Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
April 16, 1970, Vol. XV, No. 16
Films in Focus
by Andrew Sarris
OSCAR GOES TO COLLEGE: You could hardly recognize Oscar this year at the celebration of his 42nd birthday. After years of flaunting his nouveau riche vulgarity and grade school cunning, he suddenly chose to display a diploma from the American Film Institute. Never before had his patron, the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences, seemed so academically inclined. I half expected a wake, but what I saw instead was a seminar in nostalgia, and I felt a little sad, at least partly because I suddenly realized that I myself am about as old as dear Oscar without sharing his indestructibility and mindless optimism.
Almost before the festivities began, an unseen Big Brother announcer assured the viewers of Channel 7’s Oscarcast that all film clips had been carefully edited for home viewing by ABC, and thus no one had to worry about the incursions of X and R material into our goody-goody lives. Television has now taken the sanctimoniously childish and reverently responsible position vis-a-vis wicked movies that the film industry once took vis-a-vis wicked novels and plays. Are the movie snobs of today overlooking as much creditable effort in television as the theatre-literary snobs of yesteryear did with movies? I wonder. Already Robert Fulford, the eminently civilized and scintillating essayist of “Crisis at the Victory Burlesk,” has questioned the short shrift accorded by high brows to the television drama. At the moment, however, the much-abused Oscarcast is one of the few chunks of untaped spontaneity permitted to televiewers.
Gregory Peck opened the proceedings with the traditional obeisance to the quarter of a billion viewers sprawled around the turbulent planet. He then introduced us to Bill Miller of Price-Waterhouse, the accounting firm that once audited Dick Nixon’s accounts back in the days of Checkers and other creatures of circumstance. Why anyone should care whether Price-Waterhouse gives an honest and secret count is beyond me. If the price is right, why should Price-Waterhouse be any less susceptible to temptation than the oh-so-pious manipulators of the $64,000 Question oh-so-long-ago when we were all oh-so-innocent?
The Friends of Oscar were then introduced in one fell swoop almost never to be mentioned again. The camera work and the commentary were so asynchronously chaotic that I couldn’t keep track of the players, much less record for posterity any impressions of their charismatic impact. As it was, the mere presence of John Wayne, Elizabeth Taylor, and Fred Astaire seemed more meaningful than the interchangeable images of such newnentities as Katharine Ross, Ali McGraw, and Candice Bergen. Myrna Loy looked less tired and worn-out than Jon Voight, and Peck himself showed infinitely more poise than Elliott Gould. A pattern was set early in the evening of the old people showing up the new people, and it followed all the way through to the end when Elizabeth Taylor materialized in her new-found role as the Queen Mother, the crown jewels hanging down her throat and over a generous splash of bosom, and all in the service of Hollywood, that most beleaguered and becalmed of homelands in this year of the pig and hour of hair.
But before that fateful moment of the enthronement of Elizabeth’s million dollar necklace, we were treated to a relatively rapid survey of film history from Edison’s first experimental ventures to D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance” right on to “Easy Rider” without even a deep breath. As it was, “Easy Rider” did better in the historical survey than it did with the Academy membership. The tone of the survey was ONWARDISH TO THE GREAT OUTDOORS WITH YOUTH OF AMERICA!
John Wayne made his first of several appearances during the evening, and I find it hard to believe that he or someone didn’t know the fix was in. The cinematography award went to Conrad Hall for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” So much for the sentimentality factor in the nomination of the late Harry Stradling for “Hello Dolly.” I have heard it rumored that Conrad Hall plans to direct his wife Katharine Ross in some version of William Faulkner’s “The Wild Palms,” but I’ll believe that project only when it comes to fruition.
James Earl Jones and Claudia Cardinale were followed by Raquel Welch in a hairdo so wild that it evoked memories of Viva! and fantasies of Rima the Bird Girl. I still don’t believe that Raquel Welch really exists. She has been manufactured by the media merely to preserve the sexless plasticity of sex objects for the masses. This is capitalism’s way of perpetuating the profit margin of its packaging.
Bob Hope then presented the Jean Hersholt Award to George Jessel, who had the good grace to be embarrassed by Hope’s curiously effusive tribute, but who lacked the gallantry to accept the award without a Lindy’s lapse in self-pity over his advanced age. By contrast, Hope’s pre-rehearsed egging-on of Fred Astaire to do one last dance for Oscar was genuinely ghoulish, if not Seventh Sealish, and the dance itself was unbearably macabre for anyone who grew up on Fred’s energetic grace.
