That Old Feeling: The Oscar Race

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Halle Berry accepts her Oscar for best actress

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That the prizes are determined not by critics or scholars but by presumed peers is Oscar's cachet, but also its limitation. Critics typically vote their prizes on what they see as merit; their choices may be goofy, but they aren't personal. Academy members have friends in the competition, and perhaps enemies; they may have scores to settle. But even assuming the process is approached with benign disinterest, one still has to ask whether are these artisans, money men and flacks are ideal folks to judge the quality of acting. Groucho Marx's joke about not wanting to belong to any club that would have him as a member should apply to those who believe the Academy Awards are crucial to the esteem or future employment of black actors.

The Academy Awards are the plaything of people from a narrow societal stratum: mostly white, yes, but also rich, Jewish and old out of all proportion to the U.S. population. Their view is unapologetically chauvinist, pro-Hollywood: in the ceremony's 74 years, no foreign-language film has won the top Oscar. They have indeed ignored many fine performances by black actors, but also, lately and notably, by Asians. In 1988 "The Last Emperor" won all nine of its nominations, including best picture; but none went to the Chinese cast. Last year, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" was up for 10 awards and won four; again, no Chinese actors were nominated. (Poor dears: they must be thespically challenged.)

The most damning evidence against the Academy Awards is the awards themselves. Consider the artists who never won a competitive Oscar: Charles Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Martin Scorsese; Greta Garbo, Cary Grant, Barbara Stanwyck. (I won't even mention the great European and Asian filmmakers whom the Academy has ignored.) Garbo's greatest performance, in "Camille," was aced out by Luise Rainer, an Austrian playing a Chinese peasant, in "The Good Earth." "Citizen Kane" was deemed less worthy for the 1942 Oscar than "How Green Was My Valley"; that same year, Stanwyck wasn't even nominated for "The Lady Eve," arguably the smartest, most seductive comic turn ever. Twice, Scorsese made brilliant films that lost, in both the Picture and Director categories, to movies by first-time helmers: in 1981, "Raging Bull" to Robert Redford's "Ordinary People"; in 1991, "Goodfellas" to "Dances With Wolves."

The choices are every bit as depressing for black actors. I think that, in 1995, Oscars should have gone to both Freeman (barely, over Tom Hanks in "Forrest Gump") and Jackson (by a mile, over Martin Landau in "Ed Wood"). I'm chagrined that in 1959 David Niven won, for "Separate Tables," over Poitier (or Tony Curtis) in "The Defiant Ones." Either Tyson or, perhaps, Ross were more deserving of the 1973 Actress Oscar than Liza Minnelli in "Cabaret." Caesar's performance in "A Soldier's Story" was scarily fine and, in my view, Oscar-worthy. I suspect that the non-professional Ngor was voted the Supporting Actor prize that year as much for his own incarceration and torture at the brutal hands of the Khmer Rouge — and for reliving his own ordeal on film — as for his artless, exemplary "acting."

Oscar is a sentimental soul. In doling out acting prizes, he sometimes rewards superior craft, sometimes emotional grandstanding; sometimes he picks his friends, sometimes strangers with a poignant story. Ngor was one of those. So was Harold Russell, a non-actor who had lost both hands while training with explosives, and who appeared in "The Best Years of Our Lives." In 1947 Russell was given a Supporting Actor award and an honorary Oscar — the only person to be honored with two Oscars for the same performance. Marlee Matlin, another disabled person (deaf since infancy) making her movie debut, was named Best Actress in 1987 for "Children of a Lesser God."

Sometimes the members act like stern but loving parents; they enjoy giving atonement awards to actors who have misbehaved and then undergone penance. In the late 50s, Elizabeth Taylor had angered Hollywood by stealing Eddie Fisher from Debbie Reynolds; but then a bout of pneumonia and an emergency tracheotomy had her flirting with death. At the next awards ceremony, Taylor got an Oscar for "BUtterfield 8" (not her best performance) — and there she was, the prodigal daughter forgiven, her "rehab" Oscar" in her hand, her neck scar shining like a merit badge. Academy members are in the drama business; why wouldn't they write a Hollywood ending for their own special night?

Conversely, the Academy can withhold Oscars from worthy actors who have acted up off-screen. They may have done so this year, after hearing that Russell Crowe, the clear front runner on Nomination Day, had pushed and shouted at a BBC producer who cut part of his British Academy Award acceptance speech for the delayed-broadcast TV show. (Antics like that might have made me vote for the naughty Aussie, just to see what fireworks he'd bring onstage with him.) It's conceivable that Crowe's tantrum not only cost him the Oscar, but handed it to Washington.

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