From Party Animals to Gilt Queens to a New Hollywood Dame: Oscars 2010

Kevin Killian


This isn’t going to be one of those Oscar recaps that demands to know why Farrah wasn’t mentioned during the “In Memoriam” segment.  Nor will I dwell overlong on an even more profound snub, in which Michelle Pfeiffer, as the Belle Époque courtesan Léa in Stephen Frears’ Cheri, gave a better performance than all five Best Actress nominees—and the guys too—combined, yet this apparently failed to register with the Academy.  Instead I come to talk to you about—but wait, that was a fantastic John Hughes tribute wasn’t it?  They could show that last scene of Sixteen Candles, with Molly Ringwald kissing Jake Ryan—I mean Michael Schoeffling—over her flaming birthday cake, fifty times a week and I would never tire of it.  If they had trundled out Michael Schoeffling onto the stage for the Hughes salute instead of, say, Jon Cryer, I would actually have left this mortal coil and ascended into heaven, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels way.  So yes, the Oscars is always a case of missed opportunity and tears shed over spilled milk.

But let’s talk about doubling up.  Me and other elderly Oscar fans have been all up in arms about the new bylaw of the Academy that allowed them to name ten nominees for the Best Picture category.  As long as I’ve watched the show, there’s been only 5 for best picture, just like for every other category (except that phony one where they give awards to top makeup experts), and now all of a sudden there are 10.  Grandma called me, however, after reading a particularly Swiftian harangue from me on my Facebook page, and explained that when she was a girl in the 1930s and through World War II, they would nominate as many pictures as they felt like, sometimes a dozen!  People often say 1939 was the greatest year in classic Hollywood studio production, so I looked back in ye ole Guinness Book to see what films were nominated in that year.  Ah so!  Gone with the Wind, Dark Victory, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Love Affair, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, and Wuthering Heights.  Hmm, not so great.  People in 1939 seemed, just like today, to admire “class” above every other consideration.  So how would it shake down in 2010, when thank God, that awful Weinstein Miramax seems to have left us?  Weinstein/Miramax was always your bellwether for classy films with Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes, and for fifteen years they’ve ruined the Oscars.  Now we are free, free to enjoy the results of what happens when “class” is no longer going to be factor #1.  I suppose bleakly enough, the market will continue to rule film production, and that the industry-sponsored Oscars will continue to show this, more or less indiscreetly.

This year it was that picture with Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer as the Tolstoys.  And also what about that Young Victoria picture that won something—costumes?  There has never been a good biopic produced in Hollywood, and that includes The Blind Side too, but the ones with people speaking in English accents have got to be the worst.

And yet why change five to ten––really?  Conventional wisdom is that the producers of the Oscars wanted to halt slipping TV ratings for their annual show, and one way to do that is to feature movies that people (ordinary red state people) have actually seen, or at least have heard of.  In the Miramax years, the best picture slate was often the equivalent of 5 Hurt Lockers––admirable, classy pictures that never made it out to the multiplex and so went unseen.  When Helen Mirren won the Oscar (for The Queen) that was the last straw in the heartland.  In the multiplex states Helen Mirren had last been glimpsed as the haughty high school teacher in Teaching Mrs. Tingle––remember, rebellious students kidnap her to force her to change their grades?  Rebellious students led by Katie Holmes?

To accommodate more clips from ten best picture nominees they have done the unthinkable, they now have a banquet for honorary Oscar winners and show clips from that, instead of actually presenting the honorary Oscars on the telecast?  Thus the greatest stars of all join the ignominious tech people who get Oscars for grinding new lenses or putting heavier plastic in your 3-D glasses…  Give them a lunch, put a starlet in there to report her findings—this year Elizabeth Banks.  Actually I admire the stamina of these starlets who must pretend for hours to be interested in science.  I call them good sports, but I deplore the way Roger Corman and Lauren Bacall, who can hardly get up at all nowadays, were forced to stand silently and wave.  Between them, 125 years of Hollywood experience.  Two waves.  What an insult, and yet the world goes on, doesn’t it!  It never pays to get indignant with the Oscars, for one of these days they will just collapse of their own accord and one will be left watching the decay of the Kodak Theater at Hollywood and Highland, like the famous poem about what’s his name, Ozymandias of Egypt.  Ha ha ha, “My name is Oscar, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”  (I see a new Christopher Plummer film coming around the corner, with Christoph Waltz as the anti-Pharaoh trying to destroy him, and Keira Knightley as the handmaiden who comes between them.)

In the wake of these changes I’ve spent the last few days reading the life of the last man who thought he could change Oscar around—and it killed him.  Robert Hofler wrote a good book a few years ago about the skeezy 50s super-agent Henry Willson (The Man who Invented Rock Hudson), but Hofler’s outdone himself with the new Party Animals (Da Capo Press), the biography of the producer and publicist Allan Carr.  Nearly forgotten today, Carr was at one time just about everywhere “in the sexually indulgent 1970s” (to quote the jacket copy).  In appearance he was sort of like an massively fat Elton John, too big in fact to fit inside regular clothes so people knew him by his “signature caftans.”  First he was the manager of some more-or-less iconic stars led by Mama Cass and Ann-Margret.  He got Ann-Margret the job of playing Roger Daltry’s mother in Tommy, which she did not at first appreciate, being only three years older than Daltry.  And then Carr became energized by the marriage of rock music and film in general.  He introduced Alice Cooper to Groucho Marx, Ringo Starr to Salvador Dali.  Everywhere there was a self-promoter, and God knows there are hundreds of thousands of them in Hollywood, Carr was right by his side trying to compete and to score the cutest straight boys.  An inveterate party-giver, he bought Ingrid Bergman’s Los Angeles mansion Hillhaven Lodge, and turned it into a pleasure palace like the Playboy mansion, inviting Old Hollywood and new, and when he made a success out of Grease the money really started coming in and he could fulfill all of his fantasies at once.  Through the 1970s and 80s he had hits and then he had flops, but what finished him off was his “re-invention” of the 1989 Oscars.

