The Politicized Oscar
I HAVE a friend, a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who maintains that attending the annual Academy Awards ceremony is a humilia- tion. I had attended it exactly once, and think he has a point.
Dressed in evening clothes, you ar- rive in the middle of the afternoon in the blinding California sunshine at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles’s new civic center.
By the entrance are temporary bleachers filled mainly with teen- agers dressed as if for a day at the beach, bused in, perhaps, from the San Fernando Valley. This is the claque for the famous. You ap- proach the entranceway on a series of carefully laid out red carpets which lead, ineluctably, to the Fork of Destiny. There stands a man, also in evening clothes, a kind of secular Saint Peter, who reads your invitation to determine whether you are a Celebrity or an Ordinary Person. Being, alas, an Ordinary Person, I was directed to a red car- pet that led quite rapidly to the pavilion entrance. But I lingered to watch the treatment accorded to the great.
Celebrities are led down a quite different red carpet where they are paraded in front of the thirteen- year-old cheering section by a man with the manner of a sideshow barker: “Hey, you remember Jon Halll When he wrestled with sharks and Dorothy Lamour a few years back in Hurricane? Let’s give him a big handl How ya feelin’, Jon? Looking forward to the Awards? Who do you think’s gonna win?” Having observed and participated in the rituals of both the enter- tainment world and the prize ring (“In this corner, wearing white trunks, at 146 pounds, from San Jose, California . . .”), I would have to say that those of the prize ring have incomparably more dignity.
There is a sense of grim endeavor about boxing which has never lost its seriousness, at least for me. It is a quality far from lacking in the entertainment world, but it is totally absent from the Academy Awards.
The Paul Newmans and the Meryl Streeps are given somewhat more deferential treatment by the barker as they are led up the carpet of the great before the cheering bleachers. But, even with the local television crews grinding away, it does not look like an experience one would enjoy. In fact, as I was told, and observed myself, the great luminaries of Hollywood would not dream of subjecting themselves to this embarrassing exhibition unless they or a film they were connected with had been nominated for a major award. Otherwise, they sim- ply stay home in comfort in Bel Air, Brentwood, or Beverly Hills (sometimes gathered in viewing parties) and watch the awards on television like everyone else. So un- less a Hollywood celebrity is ac- tually involved with a nominated film, or unless of course he is a “presenter,” he is rarely to be seen at the Academy Awards. As for the nominees themselves, the Holly- wood joke is that if you win, friends crowd around you; the night is a whirl of lights, flowers, show-business kisses; limousines await. If you lose, you stand alone in the lobby and can’t even find a taxi to get home. And, indeed, the 68 one time I attended, I saw a world- famous actress, who had lost, stand- ing totally abandoned after the ceremony. Whether she ever found a taxi I will never know.
Inside, on the night of the awards, the Dorothy Chandler Pa- vilion is turned into a vast tele- vision sound stage, with camera cranes rearing and swiveling and blocking the view, and even if you are sitting in the first row of the balcony-ordinarily choice seats- you find that you are watching the show on a nearby TV monitor and wishing you were home. The show that you see on the monitor is the same one everyone else out- side is seeing, and has by now been mocked by television critics the world over: a large number of adult, famous people fawning over one another, telling one another what a wonderful business they are in, making embarrassing little asides to show they are relaxed and then returning again to the orgy of mutual congratulation, thanking their producers for having faith in them, their studio, their directors, their co-stars, their parents for early encouragement, their wives. Most of the speeches this year seemed to thank Sir Richard Attenborough for having discovered India, or for having allowed the speaker to win the prize for the best-folded loin cloth. Attenborough thanked the Indians for having given the world Gandhi. The Indians thanked At- tenborough for having given the world India. All eight prize win- ners connected with Gandhi (with the dignified exception of Ben Kingsley, the actor) seemed to be congratulating the Academy as a whole for its loftiness of vision and concern for the future of mankind in having given them all these awards. Audiences, I have always suspected, watch these really quite repellent spectacles in order to catch some famous person they know from films in a moment of true emotion, stunned, tremulous, speechless, perhaps even in tears.
But this time there was only self- less virtue. For the triumph of RICHARD GRENIER is COMMENTARY’S reg- ular movie critic and the author of a new novel, The Marrakesh One-Two (Houghton Mifflin). An expanded ver- sion of his article on Gandhi in our March issue has just been published as a paperback original, The Gandhi Nobody Knows (Thomas Nelson).MOVIES/69 Gandhi was not a triumph for Sir Richard Attenborough, you see, but a triumph for peace, mankind, and the survival of the planet. Sir Richard said so himself.
