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Oscar needs a high-tech remake

Film historian and critic David Thomson is the author, most recently, of "The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood."

IF YOU HAVE made it to 78 in our world, then your future is rosier than you might think: Chances are you’ll see 85, even if you may not like it altogether. Still, I worry about the future of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which conducts its 78th annual awards celebration this year.

You see, I love the academy. I love the footage of Bob Hope in 1940, saying this must be a “benefit night” for David O. Selznick as “Gone With the Wind’s” tide came in. I treasure those “moments” like Norman Maine tottering on to Vicki Lester’s stage in “A Star Is Born.” I even admire that weird deadpan guy, Oscar, the world’s most famous bit of sculpture.

I have friends at the academy -- not least Sid Ganis, the producer who recently became the new president, and Frank Pierson, his predecessor. (Just like Louis B. Mayer, I have presidents for friends.) And I absolutely revere and would defend to the death the academy’s film and research library.

But I worry about the academy, and if I’m guessing right about Ganis, I suspect he worries too. I can’t bear the thought that Oscar night could be revealed as no more necessary than the Golden Globes or the Grammys, as just a noisy, prolonged bore that demonstrates how far we the audience and many of the onstage performers are from what the academy was meant to represent. I worry that the night might not be able to compete with some future “American Idol,” and that the ratings will slide and keep on going -- as if they were attendance figures at movie theaters. No, I’m not talking about last year’s 6% drop at theaters. I’m talking about the way, once upon a time -- in 1948, to be precise -- 90 million movie tickets were sold each week in the U.S. And now, with nearly twice the population, it’s almost a quarter that number.

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Of course, I’m repeating a big white lie in my effort to convey alarm: I’m trying to convince myself (as well as you) that the academy came into being as a natural result of a heartfelt search for quality. It wasn’t so, and in thinking about how to reform the academy, it’s important that we recall the real history.

Mayer and his fellow first academicians were afraid of the scandals (sex, murder, drugs -- the same old stuff) then underway in Hollywood, afraid that they might draw national ire and federal intervention. So they wanted to put up a classy set for themselves -- and prizes for virtue and art and science were a natural part of that. They were also afraid that unionization (if it came to pass, especially for actors, writers and directors) would steal too much of their loot, and they had a blithe hope that this new academy they were creating would serve as a forum for all grievances (but controlled by the bosses).

In other words, it was humbug and flimflam from the start, and so it has always been. The first awards were given out in 1929 at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, but in the steadfast search for quality that followed, there was never a directing Oscar for Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton or Robert Altman.

Yes, the academy acquired the grace along the way to make some amends by awarding honorary Oscars, often the most touching and meaningful part of the evening. And, yes, this year the honorary Oscar goes to Altman (thank God). But I noticed with interest that another of this year’s extra Oscars, the Gordon E. Sawyer Award for “technological contributions,” goes to Gary Demos. I’m sure that many people, even in this town, don’t know who Demos is.

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I found myself thinking: Altman and Demos -- there’s an odd pair. For most of his long life, with famous ups and downs, Robert Altman has been struggling to put life up there on our screens, as much of it as possible. Real life, real light, real movement, real sound, real muddle, real beauty. It hasn’t always worked, but at other times it has given us “M*A*S*H,” “The Long Goodbye,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “Nashville” and “Short Cuts.” When I talk about light and life, I suppose I mean something called art, some arrangement of imagery, story, people and feeling that will stay with us forever.

And Gary Demos? Well, as far as I can see, he is a pioneering genius who did much of the theoretical work in computer-generated imagery, which now thrives on its ability to put a copy of life, light, etc. on our screens. I’m not knocking Demos, even if I generally dislike the victory of digital imagery over photography. He received his award on Feb. 18, but I would have handed it out on the real Oscar night, and I would have explained in detail what he has done because -- for good or ill -- that’s where the mind of our movies is today.

But to reform the academy, that’s just a start. I’d also throw out the awards for sound, costume and art direction, the dire songs, the shorts and the documentaries and the foreign films. OK, throw your bricks this way -- but I think the night of the Oscars has to restore the last few bonds of reality between film and the public. This is hard because the movies are not exactly a mass medium anymore. They belong to a few of us.

But the academy will last only if we believe that movies can sweep us all up -- movies such as “It Happened One Night,” “Casablanca,” “From Here to Eternity,” “The Apartment.” So I’d push the technical awards and the science that has already changed the movies, because I think that’s what “movie” means to kids now, and I believe that’s the future we’re headed for. I’d treat Demos as a very important man -- which he is.

I’d also give Oscars for the best deal, the best promotion campaign, the most outrageous agent of the year. I’d give a chutzpah award -- while the term chutzpah is still understood. All because people are in love with the business more than the story.

I’d cut the show in half. I’d make it a dinner party again, instead of an awkward theatrical event.

These days, some of the better films being made in the United States are more like novels than like old-fashioned movies. They have the same weightiness, the same seriousness of intention (not to mention the same limited audience range). I rejoice in much of that, but I insist on saying that they are not quite movies. They are worthy, interesting, respectable.

Movies need to be wild, sensational, visceral, overwhelming. Otherwise, one day the audience is going to wake up and say, “Dad, why do we have the Academy Awards? Shouldn’t they be in a home somewhere?”

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