Oscar finds its glow

The '90s saw <I>Variety</I> indulge in Award mania

So just how gaga did Daily Variety go over the Oscars in past decades?

Well , it was definitely a big deal, with plenty of stories detailing the fashions, the snubs, the quips, the gaffes and the awards themselves.

The look and depth of analysis, however, were nothing like what they became in the 1990s, when the paper introduced color, live shots, party spreads and comments from the red carpet.

As a glance at the covers from 1936 through 1976 suggests, the Oscars back then were not so all-consuming: There was room out front for plenty of other news, though most was amazingly minor. These days, the paper (as well as the global media) deconstructs the event every which way, and several Oscar-related sidebar reports are started on the front.

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Take the Oscar coverage of 1936. The front page was graphically bare except for the Oscar statuette; aside from the lead story, there were 11 disparate news items on page one, in addition to the lead Oscar story and the list of winners.

The ceremony itself was simply a sitdown dinner at the Biltmore hotel with balloting done backstage ahead of the envelope opening. As the March 6, 1936 headline — ” ‘Mutiny,’ Ford, Davis, McLaglen Nail Fame” — so literally proclaimed, Metro’s “Mutiny on the Bounty” took best picture, but John Ford’s “The Informer” swept the other top nods for RKO. (The competition among studios was as fierce back then as now and tallies were big news in the trades.)

Because it was before TV got its claws into the thing, informality reigned: Ford didn’t even show for his trophy; Academy prexy Frank Capra didn’t get up to start the envelope opening until “shortly before midnight,” per Daily Variety. D.W. Griffith gave out the three biggies, including one to Bette Davis, for “Dangerous.” She called out for her director Al Green to come up, but he wasn’t around, so she asked Jack Warner to take a bow instead.

The evening ended with dancing to the music of Victor Young.

Per the one-page photo gallery “When Fame Beckoned Her Film Faves” the women were conservatively attired and draped in furs, no skin in evidence. Daily Variety still referred to the femmes in the typical-of-the-age diminutives: “The little gal, who forgotten last year, came through and grabbed the award for best actress of the year …” — referring to the formidable Davis!

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In 1956, one might be forgiven for turning the page on the reportage (March 21, 1956), with a headline that intoned “All Oscar Favorites Win; Paramount shades UA, 20th” Story was accompanied by large but badly cropped photos of a stony-faced Anna Magnani (for “The Rose Tattoo”) and of a sad-sack Ernest Borgnine, complete with cigarette in mouth (for “Marty”).

But the insights in the various stories were livelier. It was the second straight year that a modestly budgeted movie — $943,000, per the paper — copped the top prize. “On the Waterfront” the year before had cost even less, $700,000. The paper didn’t say it straight out, but it did suggest the winner was (like most of the 2006 nominees) a small, thoughtful, almost anti-Hollywood pic.

The show was a milestone in terms of TV audience — at a time when the movie industry was still resisting the new technology.

Here’s how the paper put it: “Motion pictures and commercial television will never get closer to the altar than they were last night. More than 50 million witnessed the epochal event as the two art forms met on the church steps and recited their intentions of not going through with the ceremony.”

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The 1976 event went, well, cuckoo, giving out, as Daily Variety put it, “the five key awards” to a single movie, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” for the second time in 48 years.

The paper’s headlines could charitably be described as serviceable: “5 Oscars over ‘Cuckoo’s Nest.’ Front-page real estate was also devoted to a list of the winners. Photos consisted simply of a still from “Nest” and an old shot of winning director Milos Forman in a plaid shirt speaking on some forgotten panel.

The highlights in Daily‘s analysis were Jack Nicholson — for having broken a three-year losing jinx — and Louise Fletcher — for her emotional acceptance speech, ending as it did with her use of sign language in tributing her parents.

The review of the two-hour program was full of amusing incidentals, including Elizabeth Taylor, in acknowledgement of the bicentennial, leading the assemblage in “America the Beautiful.” “Happily cameras didn’t move in for c.u.’s as many participants groped for lyrics.”

As for the fashions, flowers were in and flooziness was out, said the paper. And this could be a cautionary note for any year: “The only true sartorial silliness was provided by a popular poet who wore tennis shoes with his tux, a bid for attention that might have drawn applause in other years of fashion put-down. But surrounded by other artists who took the trouble to dress, he just looked foolish.”