The truth of the matter is that the Academy Awards have always been exquisitely vulgar and senti- mental. There is nothing new about that. Ingrid Bergman, it was generally agreed, was voted an Academy Award in the 50’s to make amends for the vilification that the American press had heaped on her a few years earlier when she abandoned her husband and ran off to Italy to live “in sin” with Roberto Rossellini, the film direc- tor. (Times have changed.) Eliza- beth Taylor, as she laughingly re- counts herself, won an award in 1961 “for not having died” the year before when she underwent .a seri- ous operation. Until very recently, no one stood a chance for an award unless the movie involved had been a big commercial success. So the Academy Awards have always been vulgar, sentimental-and above all commercial. But it was this com- mercialism, after all, which kept the movies (or at least the Academy Awards) anchored firmly in the popular culture and in national attitudes.
I HAVE been arguing for some years that, with the real mass mar- ket lost to television, the movies have been edging steadily into the class of an elite art, becoming the “art of preference” for many stu- dents at the nation’s universities, for instance. Whenever I am with even novelists and literary editors these days, they always seem to be talking about movies. And now the vulgar old Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has be- gun to take on airs. Those who remember the debate of some years ago about the National Book Award (elite) as opposed to the Pulitzer Prize (where a novelist or playwright had about as much chance of winning without a solid commercial success as a candidate for an Academy Award), and who have followed the progress of the Pulitzers (the fiction and drama prizes this year going to The Color Purple and to ‘Night, Mother), might be entertained to learn that Hollywood, too, has begun to move in the same direction. For several years now members of the Academy have exhibited an entirely new scorn for “bourgeois” taste by oc- casionally nominating for awards films or actors which have been re- sounding failures at the nation’s box offices. After all, the Academy’s members are growing younger. And some “children of the 60’s” are now Hollywood producers. I must stress that the Academy of Motion Pic- ture Arts and Sciences has a long way to go before it starts behaving like the PEN Club, but the process seems to have begun.
And a giant step was taken at the latest Academy Awards. An unwrit- ten law of these ceremonies-gen- erally even more effective than the rule that only commercially success- ful films should be granted prizes- is that the ceremonies should not be used as a political platform. There have been some exceptions to this, varying from the eccentric to the blatant. In 1973 Marlon Brando sent an American Indian woman, in full regalia, to accept his award, but although this same woman was normally to be seen about Holly- wood dressed more like the White Woman Who Speaks With Forked Tongue, the costumed emissary was taken as a statement on Brando’s behalf in favor of “Native Ameri- cans.” In 1977 Lillian Hellman appeared at the ceremonies as the “presenter” of a documentary award and was warmly received-but while many saw this as the return in vic- tory of old-time Hollywood Stalin- ism, it was probably as a nonsec- tarian martyr to McCarthyism that Miss Hellman was being honored.
For a real triumph of present-day political obfuscation is the preva- lance of the view among the semi- educated that liberals, left-liberals, Socialists, Trotskyists, Communists, or whatever, were all brothers in arms, fighting the true Beelzebub of the early 50’s, Joseph McCarthy.
Vanessa Redgrave, the following year, in a state of true hysteria, ranted against “Zionist thugs” in her acceptance speech and hailed her own award as a “final victory,” presumably for the PLO cause. But the late Paddy Chayefsky stepped forward promptly, both contesting her remarks and reminding her that, in the course of history, an actress winning a prize was not an event of world importance.
Perhaps the most repugnant of these eruptions, however, was when Jane Fonda, in a period when she was still proclaiming, “If you only understood Communism you’d be down on your knees begging for itl” and when she went to Hanoi and giddily sat in the gunner’s seat of an anti-aircraft battery normally occupied in shooting down her compatriots in the United States Air Force, accepted her Academy Award dressed in the black pajamas of the Vietcong.
All these events, however, were to an extent aberrations. For even in 1979 when Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter won the award for best picture, and Jane Fonda the award for best actress in Com- ing Home (as good an example of a divided nation as you are likely to find), both acceptance speeches were apolitical.
