All About Oscar

REVIEW by Willard Manus


Just in time for the Academy Awards is ALL ABOUT OSCAR, THE HISTORY AND POLITICS OF THE ACADEMY AWARDS by Emmanuel Levy, chief critic for Screen International and a past president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Levy is also the author of several other film books, including Citizen Harris, American Film Critic and John Wayne: Prophet of the American Way of Life.

Levy introduces his book thusly: "My interest in studying the Oscar Awards in a systematic way began twenty-five years ago, in 1977, when I was asked to teach a course on popular culture at Hunter College. But my curiosity about the Oscars as a uniquely American spectacle goes back much further, to my childhood in Israel. Television was introduced to the Israeli public rather late, in 1967, and in a limited way. There was one channel that broadcast only several hours per evening. Hence, movies were--and in many ways still are--the primary medium of entertainment."

Levyu began to collect data on the Oscars in 1981, which resulted in And the Winner Is: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards. That in turn became Oscar Fever, from which ALL ABOUT OSCAR has resulted, in considerably revised and amplified form. Six new chapters have been added and Levy has deepened his investigation of the awards process, from a largely sociological viewpoint.

In a chapter headed "Is the Oscar a White Man's Award?", Levy makes the following points: in the Oscar's 74-year history, the only African American to have received a directing nomination is John Singleton, for the 1991 urban crime drama Boyz 'N the Hood. "Black-themed movies, whether helmed by white or black artists, have seldom won recognition for their filmmakers, though the films themselves have been nominated."

As the author shows, though, black actors have fared "slightly better than black writers and directors," beginning with Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind (1939) and culminating in the dual awards to Denzel Washington (Training Day) and Halle Berry (Monster's Ball) in 2002.

"It may be significant that most Oscar-nominated black characters are dead by the end of the film," Levy observes sardonically. "Furthermore, black-themed movies (by both white and black directors) are often safely set in the distant past, thus relieving both filmmakers and audiences from the challenge and responsibility of dealing in a direct and explicit manner with the painful realities of contemporary race relations."

Levy dissects studio politics in another chapter titled "Can the Oscar Be Bought?" The question has plagued the Oscars from the beginning, if only because all those who voted for the awards were on the payroll of the studios. As one critic said, "If you were an Academy member, do you vote for what you really believe represents the best work in each category, even if it's an Australian or Italian movie, and, as such, a blunt indictment of Hollywood--and your employer?"

Today, the studios no longer wield the same power. And, as Levy observes, "a significant change in the Oscar operations is the increased visibility of some new players. Over the last fifteen years, smaller, independent companies--indies, as they are known in the industry--have become an important force in the American cinema with a strong presence in the Oscar contest."

ALL ABOUT OSCAR is a lot more than just an academic treatise on the Acadamy Awards. The book is packed with human interest stories, colorful and humorous quotes from stars and other players, and little-known lore. Here, for example is what John Wayne said, before winning for True Grit: "You can't eat awards. Nor, more to the point, drink them." Add to that Jack Nicholson, who thanked Mary Pickford who, incidentally, was the first actor to get a percentage of her pictures. Speaking of percentages," he continued, "last but not least, I thank my agent, who about ten years ago said I had no business being an actor."

(Continuum International Publishing, $29,95 hdbnd).