A chat with Mr. Oscar

Damien Bona talks about "American Beauty" and Warren Beatty, "Titanic" and Roberto Benigni and more than 70 years of the academy's hits and misses.


Bill Wyman
March 24, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

In the library of books published on Hollywood and the movies, few combine scholarship and voyeurism to the thrilling degree of "Inside Oscar." Poring through the press of the time, charting the progress of favorite sons and dark horses and then gleefully dissecting each year's ceremony, authors Mason Wiley and Damien Bona crafted arguably the most potent history of Hollywood's love affair with itself. The result is a compulsively readable, fascinatingly detailed and endlessly amusing chronicle of our best-loved annual confluence of celebrity evanescence.

Bona and Wiley met in college -- they both wrote movie reviews for the Columbia University Spectator. Bona eventually became a lawyer, but retained his affection for the movies and their excesses. "We both had Oscar books," he recalls, "but they were all sort of straightforward and dull. We thought that someone should do a fun history of the Oscars." The first edition was published in 1982; it's now in its fifth. (Sadly, Bona's friend Wiley died in 1994.)

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Bona graciously accepts compliments on the book's thoroughness and commitment to accuracy: "We thought if you set out to do something, you can't do it half-assed." I conducted the following e-mail exchange with the accommodating author over a period of three days the week before the Oscars. He said he would spend Sunday night as he usually does: hosting a party, watching with friends and taping the show for his archives.

I have to compliment you on your book, "Inside Oscar." It seems to be a history of the Academy Awards, but it's actually a secret history of Hollywood. Each chapter follows the year's releases -- which were acclaimed, which were not, which made money and which did not. Then comes the nominations, and then the big night. Did you intend for it to be quite as epic in scope when you started?

When Mason and I began "Inside Oscar" back in 1982, we didn't really have a clear idea of the form it would take. What we intended to do was to create a humorous history of the Oscars that gave background information, included gossip and conveyed a sense of the personalities involved.

As we began work on it, we also decided we wanted to communicate a sense of why the various results occurred -- not simply who and what won, but the reason they won.

To accomplish this, we realized we had to give an overview of an entire year's worth of movies. And on top of that, to some degree we needed to elucidate what was going on in American society at a given time -- how the movies reflected society and vice versa. So, before we knew it, we were actually writing something of a social history.

Originally, we thought we'd just be covering the period from the announcement of the nominations to Oscar night, but it didn't take us long to see that such a book would be lacking in detail and insight.

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I suppose the result for us today is so interesting because the week-to-week -- indeed, the day-to-day -- coverage of Hollywood has become such a staple of pop culture. We tend to lose perspective. It's nice to be reminded of something like "Wilson" [a two-and-a-half-hour biopic of Woodrow Wilson, the pet project of mogul Darryl Zanuck], the most-talked-about movie of its time and of Oscar night, but then aced out of the main awards and since forgotten. Is history fair to movies like that? Will "Titanic" last?

One of the nice things about the Oscar nominations lists -- and it's one reason we included all of the nominations in "Inside Oscar" -- is that they make you remember films that are otherwise forgotten, and to get an overview at what was popular at a given time. For instance, in one of the "minor" categories, who today would ever guess that "Singin' in the Rain" would have lost best score to "With a Song in My Heart" -- a forgotten movie biography about a forgotten singer, Jane Froman? But in 1952, "With a Song in My Heart" was huge (and made a star out of Robert Wagner).

And from 1944, the year of "Wilson" and the big winner, "Going My Way," the two films people today think of most fondly are probably "Double Indemnity" (nominated for best picture) and "Laura" (not up for picture, but nominated for director and screenplay).

In "Inside Oscar," we also have lists of eligible movies that were not nominated. Today, the two films of 1958 that are generally considered the greatest of that year are [Alfred] Hitchcock's "Vertigo" and [Orson] Welles' "Touch of Evil." Neither was up for best picture. In fact, "Touch of Evil" received no nominations; "Vertigo," only for sound and art direction (and not a nomination for Bernard Herrmann's score!). Although three of the best picture nominees from '58 are remembered fondly and are still well liked ("Auntie Mame," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and the winner, "Gigi"), two of the nominees are hard to sit through today: the painfully earnest gimmick film "The Defiant Ones" and the stodgy "Separate Tables."

