Will the new Governors Awards infuse Oscar night?
Awards season is upon us, and here’s the conundrum: There’s not much out there yet that’s screaming “Oscar!”This was brought home to me last weekend when I attended the Academy Awards. Well, not the real awards but rather a new black-tie event dubbed the Governors Awards. The Oscar folks were nervous about their new ceremony — they’re not big on innovation — but their show turned out to be a big hit. So much so that it raised an off-putting question: If the Governors Awards can be spirited and entertaining, why must Oscar night itself be such a stiff? The Nov. 14 event consisted of a cocktail party and dinner for about 550 Academy members and assorted celebrities, with honorary awards handed out to Lauren Bacall, John Calley, Roger Corman and Gordon Willis. The atmosphere was a throwback to the pre-TV Oscar bacchanalia of decades ago when the Academy was more of a hard-drinking, back-slapping club that gathered for purposes of self-congratulation. In recent years, however, as the Academy Awards have become a big-bucks TV special, a distinct chill has infiltrated every part of the process. The rules governing many of the awards are tortured, the show itself languid. At last week’s Governors ceremony, by contrast, the mood was downright ebullient and the audience relaxed. Interestingly, however, no one was talking about possible contenders for the upcoming awards. To be sure, the conversation of the evening didn’t lack for color. Bacall, upon being handed her statuette, blurted, “At last, a man in my life.” Kirk Douglas lamented he had once made a play for Bacall but lost out to Bogart. Ron Howard acknowledged that the biggest reward for making a successful film for Roger Corman (a producer famously cheap with his budgets) was that he’d never have to work for him again. Cinematographer Willis recalled his quarrels with Woody Allen, who argued nervously that his jokes wouldn’t play against Willis’s dark backgrounds (Willis went even darker on “The Godfather”). So here’s the irony: Left to their own devices, the Academy’s governors produced a show about movies and moviemakers who represented the opposite of the elitist fare honored at the Oscar show itself. Corman was the king of the B-pictures, Bacall was a pop icon, Calley ran two major studios and Willis shot hit movies. So while the Academy voters obsess over arthouse movies year after year, the governors themselves seem to yearn for the time when Hollywood related more felicitously to pop culture. Maybe that conflict is one explanation why there’s so little “heat” in the awards race thus far. There are 10 slots to fill for “best film,” not the customary five, yet the majors themselves are thus far spending about half as much on their campaigns as they did a year or two ago, as though they, too, are trying to figure out which way the wind is blowing. Or has it become more like a faint breeze?