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Oscar under the microscope  

Sclerosis has set in, and worse

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I dont know about you, but I stopped taking the Academy Awards seriously in 1985, when Sydney Pollack was up against Akira Kurosawa and John Huston for Best Director.

Pollacks Out of Africa was endless, with a thin narrative, no dramatic tension and one of Robert Redfords most wan, embarrassed performances -- he looked like he wanted to be eaten by one of those damned lions.

Hustons Prizzis Honor was pretty good, nimble and funny, but Kurosawas Ran Well, lets just say that not even Sydney Pollack -- a nice man, a good actor, a mensch -- would claim that he should be mentioned in the same sentence as Kurosawa.

Pollack won anyway.

Lots of people still breathe very heavily over the Academy Awards. If you are one of those people, then Steve Ponds The Big Show is the book for you.

For the last 10 years, Pond has been given access to planning, rehearsals and the actual Night of Nights for an annual article in Premiere magazine. What Theodore White was to the making of the president, Steve Pond is to Debbie Allens choreography.

The big bolt from the blue here is that, by and large, the old clich is true: The camera doesnt lie. Steve Martin is calm, centered and no trouble. Russell Crowe is willfully unpleasant. Barbra Streisand, Jennifer Lopez and Kevin Spacey are, uh, demanding. Steven Seagal is an oaf.

Can't stop the music

Pond seems to be of two minds about his task. On the one hand, he observes the people from a deadpan distance, with a cumulative effect thats subtly ironic; on the other, he makes sure to keep one foot near the luminous campfire of celebrity. He wants to be both of Hollywood and above it.

This leads to exchanges such as Steven Spielberg asking producer Joe Roth if thered be any material (in last years show) on The Passion of the Christ.

Billy [Crystal] might do a couple of jokes, Roth replied. But not much.

Good. Thats good, said Spielberg.

What is really being sold here is access -- Ponds being close enough to overhear the exchange, which is of no actual content, let alone news value.

Likewise, he approvingly quotes several people as saying that the bad reception occasioned by Alan Carrs legendarily awful Oscar broadcast of 1989 helped kill him.

So we are to believe that Carr sailed through the reception of Cant Stop the Music starring the Village People, but was psychologically leveled by a three-hour TV show that didnt work? Please.

Giving 64 percent

That said, there are some funny/sad vignettes:

The doomed Elliott Smith uncomfortably trying to sing a song from Good Will Hunting; Randy Newman telling his backup singers to give me at least 64 percent; an enraged Madonna grabbing Dick Clarks son by the throat and lifting him off the ground; Whitney Houston, puffy and a little disoriented, unable to navigate either stairs or a medley mingling Over the Rainbow and The Way We Were at the rehearsal for the 72nd Oscars, which resulted in Burt Bacharach firing her.

Certainly she was loaded, Don Was tells Pond, but I wouldnt want to do urinalysis on a number of people involved in the show.

It is, as they say in comedy, a tough room. When David Letterman was marinating in appropriate self-loathing after his disastrous hosting gig, producer Gilbert Cates told him, See you sometime, somewhere.

An ancillary effect of Ponds book is the sense you develop for how transitory many careers are, as household names. Oscar winners of a decade ago have gone ... where exactly? Whatever happened to Anna Paquin? Louis Gossett Jr.? Marlee Matlin? And how long until we can ask the same question about Hilary Swank?

Pond writes cleanly and well, though theres one passage where he seems to presume stupidity on the part of the reader. Regarding the honorary award to Elia Kazan a couple of years ago, Pond feels he has to explain that there was a time in the 30s when a lot of people were Communists, a time in the 40s and 50s when a lot of other people were angry about that, with the unfortunate result being that some people tattled on their friends. Wouldnt anybody interested enough in the movies to read a book like this already know about what Dalton Trumbo called the Time of the Toad?

Style over content

Theres probably no way to make 10 disassociated magazine articles into a book unless youre Tom Wolfe, the literary equivalent of the Cirque du Soleil -- a dazzling exercise valuing style over content, leaving the consumer dazed although unable to articulate exactly why.

Each chapter of The Big Show is complete unto itself, just as each Oscar show is complete unto itself. Producers come and go, hosts come and go; theres no narrative momentum or payoff.

Besides which, the Oscars is the show everybody loves to hate -- for a very good reason. As Pond observes, [Joe] Roths Academy Awards looked a lot like Gil Cates Academy Awards, which looked a lot like Laura Ziskins Academy Awards, which looked a lot like Richard and Lili Zanucks and Quincy Jones Academy Awards. The format was inescapable and to a large degree unalterable: two dozen awards, film clips, five songs you cant choose.

Structurally, its the proverbial ocean liner: hard to turn around. Beyond that, the ultimate problem is that the show was originally designed as a vehicle to celebrate quality movies. But the reality of the industry today is that most years they have to sweat and strain to come up with five acceptable nominees for Best Picture.

As movies themselves have become loss leaders for DVDs, the shows ancillary components -- fashion disasters, drug casualties, the annual competition for Most Inarticulate Actor and Worst Song -- have superseded any celebration of excellence.

Pollack over Kurosawa wasnt an award; it was a preview of coming attractions.

Scott Eyman, the book critic at The Palm Beach Post, is the author of Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer, which will be published by Simon and Schuster in May 2005.

The Big Show: High Times and Dirty Dealings Backstage at the Academy Awards by Steve Pond (Faber and Faber) $26/Hardcover

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