickets would be tight; we didn't think they'd forget to invite the year's best directors.
Where were Bruce Beresford and Ed Zwick? Where was Spike Lee? Beresford and Zwick, who were not nominated for best director, had their names mentioned in more "thank you" speeches than God, Michael Ovitz and best-director winner Oliver Stone combined, and their movies--"Driving Miss Daisy" and "Glory"--carted off a total of seven awards. And Lee cast a shadow over the stage without even being asked to come on down.
So much for the auteur theory.
In the end, "Driving Miss Daisy" was the evening's biggest winner, with four Oscars, including the one for best picture. But it will be a year with asterisks all over it in the record book.
Oliver Stone won as best director for a movie, "Born on the Fourth of July," that collected only one other award, for editing. "Driving Miss Daisy" won as best picture, making it the first film since the 1932 "Grand Hotel" to win best picture without even earning a nomination for its director. It was a night when an animated film swept the music awards, winning for its score and its calypso centerpiece, "Under the Sea." It was also a year when an industry audience rose to give a relatively unknown foreign actor--Daniel Day-Lewis--a standing ovation, proving to some cynics that--on this occasion at least--they know a little something about acting.
The 62nd Oscar show was what it was billed to be, a wide-open race. Stone's "Born on the Fourth of July" was the only film given a chance at a sweep, and it got swept instead. It went two for eight.
Still, the outcome was in doubt right to the end. "Driving Miss Daisy" had a 3-1 edge on "Born" in their four previous head-to-head categories, but because best pictures and best directors are usually paired in the voting, no one would have been surprised to hear "Born" pulled out of the last envelope.
The uncertainty of this year's results may have made for livelier office pools and Oscar parties, and after years of boring one-picture sweeps, it's encouraging to know the voters can split their ballots. But what did the split mean? With a clear choice between a film that was full of warm intentions and gentle performances--"Driving Miss Daisy"--and one that had the anger of a decade crammed into little more than two hours--"Born on the Fourth of July"--the voters teetered back and forth then settled on the gentle number.
The academy blew its opportunity for a compromise when it failed to nominate for either best picture or best director Ed Zwick's fine Civil War epic "Glory," probably the most Oscar- like film released during the whole year. What held it back? The performance of Matthew Broderick? Zwick's TV background, which had some people calling "Glory" "eighteensixtysomething"?
We'll never know, but when it came time to cast their final ballots, the general membership was definitely in a "Glory" mood. It won in three of the categories for which it was nominated.
Beresford's absence from the formal program was certainly noted. Billy Crystal, calling "Driving Miss Daisy" the "movie which apparently directed itself," made the first reference during his opening monologue, then the parade of "Driving Miss Daisy" winners further drove home the point. Four times, the academy's live orchestra broke into that catchy "Miss Daisy" theme while winners worked their way to the podium to thank--among others, but never forgetting--their Australian director Beresford.
If "Driving Miss Daisy" was the best film of the year--if it was just one of the five best--Beresford should have had a formal invitation.
The academy didn't make a statement this year, it surrendered to the times. During the Reaganized '80s, while only one irreverent political film (Stone's "Platoon") was making it to the winner's circle, Hollywood and the academy were tamed by supply-side economics and the irreversible thawing of the Cold War. The victory by "Driving Miss Daisy"--at both the box office and in the Oscar contest--suggests that gentle we go into the '90s, as well.
If the country was in an introspective mood, Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" would have at least been in contention.
Lee was there, as a nominee for best original screenplay, but it proved just one more disappointment for supporters of the year's most critically-acclaimed film. Several people mentioned the film's Oscar snub during arrival interviews on local TV, and Kim Basinger--in what qualifies as a tense moment in the era of the 45-second clock--chided the academy for overlooking the film that told "the greatest truth of all."
If Lee was the victim of a backlash, so might Stone have been. Late-in-the-race assaults by right-wing political pundit Patrick Buchanan--along with nay saying critics who repeated Buchanan's charges that Stone and co-screenwriter Ron Kovic had revamped history to suit their own political agenda--didn't help. Similar criticisms leveled against Michael Moore's "Roger & Me" are thought by many to have buried that movie with the academy's documentary nominations committee.
Stone said Monday afternoon that the press had blithely accepted Buchanan's charges without giving him or Kovic a chance to respond. "I have not been contacted by anyone about playing 'fast and loose' with the facts," Stone said. "I always said these were composite characters . . . This has been an attack on (Kovic) that was inspired by the right wing."
The feature documentary Oscar to the makers of "Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt" may ease some of the pressure on the academy's documentary nominations committee. The group was excoriated by critics this year for omitting "Roger & Me" from the final ballot. Last year, the group was excoriated for overlooking Erroll Morris' "The Thin Blue Line." In both instances, committee members defended themselves by saying there were five better candidates than either "The Thin Blue Line" or "Michael & Me."
That argument doesn't stand up to the scrutiny of the nominees. There was not a better documentary in 1988 than "The Thin Blue Line," and "Roger & Me"--whatever its maker's lapses--is certainly better than most of this year's choices. But it isn't better than the actual winner. "Common Threads," made by the producers of the Oscar-winning "The Times of Harvey Milk," took five names from the AIDS quilt and examined the impact of the lives and deaths of those people on loved ones left behind. It was exceptionally well-made and almost overwhelming in its indictments of the plague's myths and the federal government's lethargic response to it.
Still, if the academy is serious about maintaining an image of integrity in its nominations process, it must overhaul its documentary committee format and put the fate of documentary filmmakers in the hands of their peers.