In May 1927, just before “talking pictures” debuted, Hollywood luminaries founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to enshrine cinema as art, not just commercial fare, and inaugurated an awards ceremony to recognize artistic achievement. First held on May 16, 1929, in the Blossom Room of Hollywood’s regal Roosevelt Hotel, it lasted just 15 minutes and included a Best Actor win for Rin Tin Tin, nominated by Jack Warner, signaling his ho-hum attitude toward the whole affair.
The distinctive golden statuette awarded to the winners soon got the name “Oscar,” from which flowed the shorthand name of the awards show, which on February 28, for the 88th time, will recognize the best in the industry just down from the Roosevelt at the Dolby Theatre.
The Golden Globe winners provided some clues—including “The Revenant” (Best Drama, Director, Actor), “Room” (Best Actress), “Steve Jobs” (Best Screenplay, Supporting Actress), “Joy” (Best Actress), “The Martian” (Best Comedy and Actor), “Creed” (Best Supporting Actor). The recently announced Oscar nominees for Best Picture also add more clarity and depth, including the overlooked films—“The Big Short,” “Bridge of Spies,” “Spotlight,” and “Brooklyn.”
We Want Greatness, Not Degradation
While taking nothing from their undeniable artistic achievement, what seems to be missing from most—not all, including notably “Brooklyn,” starring Oscar-nominated Best Actress Saoirse Ronan, and “Bridge of Spies”—is the je ne sais quoi that characterized films from Hollywood’s “Golden Age of Film.”
Far too many of this year’s competitors are “message films,” ignoring Sam Goldwyn’s maxim, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” Then, too, many are not the best vehicles for telling the truth about the nature of man (i.e., man and woman), which is what film, at its finest, does. Man strives for greatness, not degradation. When watching an unfolding story on the big screen, he wants to be entertained while having his nature affirmed.
Films that sent messages during the Golden Age rarely brought home Oscar—not even for Twentieth Century Fox founder Darryl Zanuck’s “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang,” (1932), a devastating indictment of the Southern penal system.
The winner in 1934, instead, was “Calvalcade” (1933), a human interest story that delighted. Directed by Frank Lloyd, it was based on Noel Coward’s play of English life from New Year’s Eve 1899 through New Year’s Day 1933, as seen through the eyes of two patrician Londoners watching history’s passing parade—including the Second Boer War, the death of Queen Victoria, the Titanic disaster, and World War I.
Take a Cue from Frank Capra
When Will Rogers announced the winner, in one of Oscar’s most memorable moments, he said, “C’mon get it, Frank!” and up popped Frank Capra out of his seat for his “Lady for a Day” (1933).
Capra was a year early. In 1935, he cleaned up for “It Happened One Night” (1934), a romantic comedy, starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, which won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Writing, Adaptation. Colbert, believing write-in nominee Bette Davis would win for “Of Human Bondage” (1934), was retrieved at the Pasadena train station just in time to receive her Oscar in person.
From then on, Capra pretty much ruled the ’30s, winning Best Picture Oscars for “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” (1936) and “You Can’t Take It With You” (1938). His cinematic storytelling prowess prompted John Cassavetes to comment, “Maybe there never was an America in the thirties. Maybe it was all Frank Capra.”
He was, of course, suggesting that America was not quite as good as Capra envisioned. Then, too, America is not as bad as Hollywood portrays it now. Message to Hollywood: To make art and money like you did in the Golden Age, show us not at our worst, but at our best.