BUT the latest, 1983 awards have perhaps brought us into a new era, in which the awards ceremony itself might be as ideologically oriented as many of the films. The viewers of this televised monstrosity are sure- ly aware that the movements of the dancers and singers have been care- fully choreographed and rehearsed, and it should come as no great sur- prise that the words of the cele- brated “presenters” who come for- ward to announce the winner of each award-after first summariz- ing the substance of the movies of each of the competitors-have all been written for them. The show was not shy, moreover, about who did the writing. The credits proud- ly listed the show’s “writer”: some- one named Hal Kanter. Now the violently anti-American film Miss- ing, which was a sobering commer- cial “disappointment” in this coun- try (although it did much better in anti-American countries abroad), received no fewer than four major award nominations: best leading actor (Jack Lemmon), best leading actress (Sissy Spacek), best screen- play based on material from an- other medium (Costa-Gavras and Donald Stewart), and best film. So when John Travolta, the actor, an- nouncing one of the nominees, de-70/COMMENTARY JUNE 1983 dared that Missing was the story of a man struggling against an “evil system,” I am not even certain he was aware that the key part of the “evil system” according to Missing was the government of Travolta’s own country, the United States.
Carol Burnett, the actress, reading lines for another Missing nominee, spoke piously of a “search for truth and freedom in a land where they no longer exist.” But these lines, presumably also written by Mr.
Kanter, totally endorse the thesis of Missing, directed and co-scripted by Costa-Gavras, a citizen of France- where, since there is no penalty for such beliefs, he has never hidden his Communist sympathies. Costa- Gavras, when confronted concern- ing the evidence for his allegedly “true” story, reluctantly admitted that he had no conclusive proof and that he was basically proceed- ing on instinct. Why the writer of the Academy Awards ceremony should hew to the- instincts of a career-long Communist sympathizer regarding events that happened in Chile in 1973 is an interesting ques- tion.
The central thesis of Missing is that the U.S. government ordered or at least condoned the murder of a young American named Charles Horman because he had twigged to the fact that the CIA had been be- hind the Pinochet coup.* Whether the CIA had anything to do with the plot or not, the notion that the United States would favor murder- ing one of its young citizens who persuaded himself he had evidence of U.S. involvement in the coup is a simple absurdity, since there were a thousand young American radi- cals in Santiago at the time who were as strongly persuaded as Hor- man, and, plainly, they were not all murdered. In fact, I had dinner with one of them the other night.
When the co-author of Missing stepped forward to receive his stat- uette (the film won for best adapted screenplay), he took it in honor of Charles Horman, saint and martyr.
Since the Horman family’s lawsuit in behalf of the late Charles Hor- man has been dismissed in federal court, one might consider this ac- ceptance speech both partisan and political. But at the Academy Awards ceremonies, suddenly, any- thing goes. At least anything anti- American goes.
FOR the ceremonies’ official en- dorsement of Missing’s anti-U.S.
thesis was a mere preface to even more strident manifestations of anti-Americanism during the eve- ning. The award for the year’s best short documentary was given to If You Love This Planet, a Canadian production based on the standard speech of Dr. Helen Caldicott, the well-known nuclear disarmer, and the statuette was accepted by Terri Nash, a director-producer of the film and a Canadian citizen. Now when foreign film-makers–even such anti-American personages as Volker Schloendorff of West Ger- many-have won Academy Awards in the past, they have, absolutely without exception, confined their acceptance speeches to expressing their heartfelt gratitude for the hon- or accorded their country by such an august distinction. Miss Nash, on the other hand, like Schloen- dorff the citizen of a foreign coun- try, felt it appropriate to sneer at the Justice Department of the United States. Since If You Love This Planet was produced by the National Film Board of Canada, and perhaps also because the film is an unrestrained attack on the Rea- gan administration’s arms policy, the Justice Department has re- quired it to carry a label identify- ing it as foreign propaganda. Miss Nash found this the occasion for sardonic raillery. “You really know how to show a foreign agent a good time” she jeered. To be per- fectly accurate, this taunting was not greeted by a great outburst of applause. It was applauded moder- ately, normally. But there was not a whisper of protest, and I can only conclude that it has suddenly be- come acceptable for foreigners to jeer at the U.S. Justice Department during the Academy Awards.
For those unacquainted with Dr.
