The Oscar’s: Ego’s “R” Us

With all the usual hype and build-up to the 85th Oscar Academy Awards, I suddenly realised that, unlike the ceremonies that I watched growing up, I did not care at all about the upcoming event.

I used to love the Oscar ceremony. The Academy Awards with all its pomp and circumstance kept me glued to the telly for the entire show. I saw my first “streaker” on the Academy Awards and learned that David Niven really was that funny when he quipped, “Now that chap will only ever be known as the fellow who showed the world his shortcomings on national television.”

When I used to watch, Bob Hope was the eternal master of ceremonies and each year a wealth of jokes about his being passed over for the little golden man were trotted out for the audience’s enjoyment. There were some great moments in the “old days” of the show.

I saw John Wayne moved to tears when he got the nod for True Grit. I saw a very young Henry Winkler telling the world about how excited he was and how star-struck he felt. I watched Clint Eastwood forced to “stand-in” for Charlton Heston; fumbling along until Moses showed up and took over. I also watched Sally Fields exclaim (in a statement that has had the eternal mickey taken out of it ever since) “You like me, you really like me!”

I watched Sir Richard Attenborough give his thank you speech where he talked for what seemed like hours. I also saw the resultant microphone cut-off that the producers of the show introduced after his mammoth acceptance speech. I saw  Elizabeth Taylor get flustered when the above mentioned streaker dashed across the stage (or should I say flashed) during her relay of that category’s nominees.

Mega-Star Taylor creasing up at the streaker. Later she couldn’t concentrate on the auto-cue.

I used to go and get a snack and use the bathroom when the live Broadway show of the moment came on and the other live acts that turned the Awards ceremony into a “variety show” came on. But I loved the awarding of the lifetime achievement awards.

I loved everything about the show, even its awkward (if I chose to watch them) live acts; even when Bob Hope ceased to be the master of ceremonies and was replaced by, among others, Billy Crystal.

Then I got older and began to notice things that I’d missed before.

I realised that actors “got the gong” for films that just were not that great. Other actors never got nominated for outstanding performances or never won when they did get nominated. Films won best picture that were not the best picture by any means. Horror films, screwball comedies, science fiction and a few other film genres were never acknowledged by the Academy’s committee.  Steven Spielberg had to make Schindlers List to finally get the bald golden chap.

Films with “a message” always beat out films that were just damned good entertainment. Your chances of nomination went up with how popular you were. But most obvious were the winners who should have won the year before for an outstanding performance, film, score, et al; who were then nominated for and won the year after for a performance that was nowhere near as impressive. Guilt awarding, I call it.

The other type of award was the Outstanding Lifetime Achievement award (which as I said I used to love) these were usually handed out to someone who had been snubbed by the committee for the entire length of their career. Usually trotted hurriedly out when it appeared that the recipient was about to die or, if the timing was off, just after they had died.

I began to realise that the Oscars were not about merit or excellence. It was about egos and agents and publicity and managers who could splurge for the biggest campaigns for their clients. It was a popularity contest. If your peers liked you and, more importantly, liked your political stance you were almost a shoo in.

Liberals were the fair-haired children of the business and right-wing “hawks” were not. Unless you were NRA hawk Charlton ‘Chuck’ Heston whom Hollywood has always equated with God. After all Charlton played Moses for Christ’s sake, you can’t mess with Him.

Moses, I mean, Charlton Heston.

I think the honest humour that used to be present in the ceremonies has disappeared. They all seem to take themselves entirely too seriously. Maybe it’s because the “funny men” have changed or stopped caring. When the actor Chills Wills took out an entire page in Variety to plead his cause for winning the Oscar the ad said:

 “We of The Alamo cast are praying harder than the real Texans prayed for their lives at the Alamo for Chill Wills to win the Oscar.” “Cousin Chill’s acting was great,” he wrote, signing, Your Alamo cousin.” Another ad read: “Win, lose, or draw. You’re still my cousins and I love you all.”

