Just a few hours until the Oscars begin and, as usual, this town is in major gridlock. I had to pass through Hollywood on my way to a restaurant on Friday night and what should have taken 15 minutes took me well over an hour. I think it would be easier to traverse central Baghdad today than to get anywhere near Hollywood Boulevard.
I’m starting to waffle on some of my predictions. Well, I’m pretty confident with the acting awards but a lot of people are saying that Martin Scorsese is finally going to get the Best Director Oscar for “The Departed.” I still haven’t seen this film and I hear it’s not his best but it would be hard to begrudge Scorsese any cinematic honor. I also predicted “Babel” would win for Best Picture but the buzz in the street says it’s a race between “Little Miss Sunshine” and “The Queen.” I think it’s a crapshoot but either one of those is worthy, as far as I’m concerned. As if it’s possible to proclaim any one film as the BEST of the year. Oy, don’t get me started.
Tonight is the 50th anniversary of one of the worst travesties in Oscar history, the year Michael Todd’s bloated “Around the World in 80 Days” beat out “Giant,” “Friendly Persuasion,” “The King and I,” and “The Ten Commandments” for the top prize. I would lay money on the fact that “80 Days” is the least known film of that bunch today, and deservedly so.
I took a quick dip into the trusty L.A. Times archives to see if all the Oscar hoopla we see today was present 50 years ago. In 1957, the Oscars were held at the Pantages Theatre, just down the street from the site of tonight’s festivities.
I was looking for articles leading up to the Oscar telecast and there weren’t half as many as we see today. An article about the retired sculptor who designed the Oscar emphasized his lack of interest in the movie business. “My wife Beatrice and I decided that the best use of our Oscar would be as a paperweight in our kitchen,” explains George Stanley. He then describes how he was appointed in 1928 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to design a trophy to be presented to each year’s outstanding movie performers. They used to be made of gild-plated solid bronze but by 1957 the statues were made of steel and then gold-plated. Hmm, and I always thought MGM art director Cedric Gibbons designed the award.
Actor Don Murray was a nominee at the 1957 Oscars for “Bus Stop,” playing opposite Marilyn Monroe, but was unable to attend because his wife Hope Lange, also in “Bus Stop,” was giving birth to their 8-pound son Christopher. Mom would be nominated for an Oscar the following year for “Peyton Place” and twenty years later, baby Christopher would make his acting debut in the Oscar-winning “All the President’s Men.” Christopher Murray is still acting—his last appearance was in this year’s “Smokin’ Aces.”
Also in the news during Oscar week 1957 was two-time winner Bette Davis. She was about to make her television debut playing a neurotic, would-be novelist in “With Malice Toward One.” Smarting from her lack of film roles, she avoids mention of the Oscar ceremony. Now that she has finally agreed to appear on television, she talks about it as if it were a brand new invention that nobody has heard of. “I had to find out what this new thing was,” she tells interviewer Cecil Smith. “And now that I’m in it, I love it. Simply love it! They’re making films the way we used to make them. Shoot and be done with it. Movies have become so enormously wasteful. The technicians took over. Now television’s giving acting back to the actors again.” At the end of the interview, Davis suddenly cries, “Tell me this is it, isn’t it? This television? They’re not going to invent something else for actors to do, are they? We’ve had it, haven’t we?” And she throws back her blond, pig-tailed head and laughs.
Few were surprised when Yul Brynner and Ingrid Bergman took the top acting honors for “The King and I” and “Anastasia.” It was the final vindication for Bergman who had been reviled by many following her adulterous affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini. When she became pregnant out of wedlock in 1950, she was denounced on the floor of the U.S. Senate by Edwin C. Johnson from Colorada (a Democrat) who referred to her as “a horrible example of womanhood and a powerful influence for evil.” Good Lord. A floor vote resulted in Bergman being deemed persona non grata in the United States and she was forced into exile in Italy, leaving her young daughter behind. Cary Grant accepted the award for his friend in 1957 but when Bergman appeared at the 1958 Academy Awards to present the Oscar for best picture she was greeted with a standing ovation.