Caldicott’s good works, and who are thinking that, after all, roughly half the voters of California had re- cently expressed themselves in favor of a verifiable nuclear freeze, I should point out that Dr. Caldicott is not for a verifiable nuclear freeze at all. She is for an unverifiable nu- clear freeze. And, pressed in debate, she goes even further. She is a uni- lateral disarmer. Under pressure she becomes quite shrill and begins preaching the Sermon on the Mount as the basis of foreign policy. I have heard her declare many times, in so many words: We must learn to love the Russians! When questioned, not even about nuclear matters, but about Afghan- istan, Poland, Southeast Asia, South Yemen, she continues to exhort us to love the Russians. To which I have also heard her add, on several occasions, her assurance as a doctor that it is medically contra-indicated to do anything that might alarm those poor, fearful, old men in the Kremlin. Since there is hardly any- thing we could do in the area of national defense that could not be interpreted by this eminent doctor (she is a pediatrician) as possibly alarming those poor, fearful, old men in the Kremlin, I think it fair to conclude that Dr. Caldicott’s position could only result in a pre- emptive capitulation to the Soviet Union. Such is the heroine of the movie which the Academy of Mo- tion Picture Arts and Sciences has chosen to honor as the best short documentary of the year.
ANOTHER area where the secret steering committees which choose the nominees for certain awards had a field day this year was in the best foreign-language films. One of the five nominees was the first feature-length movie ever made in Nicaragua. Its politics is about what you might expect, having, even, according to the New York Times, a “strong pro-revolutionary bias.” Another foreign-language nominee (of which more later) was a Soviet film proudly an- nouncing the rehabilitation of Joseph Stalin. Both of these selec- tions might have been a bit too strong for the stomachs of even those 500 Academy members who qualify to vote for the best foreign- language film, and the award went instead to Volver a Empezar (“To Begin Again”), a quite remarkably fatuous Spanish film whose anti- American touches are of an almost * For a fuller discussion of Costa-Gavras and of Missing, see my article, “The Curious Career of Costa-Gavras,” COM- MENTARY, April 1982.MOVIES/71 refined delicacy. I will only say that it is about a Spanish Nobel- Prize winner who during his forty years of exile from Spain has found a new spiritual home at the Uni- versity of California at Berkeley.
Another, highly obnoxious, Spani- ard in the film is pro-American in a distressing, uncouth way. We meet, or hear of, refugees from the present regimes in Chile and Ar- gentina (who might be responsible for their exiles?, one wonders). And when our Spanish Nobel-Prize win- ner finally returns to Berkeley (where he lives in the most absurd luxury), we hear on the sound track a black voice singing that his “sin” is the “color of his skin.” So the young Spanish film-makers who made Volver a Empezar are clearly very knowledgeable about our American culture.
BUT even the main prizes at the latest Academy Awards represented a major swing compared with those given over the last few years. Hardly anyone now denies that the cinema in America is a highly ideologized medium. But it has now come to the point where, given the lead time necessary to get a film into the movie houses, the mood of a certain segment of the population can be read as clearly in some of the country’s movies as in a public- opinion poll.
The neonationalist wave that swept the country following the Teheran hostage crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and even revisionism on Vietnam, gave us The Deer Hunter, Clint Eastwood’s Firefox, and more recently Sylvester Stallone’s First Blood and An Offi- cer and a Gentleman. All those films are not only patriotic but ardently pro-military. I was in Hollywood during this period and cannot count the number of top-rank screenwriters who received calls from studio story-department chiefs beseeching them to think of a story for a patriotic movie. At last year’s Academy Awards, Warren Beatty’s Reds-which calls upon us to ad- mire John Reed for his illusions about the future of a Communist society and which was favored by many to sweep the top prizes-was almost shut out, bested by a Cinder- ella movie which came out of no- where, Chariots of Fire, in which two Englishmen (a Christian mis- sionary and a Jew), clearly repre- sentatives of the Western world, race in the Olympics, not for equal- ity, not for economic redistribu- tion, not for a utopian reorganiza- tion of the state, but for one grim thing, both for themselves and the society they stand for: victory.
What’s more, they win.
