Graves: A favorite pastime: picking on Oscar

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I thought it might be a refreshing change of pace from speculations about the downside of disinfectant injections to again revert back to an earlier incarnation as a movie observer. In my years writing about films for the Banner, I found that it is a lot more fun to write bad reviews than it is to write good ones and no one who loves movies can resist taking potshots at the Academy Awards.

Despite the inevitable, if enjoyable, carping about choices, the Academy Awards have attained an almost mythical status among movie lovers. They are, we are encouraged to believe, the ultimate attainment for anyone connected in any way with the film business. The recipient will have his or her choice of projects and paychecks will expand exponentially.

In an industry that thrives on illusions, that is perhaps one of the biggest. Just ask Louise Fletcher.

Vivien Leigh reportedly used one of her two Oscars as a toilet paper holder. The other was stolen and she never bothered to replace it. Fredric March and Cher used the heavy statuette as a doorstop. Sandy Dennis immediately (and perhaps perceptibly) gave her "Virginia Woolf" Oscar to her business manager. George C. Scott and Marlon Brando both refused to accept their wins. Katharine Hepburn gave one of her four Oscars to a friend in the hospital to cheer him up. When asked by an interviewer if he could see her honorary Oscar, Greta Garbo had to rummage through a closet to find it.

Walter Matthau told Ellen Burstyn when he presented her "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" statuette that, from that moment on, she would never be referred to except as "Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn."

"It will be carved on your tombstone," the actor, noted for his crusty cynicism, told Burstyn.

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Clearly, Oscar's mythical status eluded some of the recipients. For most of the decades of its long existence, the Academy played it safe. "Citizen Kane" generated far too much controversy. William Randolph Hearst, who inspired the central character, owned a lot of newspapers that advertised movies. Hearst hated the film so much he tried to buy and destroy it. John Ford's beautiful "How Green Was My Valley" was a much safer choice in 1941.

Mark Harris in his thoughtful and perceptive book about the 1967 Academy Awards, "Pictures at a Revolution," chronicled the elevation of "In the Heat of the Night" to the winner's circle despite the challenge of two movies that would prove to have far more impact upon the advancement of cinema artistry and permissiveness: "The Graduate" and "Bonnie and Clyde."

"In the Heat of the Night" addressed the problem of bigotry more skillfully than the sledgehammer scolding in Stanley Kramer's "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," another one of the five nominated movies. But the good intentions of Norman Jewison's film were still presented with a predictably upbeat ending that, while it may have been convincing on a level that Kramer's syrupy sentimentality never inspired, was only mildly hopeful given the enormous race relations problem that existed in the nation. Ironically, Mr. Kramer had approached the subject more memorably a decade earlier in "The Defiant Ones."

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"Heat" broke no barriers and thus remained an inherently safer choice to award the Best Picture Oscar than the sexually liberated "Graduate" or the graphically violent "Bonnie and Clyde."

The following are my nominations for some of Oscar's weakest Best Picture winners. I don't mean to imply that the film itself was always a bad one, although some of the winners — "The Broadway Melody" (1928/29), "The Greatest Show on Earth" (1952) and "Around the World in 80 Days" (1956) for example — were pretty awful. The selections are based on competition, not quality (or the lack of it).

"Going My Way" (1944): Leo McCarey's perfectly charming movie about an endearing priest should not have won in a year that also featured a scheming blonde murderess in Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity."

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"Out of Africa" (1985): Sydney Pollack's adaptation of Isak Dinesen's autobiography should have been marketed as a sleep aid. Admittedly a weak year for movies, the Oscar should have gone to "Prizzi's Honor."

"The Apartment" (1960): A typically cynical look at the thin threads of the contemporary American moral fabric by Billy Wilder that was enjoyable without ever being particularly memorable, despite an effective against-type performance by Fred MacMurray. The best film of 1960 and one that was enormously influential, Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho," wasn't even nominated.

"The English Patient" (1996): Anthony Minghella's reverently faithful adaptation of Michael Ondtaaje's novel was one of those impeccable films, like "Schindler's List," that only very brave critics dared to find any fault with.

Its interminable length and deadly pacing must have convinced Academy voters that this must be a great work of art. "Fargo," the best movie of the entire decade, should have won.

"Forrest Gump" (1994): Enormous success at the box-office must have contributed to awarding the Best Picture nod to this demeaning, saccharine insult to people who have mental disabilities. It is my least favorite of all the 93 pictures that have prevailed at the Academy Awards and almost anything else released in 1994 would have been preferable. "Pulp Fiction" should have won.

Alden Graves writes a regular column for the Journal.


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