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Other notable films not nominated for best picture include "Breakfast at Tiffany's," "Thelma and Louise," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "The Searchers," "Rear Window," "Psycho," "Victor/Victoria," "2001: A Space Odyssey," "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," "Laura," "Gods and Monsters" and "The Shop Around the Corner."

Films that were nominated for best picture and are either dismissed or forgotten today include "Fanny," "One Foot in Heaven," "The Pied Piper," "Dr. Dolittle," "Anne of the Thousand Days," "The Prince of Tides," "Three Coins in the Fountain," "Three Smart Girls" and "One Hundred Men and a Girl." For some reason, they spoke to contemporary audiences (or at least academy members, who in the case of "Dr. Dolittle" and "Anne" were responding to the lavish Oscar campaigns). They don't speak much to audiences today, although all of them undoubtedly have some fans.

I think that, before long, "Titanic" will be considered in the same light as "The Greatest Show on Earth" -- a ludicrous movie that's an embarrassment to Oscar annals. (Someday, people will actually listen to the dialogue of "Titanic" and gasp at how atrocious it is.) Future generations will be at a loss to explain the popularity of the film, much as people today can't figure out why "Love Story" was a phenomenon. (At least when we look back on something like "Mrs. Miniver," we can point to the wartime period as a reason for its appeal.)

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Do you make predictions for Oscar night? Do you have special insights? Or is it always a surprise to you? Do you attend the ceremonies or watch on TV?

I'm pretty good at predicting the Oscars (though better at predicting the nominations than the winners). One thing that makes the Oscar so fascinating is that there often seems to be no rhyme or reason to some of the awards. I thought Lauren Bacall was the surest thing in Oscar history back in 1996. When she lost supporting actress to Juliette Binoche, I concluded that henceforth all bets are off.

I make my predictions after talking to people in the industry and people who live in L.A. Getting a handle on the "buzz" certainly helps.

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I've never been to the Oscars. (I've been told they're a terrible bore unless you win, and even then it's a long sit.) I almost always host an Oscar party.

Do you have a candidate for most outrageous Oscar, the most undeserved major award? Any pet oversights?

My choice for the worst Oscar was Roberto Benigni's win last year as best actor for "Life Is Beautiful" over Ian McKellen for "Gods and Monsters." It was a terrible performance -- the guy's slapstick timing is all off, and his character was supposed to be an intellectual (a bookseller) but came off as idiotic. Academy members voted for him because they were -- for reasons unfathomable to me -- charmed by his indulgent behavior as he did talk shows and the party circuit. McKellen's performance in "Gods and Monsters," on the other hand, is transcendental -- one for the ages. (And don't get me started about Benigni jumping on the seats of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. When I was a kid, if we had behaved like that, the matron patrolling the aisles of the movie theater would have tossed us out.)

And in my opinion, the worst best picture winner is "Rocky," with "Titanic," "The Greatest Show on Earth," "Marty" and "Ben-Hur" not far behind.

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The best winners? "Casablanca," "How Green Was My Valley" (even though it beat a better film, "Citizen Kane"), "All About Eve," "The Apartment" and "Unforgiven."

My favorite movie is "Breakfast at Tiffany's," so that would have to be my pet oversight. And among the great performances that lost, I'd cite Leslie Ann Warren in "Victor/Victoria," the best dumb blond ever. She lost to Jessica Lange for a nothing performance in "Tootsie," only because Lange was also nominated that year for "Frances," but was doomed to be defeated by Meryl Streep in "Sophie's Choice."

Let's talk about last year and then this year. I thought the contretemps over "Shakespeare in Love" edging out "Saving Private Ryan" captured the continental divide in a Hollywood that despite its name has two halves, one in Los Angeles (represented in this case by Steven Spielberg) and one in New York (Harvey Weinstein and Miramax). You could even see angered members of the New York Times film bureaus in both cities defending their respective homies. Is this a perennial split or something new? Do you see companies like Miramax as authentic "indies" or just studios in art-house clothing?