From 1982 on, however, the “peace” movement in the West has made great strides, and its progress is vividly reflected in this year’s state of the Academy Awards. The big winner, of course, was Gandhi. To date only a mediocre commercial success, it was nonetheless granted eight awards, including: best film, best director (Sir Richard Atten- borough), best leading actor (Ben Kingsley), and best original screen- play (John Briley). I have already written at great length about Gandhi, which I consider a pure pacifist film and a pious fraud from one end to the other-Gandhi, among other details, never having been a ‘pacifist. I was concerned, in writing my article, that lovers of the film would say that it did not, after all, pretend to be historically accurate, but Attenborough gave the game away completely in his acceptance speech at the Academy Awards by proclaiming that the person who was really being hon- ored by all these prizes was “Ma- hatma Gandhi himself”-which necessarily implies (since Holly- wood is not a center of independ- ent Gandhi scholarship) that all these Academy members who voted for his film had been given, by Attenborough’s movie, an essential- ly true picture of Gandhi Within weeks of the awards, the triumph was to blow up in Atten- borough’s face, with historians from London to Delhi to Capetown beating him about the head and shoulders for the film’s gross falsifi- cations, with boycotts in India, demonstrations in South Africa, the London Sunday Times going so far as to run a huge feature article with a banner headline: GANDHI: HOW THE TRIUMPH TURNED SOUR. In America as well there has been an explosion of hostile criticism in major newspapers across the coun- try. In any event, I am prepared to accept Attenborough’s assessment that the prizes his film won were voted in honor of Gandhi himself (as presented in his movie). Even a close competitor, Sidney Pollack, director of the vastly successful Tootsie, granted that the prizes awarded Attenborough’s film were a “vote of confidence in the philos- ophy of Gandhi” (as shown, again, obviously, in the movie).
THE rest of the major awards voted by the Academy this year were somewhat more ambiguous-as much in the film industry often is.
When a movie is a hit, it is rarely 100-percent clear whether it was the star who brought in the crowds, or the director, or the story, or the critics, or an excellent advertising campaign, or a first-rate distribu- tion network, or what. So I can only offer my own interpretations.
Jessica Lange, who won the award for best supporting actress for her role in Tootsie, is a particu- larly shadowy case. First of all, if Jessica Lange is a supporting ac- tress in Tootsie, who is the leading actress? Hollywood has been criti- cized before for this kind of flim- flammery-nominating a leading ac- tor as a supporting player to in- crease his chances of winning-but it is still at it. Tootsie, it must be said, is a highly successful trans- vestite comedy in direct lineal de- scent from the ancient Charley’s Aunt. To be up to the minute, however, it is loaded to the gun- wales with feminist propaganda, most embarrassingly when Dustin Hoffman-an unemployed actor who to secure employment has played half the film in drag-de- clares in the final scene, brimming with emotion, that having been “a woman” he can now love Jessica Lange better as “a man.” In inter- views, Hoffman has said that when he first saw pictures of himself as “Dorothy,” and realized that he did not want to go to bed with himself, he understood “at last” the humili- ation of being a woman. He did not make clear why this was any worse than the humiliation of be- ing a man that women do not want to go to bed with. (In all, a record- breaking four performers received nominations for transvestite/trans- sexual/homosexual performances72/COMMENTARY JUNE 1983 this year: Hoffman for Tootsie, Julie Andrews for Victor/Victoria, Rob- ert Preston for Victorl Victoria, and John Lithgow for The World Ac- cording to Garp.) The injustice of giving the best-supporting-actress award to Jessica Lange, in my judg- ment, was that Teri Garr, who played the true “supporting actress” in the same Tootsie, and was also nominated, turned in a far better, sharper, and funnier performance. I should make clear that I do not for one second believe that the great commercial success of Tootsie was due in any way to the Gloria- Steinem-type feminism ladled into it so dutifully, but I think the ex- plicit feminism probably played a part in winning the film its numer- ous nominations.
BUT Jessica Lange had another factor operating very powerfully in her favor. In the first such simul- taneous nomination in almost forty years, she had also been nominated for the best leading actress in a completely different film: Frances, the heavily fictionalized story of a late-30’s movie star named Frances Farmer. In this role, I confess, I found Miss Lange excellent. The film, however, still another egre- gious distortion of history, is quite another matter. Now I have read both the biography and the auto- biography of Frances Farmer, who made only two major Hollywood pictures in her entire career, and it is clear to me beyond any reason- able doubt that she was a Commu- nist, a lesbian, and a psychopath.
In the film the lesbianism, of course, is totally effaced. The question of Communism is barely even hinted at (she has a love affair with Clifford Odets, who has a bust of Lenin on his mantle), only to be denied. And her plainly psychopathic behavior is presented as evidence of a free, independent, spunky spirit. The movie version of the story is so lad- en with fiction that a “true love” (Sam Shepherd) is invented for Miss Farmer, and he loves her with a true, understanding, selfless love all through her trials and vicissitudes and, above all, through the horror forced on her by our repressive society.
It should be recalled that pre- frontal lobotomies were very much in fashion at the time of Frances Farmer’s crack-up, and were per- formed by many of the country’s most respected brain surgeons. One was performed on Miss Farmer.