The junk awards were all dispensed with before any of the major contests were tackled. “Artur Rubinstein — the Love of Life” won the award for best documentary feature, thus upholding the Sarris-Schweitzer principle of uplifting titles being paramount in this category. Mrs. Rubinstein accepted the award, and for a time it seemed that she would never get off the stage. Nor was the choice of “Czechoslovakia 1968” for best documentary short entirely inconsistent with the principle of uplift, political division. “The Magic Machines” won for best live-action short, but it doesn’t ring any kind of bell in my head. And even from the grave, Walt Disney (“It’s Tough to Be a Bird”) turned back the challenge of John and Faith Hubley’s “Of Men and Demons.” Not having seen either cartoon, and where can you see cartoons these days except in film festivals, I can’t make any judgment on this lively competition in its latest manifestation.
“Marooned” beat out “Krakatoa, East of Java” for best special visual effects in this epochal battle of the movie bums. “Hello Dolly” picked up marginal Oscars for scoring (for a musical picture), sound, and art direction. “Z” beat out “Midnight Cowboy” for film editing, a category that I thought, wrongly as it turned out, might foreshadow the best picture award. “Anne of the Thousand Days” picked up its one award (out of 10 nominations) for costume design, and Burt Bacharach scored a personal triumph by picking up two Oscars for best song (“Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”) and the few extra notes that went up to make the entire score of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Actually, there have been worse years for nominated songs, and this year I thought “Come Saturday Morning” and “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life” (sung by its composer Michael Legrand) struck my ear more strongly than Bacharach’s somewhat mechanically beaten ballad, which was further victimized by a production number that looked like resurrected ’40s Agnes De Mille.
When the major awards began to roll in past the commercial breaks, an anti-pot pattern began to emerge. For best story and screenplay, William Goldman’s relatively straight script for “Butch Cassidy” prevailed not only over that of Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Terry Southern for “Easy Rider,” but also over that of Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker for “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” clearly the favorites except for their penchant for pot and wife-swapping. In this atmosphere, the award to Waldo Salt for best adapted screenplay (“Midnight Cowboy”) took on added significance. The Academy had worked out a rationale for “Midnight Cowboy” and it remained for Bob Hope to articulate this rationale at the end of the evening.
The biggest and most ridiculous surprise was the choice of Goldie Hawn for “Cactus Flower,” a throwback to the trashiest taste imaginable. Again an indirect slap at pot-puffing (in “BCTA”) Dyan Cannon. Best supporting actor choice was even more explicitly anti-pot in that Gig Young not only beat out Jack Nicholson’s extraordinarily acclaimed performance in “Easy Rider,” but also managed to rub in the Academy’s rejection of Jane Fonda in favor of Maggie Smith. After all, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They” is Jane Fonda’s picture, not Gig Young’s, and Jane Fonda’s performance will be looked at and remembered long after Maggie Smith’s has been relegated to the antique curios of filmed vehicles. It seems a shame that Miss Fonda should be penalize for turning on while being interviewed by Rex Reed for the August New York Times, but the fact remains that the Old Guard of the Academy once more drew the line at embracing the more soulful spirit of the ’70s.
The victory of “Z” for best foreign language film merely paved the way for the voters to accept “Midnight Cowboy” with whatever reservations they could muster. John Schlesinger was after all hardly a young punk. Indeed, he had been slightly overdue ever since the Academy passed over “Darling” for “The Sound of Music.” And “Midnight Cowboy” was authentically successful even with an X rating, and, as Bob Hope explained afterward (almost in panic, it seemed), we don’t have to emulate the weirdos in “Midnight Cowboy,” but it does help to see where they went wrong. And to wind up everything on a properly ecumenical note, Bob Hope ended with a tribute to Martin Luther King, a tribute which, even if it came off the teleprompter, helped to bind up the wounds of mutual indifference so evident among the different Hollywood factions during the course of the evening.
If there were any high points at all, they were captured by the massive mythic presences of Cary Grant and John Wayne, especially Grant, who flicked off the coarsely obtrusive sexual banter of Frank Sinatra without losing any of his own grace or urbanity. For once, the film clips of Grant’s career were fully up to the challenge of one of the most brilliant careers in the history of the cinema, and Grant’s tribute to his directors and writers and co-stars and the industry generally was fully up to the graciousness of the life stye he had bequeathed to us out of more years of dedication to his craft than we can reasonably expect from any of the more volatile New Breed. Looking at Grant and Wayne, we were bidding adieu to a history of glorious concentration in the medium we loved. There will be smarter people along to be sure, perhaps even more beautiful and more accomplished, but their voltage will not remain as constant, nor their electricity as economical. It will be all psychedelic sparks interspersed with psychic alienation. The truth of the matter is that being a movie star is a monastic calling, and the motion picture industry has been taken over by the hedonists, and they generally manage to look like hell on the night of the Oscars, but the important thing (for them) is that they’re happy doing their own thing. On the whole, I was happy to see Hollywood looking back with more intelligence and insight than ever before. As for looking forward, that is a matter of empty rhetoric, in Hollywood as everywhere else.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]