There certainly has traditionally been somewhat of a dichotomy between the two coasts, but I think Miramax is an individual case and that the negative feelings engendered by the company aren't so much based on its being based in New York as they are by what is perceived by the abrasive personality of Weinstein -- although his personality is seen by people as stereotypically New York. Similarly, the massive Oscar campaigns engaged in by Miramax can also be seen as emblematic of what is considered aggressive New York behavior. (As someone who has lived in New York for 27 years, let me go on the record as stating that most New Yorkers I know do not behave in this manner.)

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I think that whereas there was a definite split between the two coasts (which was pretty much "movie people" vs. "theater people"), that has for the most part dissipated, part of the reason [being] that travel between the two coasts is so easy that they don't seem 3,000 miles apart, more as if they were different neighborhoods. Sidney Lumet always prided himself on spending almost no time in Hollywood (but, in my opinion, he made awful movies). My favorite quote on the subject came from Peggy Cass after she lost supporting actress in 1958 for "Auntie Mame." A stage actress, she told the press, "I'm going back to New York tonight. These Westerners -- what do they know?"

Do you have an opinion on the relative merits of "Shakespeare in Love" and "Saving Private Ryan"?

I thought "Shakespeare in Love" was a charming movie, and easily the best of the five nominees last year. I did not like "Saving Private Ryan" at all and found the film dull and uninvolving. (But, then, I haven't liked a Spielberg movie since "Jaws.") Even the much-heralded opening D-Day sequence in "Ryan" was, I thought, all wrong. It was simply a grab bag of cheap effects. Spielberg's use of different film stocks and film speeds was a cheat, and an easy way out -- the sign of someone who couldn't get across the horror of war through basic film elements themselves (such as editing and camera placement). And since we didn't know who any of the characters were yet (other than recognizing Tom Hanks), we had no emotional involvement in the scene beyond our own previous knowledge of World War II soldiers. Thus, the whole sequence was just another Spielberg thrill ride.

In addition, the whole basic premise of the film was, I felt, unconvincing -- and nothing that happens in the film makes it any less so. A more intelligent and thoughtful director might have plumbed some fascinating themes from the issue weighing the lives of eight men vs. one, but the lightweight Spielberg is not that person. And the present-day wraparounds were embarrassingly schmaltzy.

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This year's considered an open field, with "American Beauty" having a slight edge. What's your favorite movie this year? Your assessment of the nominations? Does Hilary Swank really have a lock on best actress? And will Warren Beatty say anything interesting when he gets his Thalberg?

It had seemed like a wide-open race in most categories when the nominations were made. It certainly had felt as if "American Beauty" was a slight favorite, but that its support was soft and that things were pointing to a "Cider House" upset. But over the last few weeks, "American Beauty," with its victories in the various guild awards, has solidified its lead. Its chances for picture and director look very strong, and it will probably also win original screenplay (although the much more original and clever "Being John Malkovich" or, especially, "Sixth Sense" could triumph there). Support for Denzel Washington [the star of "The Hurricane"] seems to lessen each day, and Kevin Spacey has emerged as the favorite, even though he hadn't won a single award from the critics. Swank should be a lock for her brilliant, multilayered performance, but Annette Bening's win at SAG [Screen Actors Guild] for her glib one-note acting shows that it's not open and shut for Swank. If Swank doesn't win, it will be one of those embarrassments the academy will be trying to live down for years.

My favorite movies this year were "Eyes Wide Shut," "The End of the Affair," "The Sixth Sense," "The Talented Mr. Ripley," "Boys Don't Cry" and "Election."

I thought the nominations were pretty typical, with academy voters more or less reflecting choices of the critics, although edgier fare like "John Malkovich" and "Boys Don't Cry" didn't do too well with the general membership. And "American Beauty" is undoubtedly the academy's idea of a cutting-edge movie, though it's just a bland version of Todd Solondz's "Happiness," and goes after very easy, tired targets in the most superficial way. Thus, it's a typical Oscar winner.

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Beatty is very articulate, so he will undoubtedly say something of interest about his career and maybe about the state of the industry and the state of the country. But what I'd really like to know is why he's being given an award for his achievements as a film producer, when producer is probably the least of his many talents. I can't figure out why the academy isn't giving him an honorary lifetime Oscar -- which would encompass his achievements as actor, director and writer as well as producer -- rather than giving him a bust of Irving Thalberg.

