Saturday, February 11, 2012

Hold the Limo


There is certainly something to be said for the Academy Awards. There is something to be said for the fact that every year otherwise uninterested parties like myself feel obliged to say something about the Oscars, which will be handed out on February 26th.

Any good film critic can tell you that, from a purely aesthetic perspective, the Oscars are about as meaningless as such an award can possibly get. Every year people I don’t know make up their minds about which film, which actor or actress, which director and script-writer is the best based on criteria that seem to me inexplicable.

The Nobel Prize for Literature is a genuine prize, since a cash award comes along with the medal. Of course, the Oscars also provide a cash award, in the form of subsequent box-office receipts. If I were a film director and I won one of those golden bowling trophies, I would be ecstatically grateful. Winning the award would mean that many more people who wouldn’t otherwise have bothered to see my film would do so, because enough people believe that winning the award has meaning.

I have always wondered why the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS) continues to award films in languages other than English in a separate category every year. It has been doing this since 1956, when the category was established.

The annual Academy Awards has never been, or really wanted to be, anything like an international film festival, which is a competition held in places like Cannes, Venice, and Berlin, that accepts films from everywhere (even from Hollywood) and seeks to single out the finest examples of film art, in whatever language they are made. The success of these festivals in discovering good films and rewarding the efforts of their makers accordingly has been uneven. But at least their intentions are laudable.

I have the feeling that the real reason is because Hollywood has never accepted the notion, either out of cultural or financial arrogance, that its films are at all comparable to those from abroad. I have often said that the only reason that foreign films are treated as a separate category of film altogether by the Academy is that they exist in an entirely different world from Hollywood’s – a world of art.

Hollywood exacts its revenge on the prestige that foreign films often acquire by not admitting them, with a handful of exceptions, (1) to the competition for the most coveted awards – the top five being Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, and Best Director. On rare occasions an actor, actress, or director gets a nominated for one of these, but never has a film produced in a language other than English won the Best Picture category.

So, what has the Academy done with its award for the Best Foreign Language Film? For the first twenty years of its annual prize-giving, AMPAS completely ignored films made somewhere other than in Hollywood. Since it was very, much a private party for industry insiders, there was really no compelling reason why it should have.

Probably due to the worldwide shock created by the breakthrough Rossellini film Open City, much of which was shot during the last weeks of the Second World War, re-introducing “realism” to film, the Academy created a “Special/Honorary Award” especially for such foreign-language films as were not under consideration for their major awards in 1947, and gave the first to Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine.

Since there was greater interest in films from abroad - and money to be made in their distribution to American theaters – in America, in the following eight years the Academy awarded the films Monsieur Vincent (France-1948), The Bicycle Thief [sic] (Italy-1949), The Walls of Malapaga (Italy-1950), Rashomon (Japan-1951), and Forbidden Games (France-1952). No award was handed out in 1953, for no apparent reason, except that no one could come up with a film worthy of it. (2)

In 1954, Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell won the award, and the first part of Inagaki's epic Samurai won it in 1955. Finally, in 1956, the Academy created an Award of Merit for the “Best Foreign Language Film”, and opened up a competition, somewhat comparable to a film festival’s, accepting one film from every country interested in competing for the award. Fellini’s La Strada won the first such award, and Fellini was present at the ceremony with his wife Giulietta Masina to accept it.

Since then, the list of winners has been intriguing, since it includes such obvious masterpieces as The Virgin Spring (1960), 8 ½ (1963), and Pelle the Conqueror (1988). It has some near-forgotten jewels like Sundays and Cybele (France-1962), Closely Watched Trains (Czechoslovakia-1967), The Official Story (Argentina-1985), and Burnt By the Sun (Russia-1994). But it also reveals the extent to which publicity and faulty critical acclaim can influence the Academy judges, which is the only possible way that such burnished turds as The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), Amarcord (1974), Get Out Your Handkerchiefs (1978), The Tin Drum (1979), Life Is Beautiful (1998) and The Barbarian Invasions (2003) could have won.

Then there are the much more worthy films that were beaten in competition for the prize, like Hiroshi Teshigahara’s uncanny masterpiece Woman in the Dunes, which lost to Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow in ’64, the beautifully ebullient Marriage Italian Style losing to The Shop on Main Street in ’65, Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers was beaten out by Claude Lelouch's bonbon A Man and a Woman in 1966, Claude Goretta’s lovely L’Invitation losing to Truffaut’s charming but slight Day for Night in ’73, Louis Malle’s brilliant Lacombe Lucien losing to the aforementioned Amarcord, Ettore Scola’s moving A Special Day (what a companion piece to Marriage Italian Style!) losing to Madame Rosa in ’77 (only because an old and obese Simone Signoret was in it), Jan Troell’s magnificent The Flight of the Eagle, losing to the sentimental To Begin Again in ’82, two more deserving achievements, Michael Verhoeven’s The Nasty Girl (a stupidly misleading translation of Das Schreckliche Maedchen) and Gianni Amelio’s superb Open Doors, losing to the - once again - sentimental Journey of Hope in 1990, and the illuminating Sophie Scholl, losing to the more topical Tsotsi in 2005.

Occasionally, the Academy stumbled on the less-than-obvious right choice, like Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Black and White in Color in 1976, or Bille August’s Babette’s Feast in 1987, Ang Lee’s enthralling Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000, and The Counterfeiters in 2007.

Who knows but that some day the Academy Awards will finally come to its senses and open its competition for the best films from all over the globe? As long as it remains a spectacle driven by publicity, and one of the biggest excuses in the world for movie stars to show off their designer clothes, borrowed jewels, and their latest soul mates, I will have to refrain from watching.


(1) In its 84 years, eight foreign language films have been nominated for Best Picture Oscar: Grand Illusion (France-1938) (it lost to an inferior Frank Capra comedy, You Can't Take It With You), Z (1969), The Emigrants (1972), Cries and Whispers (1973), Il Postino (1995), Life Is Beautiful (1998), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), which was an American-produced film in Japanese.
(2) This despite the fact that 1953 was one of the most amazing years in film history, with Bergman’s The Clown’s Evening, Ozu’s Tokyo Story, and Fellini’s I Vitelloni being released within months of one another.

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