The Oscar Ghetto

Even though Kirk Douglas had been a major movie star for nearly a half century, he had never won an Academy Award until March 25, 1996. That night Steven Spielberg presented Douglas with a lifetime achievement Oscar. Douglas’s voice still showed the effects of a stroke he had suffered a few years earlier, but he gave a heartfelt and gracious acceptance speech. His son Michael, a star in his own right, stood in the audience with tears running down his face. In an event often filled with hokey, forced sentimentality, this was a moment of true emotion, a genuine and moving thank you to one of Hollywood’s legends.

The Oscar lifetime achievement awards have provided many such moments in the past few decades, especially when the Academy has honored those who had never won before. Cary Grant, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Sidney Lumet, Groucho Marx, and Peter O’Toole are just a few of the examples. The Academy Awards’ finest hour may have come in 1972, when Charlie Chaplin, long an exile from the U.S., returned to Hollywood to accept his lifetime achievement Oscar. Many of the stars in the audience came on stage to honor him.

Unfortunately, these moments are now a thing of the past. In June the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that it would issue the lifetime achievement awards on a different night than the main Oscar show (a decision that I touched on briefly in a July column). While this was upsetting, I still naively figured that this other ceremony would be televised. Maybe not on a major network, but what about cable? The USA Network already broadcasts the American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Awards, so that would be a good fit. Or what about Bravo? Certainly Turner Classic Movies would show it, as it would fit perfectly with the network’s core audience. After the Academy announced the date for this new ceremony, November 14, I kept waiting for details on how to watch it. When those details never came I called the Academy’s press office to ask directly. I was told that the ceremony would not be televised, but that “highlights” would be available on the Academy Web site. In other words, there would be no way to watch the ceremony from start to finish unless you snagged a ticket.

While this news disappointed on so many levels, I became truly angry when I considered who the Academy had selected for this year’s honorary awards: Lauren Bacall, Gordon Willis, Roger Corman and John Calley. Roger Corman was an interesting choice, as the one-time king of the B-movie, mostly produced and directed low-budget exploitation pictures. Still, he gave many fine directors their start, including Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, James Cameron and Jonathan Demme. John Calley has been a successful producer and executive for more than 40 years.

For me though, the real loss is not seeing Bacall and Willis receive their awards. Lauren Bacall, along with Kirk Douglas, is the last surviving star from Hollywood’s golden age. In 1944, Bacall, then a 19 year-old shy model with no acting experience, more than held her own opposite Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not. Her seduction scene (“You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and ... blow”) became one of the indelible moments in movie history. Bogie and Bacall had an instant chemistry that electrified audiences. They co-starred in three other films, including The Big Sleep and Key Largo. They became one of the greatest screen teams in film history, and are arguably still the standard (along with Tracy and Hepburn) to measure all movie couples. Of course, they also married in real life. But Bacall was more than just Mrs. Bogart. She starred in films such as How to Marry a Millionaire. After Bogart’s death she split her time between stage and screen, but still did fine work in Harper (with Paul Newman), Murder on the Orient Express, and The Shootist (John Wayne’s last film) just to name a few. In 1997, she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in The Mirror Has Two Faces. Bacall went into Oscar night as the overwhelming, sentimental favorite, but lost in an upset to Juliette Binoche. To say that she’s overdue would be an understatement.

Cinematographer Gordon Willis is also long overdue. He changed the way both directors and cinematographers thought about staging scenes by showing that darkness can be just as effective as light. While darkness was used in genre films (noir, horror) Willis was one of the first to use it to great effect in mainstream big-budget dramas and comedies. The best examples of his technique are in the Godfather films. The first segment of The Godfather switches back and forth between a daytime joyous outdoor wedding and Don Corleone’s dealings behind closed doors. The contrast between the wedding’s light and vivid colors and the darkness in the Don’s office illustrates the different worlds the Corleones occupy. Then, in The Godfather, Part II, Willis shot a scene where Michael Corleone and his brother Fredo confront each other after Fredo betrayed Michael. Willis gives just enough light that you can see the characters and their expressions, but no more, perfect for depicting a family falling apart. He used a similar lighting technique for Fredo’s death scene.

Besides the Godfather films, Willis did some of his best work for Woody Allen. His brilliant black and white photography in Manhattan, perfectly captured Allen’s romantic view of New York. With Zelig, Willis shot scenes with Allen to perfectly match 1920s and 30s newsreels, providing some authenticity to a far-fetched story.

Willis is widely admired and respected by his peers. In 1984, Dennis Schaefer and Larry Salvato wrote and edited Masters of Light, based on their interviews of 15 of the best cinematographers of that era. Many of the other subjects reference Willis in their interviews. Schaefer and Salvato begin the Gordon Willis interview chapter by commenting that “Gordon Willis is the best cinematographer working in America today. Without a doubt. Period. End of discussion. And when he gets through rewriting the history of the American cameraman, he will no doubt be considered the most consistently brilliant cameraman this country has ever produced.” Yet, to quote the Internet Movie Database, “In a spectacular seven-year period from 1971 to 1977, seven of the films he (Willis) worked on as director of photography accumulated 39 Oscar nominations with 19 wins. Among these wins were three Best Picture winners ... Incredibly, Willis failed to secure a single nomination for himself during this period.” Later he did receive two nominations, but no wins. So a wrong will be righted when he receives his Oscar.

The November 14 ceremony will allow Bacall and Willis to be recognized by their peers. But there are still film fans and other people out there that want to see a celebration of these legends’ work. There are still people who appreciate and cherish cinema history. We may be a minority, but we are here. Why can’t we share in the joy of this special moment? Not televising these awards is our loss and it is Hollywood’s shame.

Adam Spector
November 1, 2009

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