Afterward the Frances Farmer of the movie is shown as some kind of zombie (while the real-life Frances Farmer became a successful television talk-show host in Cincin- nati). Is it outlandish to speculate that the film was deliberately con- cocted to serve as an “answer” to the stories of how the Soviet Union treats its dissenters in psychiatric hospitals? Frances, although it was a thumping failure at U.S. box of- fices, plainly spoke to the hearts of a great number of people in Holly- wood.
But my interpretation of the film could not be better put than by a man in his thirties, casually dressed, in a mixed group of four, who con- fidently explained to his compan- ions as we all left a special “quali- fication” screening of Frances last winter on Manhattan’s East Side: “Oh, no. There’s going to be noth- ing as vulgar as gas chambers this time! The least little bit of inde- pendent thinking and they’ll just call it ‘anti-social behavior’ and we’ll all be lobotomized!” One would think that with such a dark view of the imminent future, the four would have emerged from the theater gloomy and depressed, ex- pecting the streets to be filled with brown shirts already perhaps, but they were jolly, garrulous. I fol- lowed them. On a side street, they climbed into an old car and drove off in a surprising state of good humor, considering that the lobo- tomist, for all they knew, might al- ready be on his way. But I suspect that many Hollywood lovers of Frances, knowing that Jessica Lange stood no chance for the leading- lady prize against Meryl Streep, voted for her in Tootsie for her showing in Frances as well.
MERYL STREEP’S award for best lead- ing actress for her performance in Sophie’s Choice was more straight- forward in that I think it was voted purely on. the basis of her acting.
Furthermore, in my view, in com- parison with her four competitors, she was by a large margin the best and consequently “deserved” her award. Sophie’s Choice, nonethe- less, once again, is based on a gross falsification of history, and a falsifi- cation that might just possibly have sinister ramifications. Drawn from an astoundingly mediocre novel by William Styron, Sophie’s Choice brings the novel’s falseness and mediocrity to the screen with exem- plary faithfulness. The “front story,” as they say in Hollywood, takes place in Brooklyn in the period immediately following World War II among a Gentile survivor of the Holocaust (Meryl Streep), an insane American Jew (Kevin Kline), and a Southern ob- server-writer-narrator (Peter Mac- Nicol) whom one could easily con- fuse with William Styron. The Southerner finds such things as Jews and Holocausts tinglingly exotic and perhaps, who knows, commercially marketable for an ambitious young writer.
BUT it is the “back story,” tedi- ously revealed to the spectator mechanical step by mechanical step, that really counts. Now I believe it is a matter of historical record that many hundreds of thousands of Gentile Poles died in Nazi camps: of malnutrition, exposure, disease, overwork, beatings, even torture. They were considered by the Nazis to be inferior, and they were treated the way the Nazis treated inferior races. But they were not destined, like the Jews, for extermination. While two million Jews were gassed at Auschwitz, as well as several thousand Gypsies and large numbers of Russian POW’s, to my knowledge Gentile Poles were not as a matter of policy sent to the gas chambers.
To suggest that small Gentile (not even Gypsy) Polish children stood in lines at Auschwitz wait- ing to be gassed is an absurdity.
Yet such a scene is the center of Styron’s novel, and it is the center of the movie. Sophie’s traumatic “choice,” you see, is when she is forced by a sadistic Nazi officer to select which of her two beautiful young children will live and which will go into the gas chamber.
This atrocious distortion of his- tory is not without its consequences.
In the view of many scholars, thereMOVIES/73 is nothing that so discredited the Nazi regime as its rabid belief that the Jews must be exterminated, that Europe must be Judenrein (“Jew-free”). The very idea seems demented, an offense to the ration- al mind. If we slur over the differ- ence between Jew, Gentile, Rus- sian, Pole, Communist, Catholic among the Nazis’ victims, we are banalizing Hitler, making him much more like the other great conquerors of history-all of whose soldiers killed, raped, looted, mas- sacred combatants and noncom- batants alike. And if, perchance, some Central American soldiers armed with U.S. weapons should kill some hundreds, or thousands, or tens of thousands of other Cen- tral Americans, then we too-Amer- icans-are almost as bad as the Nazis. If the reader cares to ex- amine the petitions that William Styron has been signing lately con- cerning Central America, and much else in the world, he will see that his thinking has been drifting de- cidedly in this direction.