Comedian Groucho Marx, wrote back: “Dear Mr. Wills. I am delighted to be your cousin. But I voted for Sal Mineo. *courtesy of http://www.emanuellevy.com*

Admittedly a somewhat “tasteless” lapse of judgement on Wills’ part, but a damned funny response from Groucho; but the Oscars have grown up and become more cynical, more about the money and the highbrow idea that these people are more than just talented performers, they are royalty and way above mortal men.

When I became older and more cynical, I began to realize that, just as they don’t make actors like they used to, the business itself has changed. Oh not the money bit, it has always been about the money, but the overtly political overtones have become unwatchable.

The cut-off microphone isn’t the only control that has been placed on the show; they also limited the amount of time that acceptance speeches could last. The televised proceedings have been shortened to show what “they” deem important. Lesser categories (foreign films, documentaries, et al) are not shown at all, except in a quick “credit” recap at the end of the show…if you are lucky.

For me, the magic has gone from the event. They might as well change the name to Ego’s “R” Us. It is all about who has the biggest ego and pocket-book to match. It stopped being about talent and the virtue of a single outstanding shining moment, if indeed it ever was about that to begin with.

The laughter of the audience (filled with the crème de la crème of Hollywood) looks forced and the comedic “in-jokes” have lost their ability to be really funny. When the event becomes more about who has been chosen to be the master of ceremonies; or who is wearing what on the red carpet, and less about the films and actors who have been nominated, it’s time to stop watching.

I’ll just wait to read the list on the internet of who won and who didn’t. Because I don’t believe in the integrity of the award any longer and cannot be bothered to see egos catered to and the audience talked down to. I also don’t want to be overwhelmed by the Botox brigade of new surgically enhanced actors who believe that the secret to a great performance is having the least amount of facial movement possible and big boobs, or a six-pack.

If you watch the show, enjoy it if you can. I’ll probably be watching a film instead; preferably one with the Duke in it.

The Duke’s acceptance speech.

Cagney by John McCabe More Yankee Doodle than White Heat

When I was a kid, I idolised James Cagney. To me he was not only an actor, but was an actor of short stature who came over on the screen as someone who was huge. He was a giant. I’m not talking about the old cinema screens of my youth that made anyone who appeared on them about 50 feet tall. He looked like a giant on the small television screen. He had power in his performances, an aura that made his characters bigger than life.

I did not even see Cagney on the big screen. I first saw him in a Bob Hope film called The Seven Little Foys (1955 from Paramount studios, three years before I was born), on television. Cagney played George M. Cohan, he was reprising his role in the 1942 film Yankee Doodle Dandy; a biopic of the grand old man [Cohan] of American entertainment.

There is a scene where Bob Hope, as the equally legendary entertainment figure Eddie Foy, has a table top “dance off” with Cagney as Cohan. It is, as they say, a show stopper. Hope has always been a more than capable hoofer (dancer) and Cagney actually seemed to “tone himself down” in the scene. After I watched this film, I became almost fixated on this short dancer from New York who, I knew from my parents, had started playing gangsters for Warner Brothers.

In my youth it was not easy to see really old films (in my day that counted as films made before the 60’s). The VCR had not been invented yet and apart from “all nighters” that showed a wealth of work from any given actor, you just had to hope you could catch future screenings on TV by reading the TV Guide in advance.

“Top of the world, Ma!” As Cody Jarrett, White Heat 1949.

The next film of Cagney’s I watched was White Heat. There cannot be a film fan in the world who doesn’t immediately think of Cody Jarrett screaming, “Top of the World, Ma!” Surrounded by fire, his world is about to end in a blaze of irony. The two characters that I’d seen Cagney play were polar opposites and he sold each one, completely.

I have read about James Cagney over the years in various books, Hollywood anthologies, and other biographies of entertainers, but McCabe does a brilliant job of bringing this legend to life. Perhaps the fact that John McCabe was a personal friend of Cagney’s and as a result was able to see more of the entertainer’s humanity and lack of guile.

