The Academy Award nominations evoked, as usual, the annual late winter cries of betrayal, timidity, stark prejudice and collective myopia. Alfre Woodard, Jack Lemmon, "The Player" as best picture, and several outstanding documentaries and foreign language films have been cited among the shoulda-beens.
(In truth the complaints were probably fewer this year than usual, reflecting the continuing decline of major studio influence and the tendency to honor grosses instead of quality.)
Second-guessing the Oscars is a game as old as the Oscars themselves (65 this year), but no one has played it more relentlessly than New York film aficionado Danny Peary, author of "Cult Movies" and "Guide for the Film Fanatic."
In his new book, "Alternate Oscars" (Delta, $18.95, 325 pages), Peary has second-guessed every Academy Award decision on best picture, best actor and best actress from the beginning. And he asks such indignant questions as:
How could the voters have picked "Cavalcade" over "King Kong" in the 1932-33 season?
Or "Rebecca" over "The Grapes of Wrath" in 1940?
"How Green Was My Valley" over "Citizen Kane" in 1941?
"Ben-Hur" over "Some Like It Hot" in 1959?
"The Last Emperor" over "Empire of the Sun" in 1987?
Peary is just as testy about the acting categories. How, he cries, could the voters have chosen Katharine Hepburn in "Morning Glory" over Greta Garbo in "Queen Christina" in 1932-33?
Or Claudette Colbert in "It Happened One Night" over Bette Davis in "Of Human Bondage" in 1934?
But indicating he plays no favorites, Peary also asks, how could Bette Davis in "Dangerous" have been chosen over Katharine Hepburn in "Alice Adams" in 1935?
Or William Holden for "Stalag 17" over Montgomery Clift in "From Here to Eternity" in 1953?
Ernest Borgnine in "Marty" over James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause" in 1955?
Dustin Hoffman in "Rain Man" over Peary's choice, Tom Hulce in "Dominick and Eugene" in 1988?
And so it goes, provocation after provocation, chuckle of retroactive agreement after snarl of derision and disbelief. Peary looks by my count at a total of 192 Oscars and agrees with only 31 of them, or about 16%.
Not many movie watchers would quarrel with his agreements. Peary salutes the academy salutes to such best pictures as "Casablanca," "West Side Story," "Godfather I" and "Annie Hall." Among best actors, Peary, too, would have picked, for example, Cagney in "Yankee Doodle Dandy," Brando in "On the Waterfront," Jack Nicholson in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and Daniel Day-Lewis of "My Left Foot."
And he wouldn't disagree with Vivien Leigh of both "Gone With the Wind" and "Streetcar Named Desire," say, or the choices of Susan Hayward of "I Want to Live," Elizabeth Taylor of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and Jodie Foster of "The Accused," among several others.
His disagreements are something else again. Indeed his alternate Oscars, his announcings of "And the winner wasn't . . . ," amount to a kind of Identikit that reveals just one man's personal taste in films (not that there is any other kind).
Especially in more recent years, as the film cultist and champion of the underdog film that he is, Peary often opts for movies and performances which, whatever their undoubted merit, had such limited distribution, advertising and promotion that they didn't catch the eyes of enough of the academy's voters, and were thus not so much voted against as ignored.
Peary would have picked Lili Taylor from the little-seen "Dogfight" over Jodie Foster in "The Silence of the Lambs," surprisingly, and Wesley Snipes of "New Jack City" over Foster's adversary Anthony Hopkins (although he calls Hopkins a worthy runner-up). Completing a kind of reverse sweep for 1991, Peary thought Jane Campion's "An Angel at My Table" a better best picture than "The Silence of the Lambs."
For 1990, Peary would have gone for Ethan and Joel Coen's "Miller's Crossing" over Kevin Costner's "Dances With Wolves" (which Peary, ever fair, liked a lot but just not enough). His other picks that year would have been Gary Oldman of "State of Grace" over Jeremy Irons in "Reversal of Fortune" and Mia Farrow of "Alice" over Kathy Bates in "Misery."
At that, the appeal of the book (and it really is appealing) is not simply in the fun of agreeing or disagreeing with Peary's picks as in taking another stroll through the Academy Award years, watching Oscar's evolution from the first year, when the selections were made in secret by a small committee guided by Louis B. Mayer, to the present when the Oscars are a media event ranking with D-Day and VJ-day.
(That first year, MGM's own "The Crowd" by King Vidor was passed over in favor of William Wellman's "Wings," a Paramount picture. This was ostensibly so Mayer would not be accused of favoring his own studio. Actually, as Mayer admitted to Vidor later, it was so MGM's "Broadway Melody" would be best picture the next year, which it was. The decision rankled Vidor the rest of his life. Peary himself would have chosen F. W. Murnau's "Sunrise," a tragic love story starring Janet Gaynor and George O'Brien. Chaplin's "The Circus" would have been Peary's runner-up.)
"The first Academy Awards were given out in 1929," Peary writes. "In my view they got it wrong then and with few exceptions they have gotten it wrong ever since . . . It is hard not to imagine that members . . . have not sometimes been swayed by . . . politics, sentiment, guilt, spite and an obsession with 'prestige.' " He has got that right, as no one can deny.
And, as Peary also suggests, actors and actors have received Oscars for having almost died (Elizabeth Taylor, when she was honored for "Butterfield 8"), for having unjustly been denied an Oscar the previous year (Bette Davis, honored for "Dangerous" the year after she was not honored for "Of Human Bondage") and for a body of work more than the specific performance (John Wayne for "True Grit," winning over Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in "Midnight Cowboy").
Peary says he hopes the book will be "a catalyst for living room wars . . . I don't even mind receiving a lot of angry mail."
However eccentric and arguable some of his decisions seem, Peary's thoughtful and often eloquent essays on each year's best work leave no doubt of the care with which he chose. And if his discussions of the nominees and the winners didn't in themselves flog enough memories, there are his "award-worthy runners-up," who slipped through the academy sieve altogether, but deserve a tip of the hat, right along with this year's new crop of should-haves.
The Oscars continue to evolve. There are now 4,600 voters, making the decisions more democratic than they have ever been. The distribution of some 35 or 40 films on videocassettes to academy voters makes it likely that fewer voters than before are voting for or against films they haven't actually seen. And what this year's nominations do confirm is a kind of philosophical shift among the voters from the major studio product to the independent films, with their daring, originality and willingness to be intimate rather than spectacular.
What is even conceivable is that in future years Peary might have significantly less to complain of.