Meryl Streep, in the press room at the Academy Awards after she had received her prize in front of the audience, was asked if her role had given her a deeper understand- ing of Jewish suffering in the Holo- caust, to which she answered firm- ly, “No.” She had played a Gentile woman who suffered in the Holo- caust, she said. Her remark was broadcast coast to coast the next morning over the country’s televi- sion networks. And if Meryl Streep told the American people from the Academy Awards press room itself that the Holocaust had been di- rected at Gentiles as well as at Jews, what greater authority could there be? THE “spin” given An Officer and a Gentleman at the awards was also highly peculiar. An Officer and a Gentleman was one of the giant moneymakers of the year. Its gross film rentals were over five times those of Victor/Victoria, for exam- ple, and if the films were budgeted at the same figure, the profits of the military movie could easily have run to 25 times the transvestite one.
So the patriotic, pro-military film is still in style, at least as far as moviegoers are concerned. Half of An Officer and a Gentleman is antique soap opera-which prob- ably contributed a great deal to its popularity. But the other half shows the training of a U.S. naval air cadet with what for most young Americans must seem blood-chilling harshness. There are countless mo- ments when the black Marine drill instructor (Louis Gossett, Jr.), be- rating a platoon of cadets standing at rigid attention, snarls: “You’ve been out bad-mouthing your coun- try, but that’s all over now. You’re going to learn to love the flag!” Or, to an individual cadet: “You look like the kind of pussy who’d fly an American plane to Cuba!” The an- swer (the cadet rigid): “No! Sir! Never! Sir!” Or, to another cadet: “And you look like the kind of pussy who wouldn’t drop napalm because there might be women and babies down there!” The answer: “No! Sir! I will napalm women and babies! Sir!” And platoons of cadets are seen jogging about, in formation and in cadence, chanting about how they’re going to napalm women and babies. Another friend of mine, who remembers well the carnage of World War II and the way combat soldiers were trained for that war-and with universal public approval-mused, “My God.
It’s the old ‘Kill! Kill! Kill! I nev- er thought I’d hear it again.” Now these lines from An Officer and a Gentleman did not offend movie audiences one little bit, but, when I repeat them, I find that they are almost unfailingly shock- ing to refined members of the coun- try’s educated classes who, after more than thirty years of peace in- terrupted only by Vietnam, seem to think that our armed forces should be operated something like a uni- versity faculty. When I point out to these people that the duty of men who bear arms for their coun- try is, in the hallowed words, to “close with the enemy and destroy him,” which in plain language means killing, I am given to under- stand that this is an extremely ugly principle indeed, and that the country might be better off if we had no young people devoting themselves to such an inhumane profession.
Writer Kanter’s way of dealing with An Officer and a Gentleman’s fervidly pro-military spirit was to finesse it completely in the awards ceremony, referring to the film in his written commentaries only as an “old-fashioned love story.” Louis Gossett, Jr., who won the award for best supporting actor for his superb performance as the Marine drill in- structor, perhaps won-it is an em- barrassing possibility-because he was black. Certainly every single question asked him by the show- business press was about how long it had been since a black actor had won an Academy Award, how few opportunities there were for black actors, for black actresses, etc., etc.
Not a single reporter asked him his feelings about playing a patriotic, combat-ready, Marine sergeant, which-since this line of question- ing is otherwise invariably followed -I consider an offense to both the Marine Corps and to black Marines.
As it happens, about 20 percent of the Marine Corps is now black, and black Marines are among the most patriotic Americans I have ever met. They achieved their position in the Marine Corps without the benefit of any affirmative-action program, and the senior black gen- eral in the Marine Corps said re- cently, smiling, “We don’t hire the handicapped. We’re a fighting out- fit. We’re the world’s best fighting organization, and if we go to war, I want to go to war in the U.S.
Marine Corps.” This is a familiar kind of talk in military circles, and similar sentiments, uttered about Navy pilots, are all over An Of- ficer and a Gentleman. But they are banned from the Academy Awards.
IT is not widely realized that the nominations and winners in the best documentary and best foreign- film categories-this year among the most outrageous selections-are not arrived at by the same process as in the Academy Awards’ other departments, but in a far more secretive manner. The system is in need of reform, but I am assured by members of the Academy that reform will not come about unless the situation is first exposed in the public prints.
All the Academy Awards are de- termined in a two-round election.
