Peter Bart: Oscar Nominations Aren’t Emotional Roller Coasters Of Past Years


With Oscar nominations being announced tomorrow, the analyses of voter behavior at this time of year always become increasingly surreal. As a long-term voter in the Academy and also several guilds (Writers Guild, SAG, etc.), I find my own decisions defy consistent patterns over the years. In short, I have difficulty forecasting myself. And in exchanging views with fellow voters, I find I am not alone.

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The awards pundits like to cite groundswells of support, usually reflecting “feel good” films (Hidden Figures and Lion are this year’s feelie favorites.) Yet recent winners like Birdman poke holes in these smug predictions.

Here’s another complicating factor: The voting behavior of those of us who have worked within the industry may change in accordance with changing times and our own changing roles. Insiders assess performance, not solely in terms of box office or emotional impact, but in “degree of difficulty,” as in judging gymnastics. How can you compare the product of a filmmaker working with an unlimited budget and proven cast against another who is working with unknowns and skeletal resources?

It was 50 years ago, the great moviemaking year of 1967, when the volatility of awards voting was most memorably on display — the films were great and the voters dramatically whipsawed. I was a film executive at that moment, not a journalist, so I had an insider’s view of the tumult. It was my first Oscar ballot and it was intimidating.

Guess Who's Coming To Dinner? - 1967

Early on, the La La Land of that year emerged as Dr Dolittle, a feel-good musical starring Rex Harrison “talking (and singing) to the animals.” The “serious” drama — the Manchester By The Sea — was Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. Also crowding the scene were some terrific commercial vehicles such as The Dirty Dozen, In Cold Blood and In The Heat Of The Night — Hollywood fare at its best. Guess Who’s Coming seemed to be building emotional momentum by the fall — director Stanley Kramer was admired for tackling racial themes and heralding the brilliant young Sidney Poitier. But insiders were also caught up in a drama-within-the-drama: the frailty of the great Spencer Tracy, who co-starred with Katharine Hepburn. I visited Tracy on the set and witnessed Kramer’s skill and sensitivity in working with the cranky, fragile (and usually inebriated) star. Tracy was dead by the time Oscar votes went out, adding further emotional weight to the film.

The Graduate - 1967

But at year’s end all expectations and forecasts quickly capsized. Dr Dolittle received a cool reception at initial screenings and gossip about Rex Harrison’s drug use cast further doubts. Then a young director named Mike Nichols quietly started screening The Graduate, which lacked a major release, and audiences were astonished by the superb performances by Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross. I personally spent hours with Nichols and his young producer, Larry Turman, learning in detail how they scratched together their film under the most stringent financial limitations, with scenes shot on the run in single takes.

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Then along came an even bigger disruption: Screenings of Bonnie And Clyde triggered shouting arguments not only among audiences but also critics. To Bosley Crowther, the smart but stalwartly conservative critic of the New York Times, the movie symbolized vulgar violence at its apex; to Pauline Kael of the New Yorker, the film represented a triumph of originality. Warren Beatty found the controversy at once appalling and delightful. Initially shunned by his distributor, Beatty visualized both Oscar votes and box office.

Insiders at the time found themselves pulled in several directions. I admired Beatty’s panache but applauded The Graduate in its degree of difficulty. Kramer, a superb self-promoter, remained an emotional favorite, but I felt a tug for not supporting In Cold Blood, despite my personal dislike of its rigidly authoritarian director Richard Brooks, who would personally stand at the door at all his screenings to rebuff potential crashers.

In the end all the intrigues cancelled themselves out. The gripping if pedestrian thriller In The Heat Of The Night was the winner. At the Oscar presentation there were displays of tears and delight. And as a first voter I asked myself, is this going to be an emotional roller coaster every year?

Well, it didn’t turn out that way. The movies haven’t been that good nor the behind-the-scenes melodramas that intense. Which means the awards pundits have had to work harder to keep us interested.

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