Dropping a bucket on the Oscars

It’s easy to make fun of the Oscars, so let’s get started. No matter what awards they give tonight (February 2015) in Hollywood (or lunchtime Monday for us), they will get it wrong. They always do, somehow.

What do these films have in common? Alfie (1966), American Graffiti, American Hustle, Bad Day at Black Rock, Being John Malkovich, Manhattan, Bladerunner, The Caine Mutiny, Do The Right Thing, Double Indemnity, Funny Face, Good Night, and Good Luck, Grand Illusion, Hoop Dreams, It’s a Wonderful Life, Last Tango in Paris, The Letter, The Pawnbroker, Salvador, Saturday Night Fever, Serpico, The Seven Samurai, The Shawshank Redemption, Taxi Driver, Top Hat and Singin’ in the Rain? Yes, none of them won a single Oscar, though all were nominated.

Most of them have now been recognised as classics, but let’s say you disagree. You hate them all, so you propose an alternate list that includes: About Schmidt, Amelie, Atlantic City, Baby Doll, Lolita, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Magnificent Seven, The Maltese Falcon, Memento, The Big Chill, Billy Elliot, The Birdman of Alcatraz, Blazing Saddles, Blow-Up, Broadcast News, Charade, The Conversation, Dark Victory, Silkwood, Quiz Show, The Truman Show and Trainspotting. Surely an Oscar in there somewhere? Nope. Nada, zip, zilch and niente. All nominated, all passed over.

You could run a three-year film course without showing films that have won the Oscar for best picture. You’d be missing a lot of great pictures, but you’d still have thousands to choose from. The history of cinema is festooned with the losers – but let’s not dwell on the disappointed. Let’s look instead at those that didn’t even get to first base.

To wit, films that weren’t even nominated: The Big Lebowski, The Big Sleep, Blood Simple, Bringing up Baby (oh for God’s sake!), City Lights, Drugstore Cowboy, High Sierra, Kiss Me Deadly, M, Mean Streets, Metropolis, The Searchers (were they asleep?), The Shining and The Women. There are many more. How do the Academy voters sleep at night? Clearly, they’re not staying up late watching great movies.

Okay, I’m being unfair. Most of them are too old to stay up late. And the 6000 who voted in tonight’s contest are not the same 6000 who ignored Adam’s Rib in 1950, The Band Wagon in ‘53, or Magnolia in ’99. Every year is different and the membership evolves. The Academy voters have ignored Selma in most categories other than Best Picture this year, but they did vote 12 Years a Slave best picture last year, and it got two other major awards. Some of their best friends are black.

The Academy doesn’t divulge statistics about its membership, so the LA Times did its own survey a few years ago and came up with the following results: average age 63, 76 per cent male, 94 per cent white. Since that survey, the Academy – which has a black female president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs – has begun a campaign to increase diversity, adding 400 new members. It’s probably a good time to be young, gifted and black in Hollywood – although not if you are Ava DuVernay, who directed Selma. She didn’t get nominated for best director, of which she can be proud. The list of people who never won Best Director is very distinguished: Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet, Charles Chaplin, Akira Kurosawa. Yes, I know half of them got honorary awards, but that is the Academy’s way of saying sorry.

Hitchcock’s record is interesting. His films attracted a total of 50 nominations, but only one film got the big one. Rebecca, his first Hollywood film, won Best Picture of 1941 and best cinematography, but not best director. Hitchcock beat himself, since Foreign Correspondent was also nominated for best film. Many of his best films were nominated – Lifeboat, The Birds, Psycho, Rear Window, North by Northwest, Strangers on a Train, Vertigo – but didn’t win a single Oscar. The voters never thought much of his ability with actors either. Joan Fontaine in Suspicion (1941) is the only Oscar-winning performance in a Hitchcock film.

Some directors miss out because they misbehaved. Chaplin was openly contemptuous of the Oscars after they could manage only an Honorary award in 1929 for The Circus, so the voters largely ignored him until 1972, when they gave him a 12-minute standing ovation and another Honorary statue. Stanley Kubrick ignored the voters so they ignored him back, but that wasn’t the case with all directors. John Ford won four times for best director and didn’t turn up for any of them. Kate Hepburn, ditto. Woody Allen stayed away until 2001, when he presented a film tribute to New York City, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The lesson is clear: you can treat ‘em mean if you are an American, but don’t try it if you are a foreigner, or an expatriate.

Still don’t believe me? What about the greatest film ever made – at least, the one that topped the Sight and Sound poll for 50 years. At the 14th Oscars in 1942, Citizen Kane was up for nine Oscars, including best picture. Orson Welles didn’t attend, but he shared the Oscar for best screenplay with Herman J Mankiewicz. That was it. Those films that win nothing tonight can take heart: they’re in a club that even Groucho Marx would be happy to join.

Sun-Herald column, 21 February 2015