In the first round, for the selection of the best director, let us say, only directors vote, the top five names thereafter qualifying for the final round, in which all members of the Academy participate. But the proc- ess for best foreign-language film and best documentary is entirely different. Documentary film-makers are not considered important enough to have a department of their own-and who is to vote in the first round for foreign-language films? Foreigners? The heads of France’s Centre National du Cine- ma? The USSR’s Mosfilm? So it was decided, perhaps in perfect inno- cence, that the first round of the election in these categories-the selection of the five “nominees”- should each be handled by a spe- cial, secret committee.
I have asked Academy author- ities for the names of the members of these committees. My request was refused (to protect them from corruption). I have asked for their number, and have been refused.
And I have tried to ascertain at least who appoints them, and have been refused a third time. It is to such a secret committee that we owe the nomination as best foreign- language movie of a straight San- dinista propaganda film, Alsino and the Condor, made in Nicara- gua, about the making and “polit- ical commitment” of a Sandinista rebel. I need not explain the op- portunity that such a secret com- mittee offers for political manipula- tion.
BUT even the final round of vot- ing for best foreign-language film and the best documentaries (both short and feature-length) does not take place in the manner of the Academy’s other branches. An odd- ity of even the original submissions for the foreign-language category, for example, is that they are made by national officials from all over the world and the films have rarely even had commercial openings in the United States. It would be un- reasonable, therefore, to expect Academy members even to have seen these foreign movies, so special, limited screenings have to be ar- ranged for them. In order to be allowed a ballot for the final round of the vote, an Academy member must have signed a certifi- cate of attendance for all five of the foreign-language films that have been nominated by the secret committee. Since Hollywood’s lack of interest in documentaries is no- torious, the same system is followed for the final round of the vote for the best documentaries.
The result is that for the best for- eign-language film, for instance, only about 500 of the some 4,000 members of the Academy vote in even the final round-or about 12 percent. The Academy gives this no publicity. I would expect that a far smaller percentage than this took part in the vote that gave the Helen Caldicott If You Love This Planet its award as best short documentary of the year. Regard- ing which I can only say that any politician who can’t stack an elec- tion with such a microscopic voter turnout should really quit. And I suppose we should take heart from the fact that-with approximately 12 percent voting for the best for- eign-language film-the Academy still couldn’t stomach the straight neo-Stalinist and Sandinista selec- tions offered it by the secret com- mittee (although the Sandinista film later got a favorable review in the New York Times), spurning them in favor of the bland if fatuous Spanish entry.
OF Private Life, the Soviet film, I can only say that its selection as even one of five official nominees for best foreign-language movie- engaging as it does the full pres- tige of the Academy-is almost a greater disgrace than the unquali- fied triumph of Gandhi. Sergei Abrikosov, the hero of the film, is a high official in Soviet industry who has a bust of Joseph Stalin among his most cherished posses- sions. A picture of Lenin is on the wall, but the bust of Stalin is kept lovingly in his desk drawer and, one must think, in his heart. Like many men who dedicate themselves selflessly to the service of the state, Abrikosov passes a brief period in the wilderness. He learns, during this period, that so relentless has he been in pursuit of the welfare of the people that he has lost human contact with his own family. For the mighty and powerful are often lonely, you know. He learns that, though the needs of the state are great, he has been perhaps a little too driving, a little two brusque (just like Stalin). But Abrikosov gains from all this. Because Soviet Man always improves; he never gets worse. And Abrikosov’s reac- quaintance with his family human- izes him. At the end of the movie, a telephone call comes from the Minister. The government limou- sine is on its way to pick him up.
Sergei Abrikosov, now a Stalinist With a Human Face, is called to serve once again in the high coun- cils of the Soviet state.
Private Life was made under Brezhnev, but released almost as if to celebrate the ascension of Yuri Andropov. This is also true of the new one-volume edition of the So- viet Encyclopedia. As recently as the 1979 edition, Joseph Stalin was still guilty of such serious mis- takes as mass purges, murders, jail- ings, and mock trials (all “serious violations of socialist legality”). In the brand-new edition, however, all this nastiness is gone and Stalin suddenly seems to have done noth- ing bad at all. Between the new edition of the Soviet Encyclopedia, and the new film, Private Life, all Soviet experts I have consulted agree that there can be no doubt about it: Joseph Stalin is being rehabilitated. Since the identities of the members of the Academy Awards selection committee have been kept secret from us, I have no way of knowing whether they even recognize a bust of Stalin when they see one. (Rest assured, it is a detail that no Soviet citizen will miss.) But that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should have lent itself in any way at all to approving the rehabilita- tion of Joseph Stalin is a fact that must give a student of that Acad- emy pause.