Hofler, a senior editor at Variety, is very good about the hubris of those who would alter the chemistry of the Oscars.  Who was it who said, “be careful what you pray for”?  Truman Capote?  St. Teresa of Avila?  All of his life, Allan Carr had been waiting for this moment and, when the Academy picked him out to produce their show, he decided what it needed most was old-fashioned glamour.  People think the show is about the stars who win the awards, he decided, but it’s not, it’s about the presenters.  Well, we all think that something should be done about the presenters!  I am so sick of seeing the “best picture” award given out by Jack Nicholson that I’m keeping a small-bore firearm next to the TV in case the camera cuts to him on Oscar night.  Yes, Jack is great and all, but as a presenter, he’s just so obvious!  (This year’s presenter, the suddenly old Tom Hanks, isn’t much more of a surprise.)  In 1989 Allan Carr, on the other hand, set his sights on the biggest “get” of all—the same one who is still the biggest “get”—ageless singer-actress Doris Day, the biggest friend animals ever had and also beloved by generations of gay men and lesbians!  She hadn’t appeared in decades at any awards ceremony, and since the AIDS death of her friend Rock Hudson, had become manically shy and pet-centric, appearing nowhere, not even outside her front door in Carmel.  Carr pulled every string he could to secure Doris Day to bestow the best picture honors, and in the end, he almost got her, but a terrifying trip over the lawn sprinkler at home hurled her back into permanent isolation.

The 1989 Oscar show was a jaw-dropping bomb from its opening moments.  The traditional opening number was replaced by a cutesy iteration of San Francisco’s long-running and ultra camp musical pageant, Beach Blanket Babylon.  It’s one of those shows that make one ashamed to admit one lives in San Francisco, and it really died a death at the Oscars.  Snow White, its heroine (played by an ingénue no one had ever heard of) ran up and down through the audience, attempting to shake the hands of all the stars she could.  The stars just didn’t get it and, embarrassingly for all concerned, many of them refused to clasp her hand.  My beloved Michelle Pfeiffer gave Snow White a look that would kill an ordinary human—a look of “shock and dismay” (Hofler) that many in the TV audience read as, “Get me the hell out of here please please please,” the silent scream that only something like Chernobyl ordinarily produces.  Rob Lowe was saddled as Prince Charming and forced to sing “Proud Mary” to Snow White, with new lyrics about working for the man in Hollywood.  Lowe’s no dummy, he knew the act was dying a death at the moment he was singing and dancing.  Hofler interviews him recalling, in that moment of televised madness, that he could see only, some rows into the audience, the director Barry Levinson turning to his companion and mouthing the words—words a gifted lip reader could make out—the exaggerated words, “What——the——fuck?”  A week after the Oscars, Allan Carr went into Morton’s and not a single person but kind Angie Dickinson would even look at him.  He never had a job again, and died in the summer of 1999.

Yet some of Carr’s innovations stuck.  He was the one who effectively doubled the number of celebrity presenters, by a variety of means.  It used to be they’d corral the clips from all best pictures into one big montage at the end…  he was the one who broke them down and placed them separately during the long show, each with its own star introducing them. Hofler shows how it was Carr who devised the “self-esteem” booster of the revised catchphrase, “And the Oscar goes to…”  The opening of the envelope used to be accompanied by a dramatic, “And the winner is…” but Carr and his consultants determined that that was a terrible way of putting it, since it made everyone else feel like, yes, like a loser.  Its more active verb turns “And the Oscar goes to…” into a phrase without losers––the power of distraction, which is 99 per cent what film is about anyhow.  Funny how both formulations begin with the word “And,” as if also to insure a facile continuity with whatever has gone before.  (On tonight’s Oscar telecast I noticed that both phrases were being used indiscriminately.)  Carr was the one who brought stylists into the show, and designer gowns.  Before that, Anne Bancroft wore a housedress, Joanne Woodward showed up in her old senior prom gown, and Barbra Streisand designed her own ensembles.  Now the Oscars are dispiritingly perfect, as far as the clothes, hair, makeup go.  No star trusts herself nowadays, they all depend on stylists and pet designers, largely depriving fans of the fashion faux pas that used to leave a roomful of drunk Oscar watchers screaming in horror and delight when Natalie Wood or Deborah Raffin would walk onstage wearing their kitchen curtains.  When I first heard Barrett Watten speak about the terrors of neoliberal globalism, of course I flashed on the red carpet portion of the Oscar show.?

Maybe it was expanding the best picture nominees to ten, with the resulting existential freedom of not really giving a shit, but I guessed all the awards this time around.  Oh no, wait, I was sure that Avatar was going to win.  And now The Hurt Locker has become the Best Picture with the lowest recorded gross receipts in all of Oscar history, so what do we learn from this?  I guess it behooves us to be as crazy high as Jeff Bridges, man, and also to help suffering mute stifled black youth like Sandra Bullock and Mariah Carey, and heaven will separate the wheat from the chaff and the tinsel from the real tinsel.  It’s too big for me.


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Oscar Party 2009: The Third Way

Oscar Party 2008: Blood on the Tracks

Oscar Goes Green: the 2007 Academy Awards

Oscar Nosedive 2006