February 24th will mark the 91st time the Oscars will take place. Though this year’s telecast has been fraught with hosting issues, time constraints, and all sorts of scheduling missteps, some things remain. The eight-pound, 24-carat-gold-plated statuettes will be handed out to 24 winners on Sunday night. There will be champagne, bright smiles, tears, and speeches that invariably run too long. But what about the day after the show and the day after that? What kind of impact do these awards actually have?
Last year’s Best Picture winner was Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, one of my all-time favorite films (as was his 2006 award-winner, Pan’s Labrynth). Del Toro also won Best Director for The Shape of Water, a dark “fairy-tale” which combined cold war intrigue, secret experiments, and romance. It was beautifully designed and supremely well-acted, with Richard Jenkins and Sally Hawkins (and even the “creature”) bringing both passion and pathos to their roles. Amazingly enough, though both “humans” were nominated, neither took home the gold.
These days Hawkins is still doing lots of movies, both mainstream and indie, including this year’s Eternal Beauty and Godzilla: King of the Monsters. As for Jenkins, he continues to make his mark in American TV (Berlin Station just completed its 3rd season) and in small movie roles that pack a punch. And Guillermo del Toro? Well, he has moved on to Netflix and Toronto, where he will be producing – and sometimes directing and writing – Guillermo del Toro Presents 10 After Midnight, a horror anthology series; and a feature film called, Let It Snow. In his spare time, he has also created a line of action figures, based on his 2001 film, The Devil’s Backbone, which was about a haunted orphanage. When the director is the brand, clearly anything is possible.
But let’s go back to the beginning. In 1929, the first Academy Awards were held during a private dinner at the Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles with Douglas Fairbanks as host … and not a camera or iPhone in sight. In fact, the Oscars were not broadcast in any way, shape, or form until the next year. And tickets to the event were a mere $5. The film Wings took home the award for Best Picture. A silent movie set during World War I, it pitted two pilots (one rich, one poor) against each other, fighting for the love of a girl played by Clara Bow. Bow did not win best actress. That honor went to Janet Gaynor for 7th Heaven, a film that also won for Best Director and Best Writing. But Bow’s next role as a shop girl in the romantic comedy, It, gained her fame and the moniker, the “It Girl.” It was a title that stuck with her for years. Unfortunately, as talkies gained more acceptence, Clara’s Brooklyn nasally twang did not. She married and retired at the age of 26.
Her co-stars fared much better. Charles “Buddy” Rogers (once called “America’s Boyfriend”) went on to act in more than 40 films and made guest appearances on The Lucy Show and Petticoat Junction. He was also Mary Pickford’s husband and was married to her for 42 years. Richard Arlen accumulated 180 on-screen credits, mostly in top TV series in the 50’s and 60’s, and continued acting through the 70’s. While Gary Cooper had only a small role in Wings, he went on to become one of Hollywood’s favorite leading men. His 36-year career started in the Silent Era and continued through the Golden Era of Hollywood. Some of his best movies included High Noon (four Oscar’s including Best Actor), Friendly Persuasion (Nominated for six Academy Awards), and one of my favorites, The Pride of the Yankees (ten Oscar nominations – including one for Cooper – and one Win for Film Editing).
1961 also brought some unforgettable films to the Oscar race, including The Hustler, Judgement at Nuremburg, The Guns of Navarone, Fanny, and West Side Story. Film critic Stanley Kauffmann said West Side Story was, “The Best Film Musical Ever Made.” But other critics like Pauline Kael were quick to disagree. She called the Romeo and Juliet-style love story “frenzied hokum” and the dancing “simpering, sickly, romantic ballet.” While the reviewers were all over the map, audiences loved it (including this writer) and the Academy voters declared it a hit. The film took home ten Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor and Actress (George Chakiris, Rita Moreno) and Best Director (Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins shared the prize in a “first” for the Academy).
While Wise and Robbins were already established “stars” – Wise in film and Robbins on Broadway – West Side Story helped put Rita Moreno on the map. But for years after, film producers still wanted to cast her in gang movies or as “Cochita’s and Lolita’s” … and always barefoot. It wasn’t until 1971 and her move to Sesame Street that a new world opened up for Moreno. Today, at the age of 87, she is still active – and I mean ACTIVE. She is 39 episodes into the Netflix comedy/drama series, One Day at a Time. And she is one of the few artists ever to have won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony (EGOT). Not bad for a girl from Puerto Rico by way of the Bronx.
But getting back to Sunday night’s Oscars …. If I had to forecast this year’s winning picture, I would have to choose Roma. While it was not my favorite, it was stunningly shot and realized; and the director’s personal remembrances of growing up in Mexico City are rich with detail and emotion. I think the timing of this film is also perfect. It’s social, political, and racial themes definitely touch a nerve. We’ll know soon if the voters agree!!
Top photo: Bigstock
The 91st Academy Awards will be broadcast on Sunday, February 24 on ABC.