Did you watch the Academy Awards last night? I didn’t! I could not have cared less. First, I will tell you something that I learned when I was a sports handicapper: the film with the most nominations always wins Best Picture. Of course, there are often ties, as there was this year. But really: did you think the Academy was going to give Best Picture to Wes Anderson? It had to be Birdman. And that is no slight of Birdman — I haven’t seen it. And it is sometimes the case that the film that wins the Academy Award for Best Picture is a great picture. But it’s rare.
Take, for example, 1942 when the Best Picture went to How Green Was My Valley. Now it is a rather good film — not great but well worth watching. Still, that was the year of Citizen Kane. I know: an overrated film. But that’s only because it is so often claimed to be the greatest film ever made. Hell, it isn’t even close to the best film Orson Welles ever made! But it is unquestionably a great film — and the greatest film made in 1941. The point is, who will care that Birdman won the Academy Award in five years, much less 70?
My favorite is the 1980 Academy Awards. That was the big year for Kramer vs Kramer. I know what you’re thinking, “I though that was an after school special!” Only in content and quality, my friend. I was just reading about it and supposedly it was an important movie because we were all supposed to be shocked — Shocked, I tell you! — by divorce in 1979. What I mostly remember about it is the totally tacked on “happy” ending that nullifies the entire point of the film.
But I’ll be honest: Kramer vs Kramer is the ideal Hollywood film. It is the sort of thing that the Academy just can’t help but love. It’s an “issue” film. But not just an “issue” film — one that isn’t the slightest bit controversial. Oh yes, it took on the important issue of male single parenthood — an issue that even today is a pathetic and unbelievable cliche for a situation comedy. Just three years later, Author! Author! was savaged by the critics, although that may have had more to do with the fact that it wasn’t taking the issue “seriously.” At least The Courtship of Eddie’s Father had the decency to make the father the more realistic widower.
And what films lost to the sentimental tripe of Hollywood fantasy? A lot of far better films: Being There, Breaking Away, La Cage aux Folles, Manhattan, Norma Rae (a much more acceptable issue film), …And Justice for All, A Little Romance — to name but a few. But there were three undisputed great films that year. Let me list then in reverse order of their acceptability to the Academy.
The Tin Drum won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Rightly so. It is an amazing film, but hard to describe — a surreal epic. In addition to its being a unique, and thus un-Oscar worthy, film, it has a lot of sex in it — incest and pseudo-pedophilia. It’s the kind of thing that the Academy can accept coming from Europe, but the film would never have been mentioned at the Academy Awards had it been made by Americans.
Apocalypse Now continues to be a film that people go back to. I just don’t think anyone ever says, “Hey, I feel like seeing Kramer vs Kramer again!” But they do say that about Apocalypse Now. I’m not a huge fan of the movie, but there is no question of its greatness. And if it was Milius’ idea to set Heart of Darkness in Vietnam, all I can say is that he never read the novel. Still, Francis Coppola’s direction is amazing and he manages to create something of eternal power.
The film I still think should have won the Best Picture Oscar was All That Jazz. It is a fantastic film — Bob Fosse’s best (which is saying something). I don’t really know what to say about it, other than that it isn’t 8½ — it is far better. If you want to know what I think about it, read, All That Fosse. The main point here is that Kramer vs Kramer is nothing compared to it.
So people can watch the Academy Awards, but I won’t. I didn’t even know it was happening until The New York Times started sending me updates about it. So Hollywood’s biggest night has come — a night of great pretense where the industry shows that it is all about commodity — where it is clear it wouldn’t know a work of art if Michelangelo’s David were shipped to the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood and carried down the red carpet.