I've always thought that the much-maligned acceptance speeches are the best moments of the show -- the most real and the most human, not to mention the most likely to provide a little drama. The Vanessa Redgraves and Paddy Chayefskys, the Bernardo Bertoluccis and Kevin Costners, are to me the Oscars' true heroes. But often the show itself can be excruciating. I think you quote Vincent Canby saying, "The Oscar ceremony is now intentionally designed to inflict as much pain and suffering as possible on both its participants and its viewers." Do you feel that way? And when you did the first edition of your book, was it hard to go back and watch the old ceremonies? Has anyone ever said anything nice about the dance numbers?

I agree about the acceptance speeches, because it is the unscripted moments that provide spontaneity and true drama and excitement. One such moment was when Chayefsky was onstage accepting for the late Peter Finch -- per Oscar producer William Friedkin's mandate [banning his widow, Eletha Finch, from accepting for him if he won] -- when he called Eletha onstage for a very emotional speech. There was also Louise Fletcher signing her speech for her parents.

I also love when political statements are made by the likes of Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, giving Charlton Heston apoplexy. (Of course, it helps that my politics are close to theirs.) I even loved when Richard Gere made that nonsensical plea that everyone in the audience "send love and truth and a kind of sanity to Deng Xiaoping" so that he'd spontaneously decide to free Tibet.

Actually, I believe it was Andrew Sarris, not Vincent Canby, who had the above-mentioned quote. [Bona was right.] But I don't necessarily agree with him. There are years when the show is close to unendurable. Gilbert Cates was a producer with a singular lack of imagination, and most of his shows were torture. But the show Quincy Jones produced in 1995 was terrific, and the Stanley Donen show of 1985 was nicely done. (Even Sarris liked it.) And then there was that one-of-a-kind show Allan Carr produced (1988), which was so incredibly tacky and low-class that it was absolutely fascinating. It's remembered as the Snow White-Rob Lowe show, but it also had dancing tables and Merv Griffin singing "I Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts."

Mason and I saw all the Oscar shows going back to 1948. (That was the earliest one the academy had on tape.) It was not hard at all to watch them because we found it all fascinating. However, up until the late '50s, the production values on the show were fairly minimal, and the shows played more like recordings of news events rather than a real show.

It's been a long time since anyone praised the dance numbers -- and certainly nothing that Debbie Allen has been associated with received a nice word. (She was one of Cates' blind spots -- despite the pans, he rehired and rehired her.) But in 1967, there were raves for Angela Lansbury's song-and-dance rendition of the nominated song, "Thoroughly Modern Millie," which she performed with the Ronald Field Dancers. And the previous year, Mitzi Gaynor also got great reviews for her version of a nominated song, "Georgy Girl," done with the Ernie Flatt Dancers.

"All you rock people down at the Roxy and up in the Rockies, rock on!" Jack Nicholson's acceptance speech in 1984 for "Terms of Endearment" may be my favorite. What's yours?

My favorite speech is probably Emma Thompson's when she won for adapted screenplay for "Sense and Sensibility": "Before I came, I went to visit Jane Austen's grave in Westminster Cathedral, to pay my respects and tell her about the grosses."

And also, Fernando Trueba, director of the best foreign film winner, "Belle Epoque" (1993): "I would like to believe in God in order to thank him. But I just believe in Billy Wilder, so thank you, Mr. Wilder."

There are of course the immortal Oscar sensations, from Sacheen Littlefeather accepting Marlon Brando's Oscar to the streaker behind David Niven. Are there any Oscar moments you treasure that others may have forgotten?

Two that most people may have forgotten are:

The group of girls, supposedly from the John Tracy Clinic for the Deaf, who were doing sign language of the lyrics while Debby Boone sang "You Light Up My Life." Each of the 11 children seemed to be signing to an entirely different song, and it later turned out that they weren't deaf and had been bused in from a local public school.

And Ronald Reagan in 1947 narrating a silent-film montage of the first 20 Oscar winners, intoning that the clips "embody the glories of our past, the memories of our present and the inspiration of our future." He was unaware that the film was being shown upside down and backward and was projected on the ceiling.


Bill Wyman

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon and National Public Radio.

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