Jerry Lewis was the host of the 1957 Oscars which also included live segments from New York with Celeste Holm presiding. The wacky Lewis was fairly restrained during the telecast and there were few surprises. As reported in the Times, “The Oscar derby, so famous through the years, was unfortunately lackluster in genuine causes for audience excitement over the unexpected, but this did not interfere with the general air of jubilation that prevailed. Crowds on the street got out of hand more than usual during the arrival of the stars, and even more emphatically while they were leaving the theater. There were more controls than customary exerted within the theatre, but the end results were less effective than in the past.”
This article by columnist Jack Geyer appeared the morning after the telecast and it still rings true:
Some people make their living writing acceptance speeches for Oscar winners. A typical script goes something like this:
(Once on stage, acknowledge applause with demure look and dab occasionally at eyes with handkerchief. Be certain to kiss person who gives you Oscar, then turn and look at Oscar with downcast eyes until applause dies. Dab eyes with handkerchief again, then say, haltingly—)
“I (pause) I (pause) I just don’t know what to say. I didn’t dream (pause) I had no idea (pause, then in a rush) It’s just too, too wonderful. I’d like to thank all the wonderful people who made this possible—the chairman of the board, Mr. Sam Profit; the president of the studio, Mr. Bill Profit; the vice-president, Mr. Bill Profit Jr.; the producer, Mr. Bill Profit III; the director, Charley Profit; the writers, Tom and Jerry Profit; my mother-in-law, Mrs. Sam Profit; and all the wonderful Profits, I mean, people, who helped make my dream come true.”
(Grasp Oscar firmly to breast with both hands, kiss master-of-ceremonies fleetingly, then skitter off-stage, making certain your best profile is to audience.)
Then Geyer goes on to speculate what an actress would say if she were to really speak her mind:
“Well, it’s about time. After that performance of mine, who else? Actually I should have a small army of these things, if those who vote had any true appreciation of the acting art. I want to thank the producer for keeping out of the way and the director for keeping his mouth shut for a change. And I hope this award is a lesson to my leading man who should know better than to try any of his cheap, scene-stealing stunts on me. I see no reason why I should thank all of you for this award. I earned it. If anything you should thank me for the performance. Bernhardt couldn’t have done it as well.”
Tomorrow we’ll see full-page ads for the movies that win big tonight. In some cases, an Oscar win will mean new showings of films that were left for dead. The day after the 1957 Oscars, “Anastasia” burst back onto screens. Because “King and I” winner Yul Brynner also starred in “Anastasia,” the studio showed unbelievable chutzpah by “borrowing” Brynner’s Oscar to promote their own film. Ads for Bergman’s new film, Jean Renoir’s “Elena et les Hommes” (given the dumb American title “Paris Does Strange Things”), touted Bergman as “the most female of all women!” Not bad for a 42-year-old dame in Hollywood who the U.S. government had recently declared to be a vile example of womanhood! Apparently all sins and digressions are forgotten in the glint of Oscar gold.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the 1957 Oscars was the winner of the award for Best Story. A writer named Robert Rich won this award for the movie “The Brave One.” When he didn’t appear at the Pantages to get his Oscar, Writers Guild vice-president Jesse Lasky Jr. accepted it. He told the crowd that his “good friend” Robert Rich was attending the birth of his first child. But no one had ever heard of this guy. The press grabbed on to the story and this article appeared in the Times. “A bearded writer-photographer presumably was wandering around Spain yesterday unaware that he has won an Oscar,” the article began. Producer Frank King lied through his teeth when he talked about meeting the writer and that he was going to fly him back to the States to collect his Oscar. The Writers Guild was forced to admit that it had no Robert Rich in their records and the Academy retrieved the statue and held it until 1976 when it was presented to its rightful owner: blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo who had been using the name Robert Rich as a front.
No official blacklist in effect tonight, but we should see plenty of politics including Al Gore’s moment in the sun. And at least Helen Mirren is a worthy 50-year follow-up to Ingrid Bergman. Bergman won the Oscar in 1957 for playing a woman who believed she was the Grand Duchess Anastasia, daughter of the Czar of Russia. Helen Mirren’s real name is Ilyena Vasilievna Mironov. Her grandfather knew Anastasia. He worked for Czar Nicholas and was in London negotiating an arms deal when the Russian Revolution broke out. He was unable to return and his wife and son (Mirren’s father) later joined him there. Mirren will win the Oscar tonight for playing Queen Elizabeth II, a close relative of Anastasia who was the great-granddaughter of Britain's Queen Victoria.