It’s Oscar season, and to celebrate Turner Classic Movies delivers an all-too-short and lightweight, but still engrossing, account of the Academy of Motions Picture Arts and Sciences’s 83-year history.
The hallowed history of the Academy Awards is ripe for a feature-length documentary. Lucky for us, Turner Classic Movies (one of the last great bastions for classic films) has obliged by producing a fairly all-encompassing look at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences 83-year storied past. Produced and Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, And the Oscar Goes To… is a reverential tribute to the famed institution, featuring delicious backstage antics, quirky anecdotes from former winners, famous emotional clips, and a broad overview of the crafts categories that frequently get the short end of the stick come telecast time. But, like the broadcast itself, it relies too heavily on former Oscar-winning stars to sell its depiction (not to mention get viewers to tune in), and for every illuminating bit of hard truth there is double the amount of glossed-over controversial moments in time left in the Academy’s closet. Perhaps that isn’t surprising considering this film is meant to be a celebration, but the absence of hard questions and probing insights is disappointing nonetheless. Still, anyone with a love of movies and even a mild interest in the Oscars will find plenty to enjoy here.
For those who watch the Oscars but don’t know much about the Academy itself, And the Oscar Goes To… provides just enough basic information to give the average movie watcher an appreciation of its history. The documentary covers the early years starting in 1927 where the silent war epic Wings won the first Oscar for Best Picture of the Year and the first talky, The Jazz Singer, won a special achievement prize. That first year, the winners were announced ahead of time and the ceremony itself was not the glamorous glitz parade it would become, and neither were the stakes as high. There was little to no campaigning and afterwards the winners went back to their work and lives. How times have changed. In the coming years the Academy would release the winning results to the papers ahead of time, but keep the suspense alive by not allowing them to print until after the ceremony was over. This all changed when in 1940 the LA Times published the winner’s names early, enraging the Academy and ensuring that it would never happen again with their hiring of Price Waterhouse, who have protected the winning results until the telecast ever since.
The film presents the Academy’s penchant to promote social change through its nominations and winners. One of the earliest indications of their more liberal-leaning tendencies is when Hattie McDaniel won the Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role for Gone with the Wind. It was 1940, and the idea of giving an African-American actress an award for a performance in a film was definitely radical for the time. Upon her nomination there was debate to whether she should even be invited to the Oscars, let alone be allowed to set foot on the stage. When she won, she gave an eloquent and moving speech and forever changed the course of history. Perhaps it proved too radical for the times; it would not be until Sidney Poitier won for 1963’s Lilies of the Field that another black actor collected the golden naked man. Though the film celebrates McDaniel’s unprecedented win, it fails to fully recognize that too few people of color have been represented by the Academy and that the problem persists to this day. The documentary also cites Tom Hanks’s win for Philadelphia as a turning point on the public’s perception of the AIDS crisis and homosexuality. Indeed, Tom Hanks delivered a great speech and gave voice to thousands of gay people who had been ignored for years, but again the documentary glosses over legitimate gay progress in Hollywood — such as when screenwriter Dustin Lance Black won his Oscar for Milk. Like society itself, the academy moves more cautiously than it would like to admit when it comes to social change which, thankfully, the film does briefly acknowledge in an interview with current Academy President, Cheryl Boone Isaacs.
The biggest controversy that the documentary covers is the blacklist that was written in the 1950s due to Joseph McCarthy’s war on communism. Due to this horrible scourge, hundreds of writers, directors, actors, etc. lost their careers and many of them succumbed to depression and committed suicide. The Academy instated a rule that no person who appeared on the blacklist would be eligible to be nominated for an Oscar. It would be several years before this was overturned. And while this terrible part of history and the Academy’s shameful reaction to it is well worth documenting, one has to wonder why other controversies were not covered? An easy segue would have led to Elia Kazan, who notoriously named names in testimony to HUAC. The 1999 Academy Awards ceremony was fraught with controversy when they decided to award Kazan an honorary Oscar for his celebrated career, with many choosing to boycott the awards altogether. In the audience that night many refused to clap when Kazan took the stage, while others jumped to their feet in admiration. Why such an unforgettable event would be left out when it directly correlates to the blacklist is ponderous at best. If they wanted to go with a major award based controversy (and there are many), why not choose when Brokeback Mountain inexplicably lost the Oscar for Best Picture of the Year to Crash, when it managed to garner almost every other precursor award? Many cited homophobia within the Academy, and there were plenty of members on record who flat-out refused to see the film because of its content. Missed opportunities abound in And the Oscar Goes To…
Though the film misses the boat when it comes to the more questionable parts of its history, there are great moments featuring backstage shenanigans, especially in the press room. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the film is seeing stars looking flustered and embarrassed as they are asked superfluous questions by the press. One such moment is when Elizabeth Taylor is asked how she feels that evening and she quips “I don’t even know what I’m doing here. I didn’t win anything.” There are other smile-inducing moments including Danny Boyle’s warm embrace of presenter Steven Spielberg backstage, directly after winning his Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire. There is also a brief segment covering the host duties that Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal gamely share warm memories of. Disappointingly, the film tends to use the same faces over and over again for interviews during each segment, which is a shame considering the amount of Oscar winners old and new alike that are still alive today.
And the Oscar Goes To… is unquestionably a loving ode to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and to the movies it honors. And though awards in and of themselves mean next to nothing, it would be a mistake to dismiss this film or the Academy at large. For years the Oscars have provided a window into the world of Hollywood and introduced millions to films that may never have made it to their theaters without the Academy’s recognition. Seeing actors, cinematographers, directors, art directors, animators, sound editors, composers, visual effects artists, etc. all in one room on Hollywood’s biggest night of the year will always remain a positive thing, because it gives wide exposure to the art of filmmaking. There will perpetually be disagreements over what won, who should have won, and who should have been nominated, but those petty arguments miss the point entirely. The Oscars provide inspiration. Every year there is at least one child who watches the telecast and tells themselves: “One day I will make movies. One day I will be on that stage.” The Oscars are where dreams are born, and for that we must remain forever grateful.