The Academy Awards have been going through a transition lately, with notable rule changes to either improve the voting process or at least increase ratings for the annual telecast.
Still, the awards themselves remain of value, says film historian Robert Osborne, the genial host of Turner Classic Movies.
“I care about the process, and I do think we wouldn’t have as many good films as we have today if there wasn’t an Oscars process. Which is why I think it’s worth protecting, because I do think it gives people something to shoot for,” says Osborne, who will talk on movies and the Academy Awards at Delray Beach’s Crest Theatre this Thursday afternoon. “I think a lot of people would just go for the buck and make nothing but ‘Dumb and Dumber’ if there wasn’t a chance to maybe get a recognition like an Academy Award.”
He considers himself a traditionalist when it comes to the way the Academy votes on its awards, yet he is not against this year’s increase in the number of Best Picture nominees to 10. “I’m not actually. I think it’s kind of a good idea. I was really against it at the beginning, because in most years you can barely find five films that deserve to be up for the top Oscar.
“When I go over the past lists or those years that had 10 nominees, like 1938, there were a lot of really good movies, but out of the 10 that were nominated, there were really only five that were justified being on that list. But it did include such films as ‘Test Pilot’ with Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, and you get ‘Four Daughters,’ which introduced John Garfield to the screen, and you get ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ with Errol Flynn. And when you look back, it does give you a more balanced idea of the kind of films that were made then.
“Now you could say that ‘Test Pilot’ is not going to win Best Picture over ‘Jezebel’ or ‘You Can’t Take It With You’ or ‘Pygmalion,’ some of the great movies that came out that year, but it does give a nice feeling for the whole year when you look at it.”
If Osborne speaks authoritatively about the history of the Oscars, it could be because he has long been the author of The Official History of the Academy Awards, which is revised every five years. The latest edition, also titled 80 Years of the Oscars, has just been released, a gorgeous, but hefty coffee table book.
“Yes, one doesn’t have to go to the gym anymore,” quips Osborne. “You just carry that book around with you. It works as free weight. We’re going to have to put wheels on it pretty soon, so you can wheel it around like baggage at the airport.”
The Academy gives the book its endorsement, but Osborne is adamant that the organization does not approve or veto any of its contents. “Years ago, the Academy came to me, because I’d written another book on the Oscars and said they wanted me to go through their files and put in anything that I wanted to put in that was part of the actual history of the awards,” he says.
“When I did the earlier book, there were still people around who were with the Academy when it was first organized. They were very cautious about whatever was put in the book,” he says. “But all those people are long since gone and now they really wanted an official history. They wanted me to go into how certain names were taken off certain accomplishments because they were tinged by accusations of Communism, all that kind of stuff. All of that is included in there. Nobody ever took anything out at all.”
Not that Osborne was inclined to write an exposé of the Oscars.
“My approach has never been a negative one about things like that. I would never be critical of a decision made in the Academy Awards process. I don’t want to revise history and say, well, ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ should never have won in 1952, because ‘High Noon’ was that year and ‘The Quiet Man.’ Back then, obviously people had reasons for voting that way or it wouldn’t have won. It’s the record of what actually happened, not my opinion of what should have happened.”
Somewhat reluctantly, Osborne comments on this year’s winners in the performance caregories. “Well, if I was voting, I certainly would have voted for Mo’Nique,” best supporting actress for Precious. “I certainly would have voted for Christoph Waltz,” best supporting actor for Inglourious Basterds.
“I certainly would have voted for Jeff Bridges,” who won best actor for Crazy Heart, “although Colin Firth (‘A Single Man’) would have been very close in there.”
When it gets to Sandra Bullock, though, Osborne concedes that her best actress win for The Blind Side was probably more about popularity than artistic achievement.
“Well, in that case, sure. But I didn’t think any of those women had a really demanding role. There was no really great role for a woman this year,” he says.
“It was a little bit [like that] with Jeff Bridges, too. Because these are people in the industry voting, and they’ve all worked with him. They all know what a professional he is, and what a good guy. How he always delivers the goods and he’s not gotten the recognition before.”
As to the Oscars ceremony, he says, “Well, I thought it was good, but I didn’t see it on the air, I saw it in the theater. There it was quite spectacular. I could have used a little more of Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin,” the evening’s co-hosts. “I thought they were witty and charming. It seemed that after the opening, they kind of disappeared, and I think the show could have used a little more of them.”
Otherwise, Osborne adds, “I love it when they’ve got various actors coming out and talking about the nominees. But I do think they should talk about their work, not about how swell they are or how easy they are to work with or how good-looking George Clooney is. We’re well aware of that.
“And there was such controversy over the memorial thing, because Farah Fawcett was left out and various other ones. And I do think that because it is the Academy Awards and about the movie industry, I think that segment could be extended, and you could leave out things like that salute to thrillers. I didn’t quite know what that was doing in the show.”
So, Robert, if you ran the Oscars, how would they be different?
“Uh, well first, I wouldn’t want to run then, because you can’t please everyone and everyone now is a critic,” he sighs. “I would appeal, as much as I could, to get those people who are rarely on an Oscars show. I love that year that had all those Oscar winners sitting onstage. To get those people that, even though they’re not part of the year’s competition.
“I mean, they should have had Javier Bardem as an Oscar winner on that show. He was there. Try to get Michael Caine to come and Sean Connery to come, some of these people we don’t see all the time. The real royalty of Hollywood. And get them involved, so it’s not just about the people who walk the red carpet or the starlets.
“The one thing I thought it really lacked this year was some specific recognition for ‘Avatar.’ Because I think that’s an extraordinary movie. It’s a movie I had no interest in seeing. I don’t like blue people, don’t like sci-fi. So I thought, everybody’s talking about it, I’m just going to go to a matinee and watch like an hour of it. I’ve got my book I want to read and I’m going to go have lunch, just have a nice quiet afternoon.
“Well, five minutes in I was so hooked. I think it’s extraordinary what it did. I’m not sure it should have been given the Best Picture award, but I think it certainly deserved an honorary Academy Award of some kind for what it does and what they did with it, because I think it‘s quite revolutionary,” he says. “To go away with a few minor awards, as it did, I don’t think it got what it deserved. I think ‘Star Wars’ was the same way. It came out the year that ‘Annie Hall’ won. That’s a wonderful movie, but ‘Star Wars’ was so revolutionary for its time.”
This is a taste of what you are likely to hear from Osborne at the Crest. “I’m going to talk about all this and also answer any questions that people may have about the Academy Awards process. Or about Turner Classic Movies, how that works,” he says.
Instead of some illustrative moments from last year’s top films, “I’ve got some little film clips to explain me,” Osborne says. “In case people are coming and they don’t watch TCM, I want to kind of explain why I’m up there mouthing off so much.”
Asked why he thinks film fans will enjoy his talk, Osborne pauses and responds, “Well, I do have a good background in movies and the Academy Awards. If they watch TCM and like the kinds of things I talk about there, they might be interested. Other than that, I can’t think of a reason in the world anyone would want to come hear me.”
ROBERT OSBORNE, Crest Theatre, Old School Square, 51 N. Swinton Ave., Delray Beach. 2 p.m. Thursday. Tickets: $25-$40. Call: (561) 243-7922, ext. 1.