I always refer to James Cagney as an entertainer versus an actor because he started out in vaudeville as a song and dance man (where he met his only wife, Willie, who stayed with him till he died) and he never lost his ability to dance the feet off of most of his peers. *He used to say he could never come close to Fred Astaire.*

Cagney was born in an area of New York that was heavily Jewish (he learned Yiddish as a boy) and poor. Most of his boyhood pals wound up in prison or at the gallows. His tough Irish mother taught him and his brothers how to box. The amount of things that McCabe relays, with the help of Cagney, is astonishing.

He paints as thorough a picture of the entertainer as possible. He does so without being overly sensitive with the more “unhappy” moments in Cagney’s life. If you are a Cagney fan, this book will be a revelation. Printed in 1997, there are very few things not covered in Cagney’s career and personal life.

When I read actor’s biographies I always finish feeling slightly down. Most “celebrities” pay highly for their success in the entertainment business. Some, like David Niven, seem to have almost been punished by their success. (Don’t go by the two self-penned books by Niven, but read the other two books about his live by Sheridan Morley or Graham Lord) When I finished McCabe’s recounting of Cagney’s life and career I felt happy and uplifted.

Cagney, despite the ravages of old age and all the pain that it brings, was a deeply contented man, who wrote poetry, painted, raised horses and cattle and loved the same woman till he died. This same contented man entertained literally millions of people over the years by his portrayal of a broad spectrum of characters.

This book is one that I would call the definitive work on Cagney; his work and his life. One that shows how he became a Hollywood legend and adored by his fans the world over; this is a real 5 star book that you should not miss if you’re a fan of Cagney or film.

A grapefruit in the mush…as Tom Power in The Public Enemy 1931.

Phyllis Diller (1917 — 2012): They Don’t Make em Like that Anymore

English: Phyllis Diller portrait
English: Phyllis Diller portrait (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This incredibly funny woman started life as a housewife who dreamed of doing comedy. I saw her on a repeat of Groucho Marx‘s You Bet Your Life show from the 1950’s. As a contestant. Groucho interviewed her and she told of her dream. They used to show that program a lot.

Phyllis Diller worked a lot with comedian Bob Hope appearing in twenty seven of his television specials and three of his films. She also toured with Hope as part of the USO shows that  were put on for American GI‘s who were serving during the war.

Diller’s whole routine revolved around her crazy hair, her poor housekeeping and cooking and of course her husband Fang. She also had a huge raucous laugh that became her ‘trademark.’ She also had a long career as an actress. If you look her up on IMDb they list 77 different acting credits. She also had her own television program. Twice

She used to do a lot of cameos for other programs and in films. She very publicly had a face lift and several other plastic surgery operations performed on her when she reached 55. This was worked into her act as well. Her biggest laughs were always at her own expense. One joke she would repeat was her annoyance at the cleanliness of a neighbours home. Phyllis would snort derisively and say”She says you can eat off her floor. Oh Yeah? Well you can eat off my floor. Just look, over there’s the mustard, ketchup over there…” She would then finish with that loud laugh.

She must have loved what she was doing. She last worked in 2009 in a video short titled Family Dinner, if you can do the maths, that was three years ago and she was 92. Family and friends say that Phyllis passed peacefully in bed. She was smiling.

She has been described as a pioneer. Paving the way for so many other female comediennes Roseanne Barr, Joan Rivers and Ellen DeGeneres. She was the first female to do stand up comedy in Las Vegas.

This was a woman who could just walk on stage and immediately put the audience in stitches. She was a legend.

So long Phyllis. In a lot of ways you were the party. I hope you’re making the ‘Big Guy’ laugh right now.

Oh and say hello to Fang for me.

English: Phyllis Diller. Picture taken at the ...
English: Phyllis Diller. Picture taken at the her home in Brentwood, California, USA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)