Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Because it is Oscar, and because it is my heart

Jarheads, I must confess - If this was a blog dedicated to the joys found in the maintenance and repair of small appliances, I would still find some way during this week to shunt that topic aside and look at the Academy Awards. The Oscars have been such a part of my life for the last four decades (ouch!) that, in this forum that I joyfully find being read in places from Europe to Australia - Hello, Europe! Hello, Australia! - I am forced to pay them heed. As the scorpion said to the frog, it's in my nature. But worry not, gentle Jarheads, there will be a Horror component to these upcoming posts. Most of them. Maybe.

I can reach back to my earliest Oscar memory on the morning of April 8, 1970, as I recall watching the news before heading off to school and seeing footage of John Wayne accepting his Best Actor trophy for True Grit, but it wouldn't be until 1972 when, all of nine years old, I sat and watched my first Oscar telecast in its entirety. That was the year of The French Connection and other lauded films like The Last Picture Show, Klute, A Clockwork Orange, The Hospital and Sunday, Bloody Sunday. At that age, I was already devoting considerable time and effort keeping up with the filmographies of Vincent Price, Alfred Hitchcock and Godzilla, but these movies were...different. They felt important and adult, films to which I should aspire, and so I made it a point to pay attention when they opened up at one of the three area movie houses that serviced Central Wisconsin. (Given that limited number of screens, they usually showed up after the Oscars, sometimes as late as May or June. If you lived in a city of less than 50,000, this is the way it was, kids.)

Now, I didn't actually see most of these movies until they hit commercial television, their content heavily edited. My parents were not moviegoers in the slightest, and while they had no compunction with dropping me off at the latest Disney release or something like Terror in the Wax Museum, they would never have accompanied me to the screening, no matter the rating of the film. So I just mentally filed away all of these nominated and winning films, and catching their telecasts years later - that is, for those films that had the potential for network broadcast. Cable needed to come to town before I saw something like Last Tango in Paris.

I went to the library and sought out books on film, perusing them for previous Oscar stats, and marveling at the extent of cinematic history, of which Oscar winners were only the creme de la creme. (Be assured, Jarheads, my sense that the
Academy always honors the best didn't last very long at all.) When the next year rolled around, I was ready for the Oscars, because even my ten year old classmates had heard of the movie that was the buzz of the nation - The Godfather. My mom had read the ubiquitous paperback, and it was genuinely exciting to see it nominated in so many different categories. It ultimately won only three of them, but an important three, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Marlon Brando - who famously didn't show up, but sent Sacheen Littlefeather in his stead. This was my first exposure to Film as Cultural Phenomenon, a subject that I find endlessly fascinating to this day. When The Godfather occupied one of my three area screens for months, I had a sense of why, and I wanted to explore it further.

Those 1972 Oscars were important for another reason. There was a nominee that I had seen, heard, and was championing with a vengeance. It was the Original Song selection "Ben," from the movie of the same name, sung by Michael Jackson. This incongruous ballad about the rat leading a band of marauding rodents was a #1 hit, but more importantly, it was from a Horror movie - a sequel, no less - and a movie that I had seen in the theater! The Motion Picture Academy was actually paying attention to stuff that I watched and liked! Oh frabjous day! Of course, my heart was broken when it lost to "The Morning After" from The Poseidon Adventure, but I learned to pay close attention to all the nominees in all the categories, and seek out Horror and Science Fiction where they may be found.

The heartache of 1972 was nothing compared with what was in store one year later.

By the time of Oscar 1973, everyone was talking about The Exorcist. It had opened over Christmastime, that holiest of seasons (What Would Jesus Do?), and it was as if Satan himself was chasing people out of packed theaters -
they were screaming, puking, fainting...and getting back in line to buy another ticket. The Godfather was a phenom, true, but it never had this effect on patrons. The paperback with the amorphous image of Regan was once again on my mother's nightstand - even though good Catholics weren't supposed to be taken in by such lurid, blasphemous material - and, at a time of national crisis (Watergate, Vietnam, double-digit inflation and unemployment, food and energy shortages), The Exorcist's success felt like an explanation. America was going to Hell. Even my little church in Mosinee showed an increase in attendance. And it was all because of a Horror movie, one that was nominated for ten Academy Awards. I could not have been more proud. Remember - I couldn't actually see The Exorcist, but never you mind. This was MY kind of movie, and it was gonna win the Oscar!

That was a horrible night. Award after award was going to other recipients, mostly those connected to a film called The Sting, about which I knew little other than it prompted a new-found infatuation with the rags of Scott Joplin - "The
Entertainer" was on the radio every time you switched it on. I held out hope that The Exorcist could pull out a win in the end - all those tickets, all those people! - but the evening belonged to The Sting, a movie for which I subsequently purchased the soundtrack album, and, once I saw it, found it to be a delightful little gem, starring two gentlemen who would become among my favorites.

But it wasn't The Exorcist.

Years later, when my knowledge of both the industry and the Academy grew, I learned of how The Sting had grown from the status of a single Golden Globe nomination (for screenplay - it lost to, ahem, The Exorcist) to an unstoppable force by Oscar night. There was genuine goodwill toward the movie, buttressed by a sense of the Academy not giving director George Roy Hill and stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford their due four years prior with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But in the two months between The Exorcist's win of the Best Drama Golden Globe and the April 2nd Oscars, there emerged a "Stop 'Exorcist'" campaign that was fueled by many factors:

- By 1973, director William Friedkin's volatile temper and treatment of actors had rendered him a megalomaniacal dictator in the eyes of Hollywood, especially among performers. Stories of his abuse on-set were rampant, and the long knives were out. Besides, the Oscars had feted him two years prior with The French Connection, right? He should be satisfied that the nominations were a confirmation of his talent, and console himself with The Exorcist's record-breaking box office. A spanking was due this enfant terrible.

- Further alienating actors from the project was the treatment accorded Mercedes McCambridge, who went through agonizing extremes to create the sulfurous voice of Pazuzu that issued from Regan's lips - without initial screen credit. On the contrary, there was a "campaign of avoidance" when it came to questions from the press about whether Linda Blair created that voice herself, and the studio eventually had to relent and admit the contribution of McCambridge. Many viewers felt duped, and subsequently held Blair's Supporting Actress nomination with suspicion, even though the young performer demonstrated more than enough worthiness of her recognition from the Academy with the rest of her screentime. Actors make up the largest voting bloc of the Academy - poke them with a stick at your own peril.

- The Exorcist was a Horror movie, definitely not the kind of respectable, burnished, noble example of the best that Hollywood had to offer. Granted, the Academy was getting edgier in recent years, going so far as to bestow a Best Picture Oscar on 1969's Midnight Cowboy, an X-rated film, but Ratso Rizzo hadn't made anyone miscarry or puke, right? Lines must be drawn, boundaries must be set, examples must be made.

One year later there was a subtle admission of omission on the Academy's part when they awarded Exorcist star Ellen Burstyn a Best Actress Oscar for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. It was her third nomination in four years, and as wonderful as she was in Martin Scorsese's drama, Oscar voters were assuredly keeping her recent track record in mind.

So began my lifetime fascination with that little gold man who, in Dustin Hoffman's observation, has no genitalia and is carrying a sword. I've got some more Oscar posts up my sleeve this week, and most of them will have a Horror connection. Rest assured, neither Oscars nor Horror are never far
from my mind. Take Oscar Night, 1999. As the Academy was honoring the best of 1998, I was hosting what had become an annual tradition - a traveling Oscar party, held in a hotel suite somewhere in the state of Wisconsin. That year we were in Madison, and in a complex of rooms that had hosted First Lady Hillary Clinton not 24 hours before (hey, I won't give you false humility - my Oscar parties were somethin' else). Later on that night I would have to coax several attendees from the ledge who threatened to leap after Roberto Benigni beat out - take your pick - Nick Nolte, Edward Norton, Ian McKellen (who really should have won, right, Jarheads?) and Tom Hanks for Best Actor. Despite that black eye on the Academy, I shall always remember that night for another reason. That was the Oscars when James Coburn mounted the stage to accept his Best Supporting Actor trophy for Affliction, and when he finished his acceptance speech, I announced to the room, "Ladies and gentlemen, the host of ABC's Darkroom has just won an Academy Award."

Thanks, Jarheads. I knew you'd understand.

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