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10 March 2018

The Academy Awards

Tag(s): Languages & Culture
This week saw the 90th annual presentation by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences of their 24 Academy Awards for excellence in various branches of cinematography. The Awards range from the highly coveted Best Picture to the more obscure best documentary short feature. The presentation is televised live to 200 countries and generates a huge worldwide audience even though it lasts around three and a half hours. This year’s audience was substantially lower than usual and this may be because of the ever increasing politicisation of the event, though it may be a hangover from last year’s fiasco when the hosts Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway read out the wrong name of the winner for Best Picture owing to an error by PwC which oversees the voting.
 
The votes are cast by the 6,000 or so members of the Academy but their names are secret and so, of course, are their votes. When I was at Sony we were very proud of the Sony Radio Awards which we sponsored for many years. These were often described as the Oscars of Radio but I think they were of much higher quality because we used to arrange judging panels of experts for each category. The judges were given tapes of the nominated radio programmes which they could listen to in their own time. They would then convene, compare notes and reach a decision on the winners.
 
By contrast the Academy just polls its members on the nominations and they are left to themselves to vote online. Movie studios spend fortunes on lobbying and providing samples of their work. But no one knows if the members actually watch all the films and some of the results are odd.
 
But the politicisation is now all pervasive. There have been lots of examples of actors using the ceremony and their awareness of a global audience to make statements. Jane Fonda wore an Yves Saint Lauren ‘Mao’ jacket to collect her Oscar in 1972 (Best Actress for Klute); it was partly a protest against the Vietnam War, partly a show of solidarity with the Women’s Liberation Movement. Marlon Brando refused his Award in 1973 (Best Actor for The Godfather), citing the film industry’s discrimination and mistreatment of Native Americans. At the ceremony Brando sent actress and civil rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather to read a 15-page speech detailing his criticisms.
 
Discrimination has continued to be a concern and the Academy itself was criticised when the Los Angeles Times did a demographic analysis of its membership revealing that 94% were Caucasian and 77% male. Two years ago there was a boycott against the ceremony owing to the all-white lists of nominations. Now the story has moved onto the feminist agenda after the revelations about Harvey Weinstein and others. Weinstein was a particularly successful producer in winning Oscar nominations and won best picture for Shakespeare in Love. But after the scandal he has been kicked out of the Academy and instead was the butt of unsavoury jokes by this year’s host, Jimmy Kimmel.
 
But there is one group of performers which is discriminated against much more. Though there is nothing in the rules about it none of them has ever been nominated let alone win an Oscar. I am referring to animals.
 
Animals have been important in films from the very beginning. In 1929 when the first Academy Awards were presented Warner Brothers biggest star was Rin Tin-Tin. In The Wizard of Oz (1939) Terry the Cairn Terrier who played Toto, Judy Garland’s dog actually lived with her to bond. Terry had made her acting debut in the 1934 Shirley Temple film Bright Eyes. Terry was paid $125 a week, which was more than many human actors on set. In As Good as it Gets, nominated as best picture in 1997, Jack Nicholson’s most memorable scenes are with his neighbour’s pooch. Breakfast at Tiffany's won two Oscars but there was nothing for Orangey, the red tabby cat, who played Cat. Orangey landed her first starring role in the 1951 film Rhubarb. Babe was nominated in 1995 but none of the 48 Yorkshire Pigs who actually played ‘Babe' got a look in. Perhaps the most famous dog in movies was Uggie. He was in my opinion the star of The Artist (2011) which was nominated for 10 Awards and won 5 including Best Picture. Uggie was a trained Jack Russell Terrier. The Campaign “Consider Uggie” was launched in December 2011 on Facebook by S.T. Van Airesdale, an editor at Movieline for Uggie to receive a real or Honorary Academy Award nomination. BAFTA announced that he would be ineligible for one of its awards, while he received a special mention at the Prix Lumière Awards in France. He won the Palm Dog Award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.[i]
 
It’s impossible to imagine the Western movie genre without the horse and many have been memorable. I can’t listen to Rossini’s Overture to William Tell without thinking of the Lone Ranger on the back of Silver galloping across the plain. Roy Rogers sung to us about his four footed friend, Trigger. More recently Clint Eastwood directed a fine Western in Unforgiven (1992) which won four Oscars including Best Picture and one for himself as Best Director, but none for the many fine horses in the film.
 
War films about wars before the Second World War all featured marvellous performances by horses in films such as The Charge of the Light Brigade. Ben Hur (1959) won Best Picture and ten other Oscars but the best scene in the film is the chariot race and the stars of that are the horses. Other star horses were featured in Black Beauty, The Black Stallion and my personal favourite Aldaniti as himself in the 1984 film Champions. The film was based on a true story about a National Hunt jockey Bob Champion who was diagnosed with testicular cancer and after surgery and chemotherapy recovered to ride Aldaniti[ii] to victory in the 1981 Grand National. Aldaniti also had recovered from a serious leg injury which in similar circumstances might have meant being put down. John Hurt won an award for his role but Aldaniti got nothing except an extra carrot maybe.
 
Another racehorse whose true life career was celebrated in film was Seabiscuit. A small horse Seabiscuit had an inauspicious start to his racing career, but became an unlikely champion and a symbol of hope for many Americans during the Great Depression. Seabiscuit has been the subject of numerous books and films including Seabiscuit (2003) that was nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture. But none of the six horses who played him were mentioned in the cast list. Popcorn Deelites was perhaps the best of these. Her speed was used to portray Seabiscuiit in all of his shots breaking out of the gate and in the racing scenes. She was a lesser known racehorse who won 11 of 58 starts.
 
In the desert the camel tends to take the place of the horse and in Lawrence of Arabia, seven Oscars in 1962, some of the best scenes feature the camels, notably when Peter O’Toole as Lawrence learns to ride one.[iii]
 
Another much loved animal who stole every scene he was in was Clyde the orangutan in the Clint Eastwood film, Every Which Way But Loose (1978). The film was a box office hit against many people’s expectations and for me one of the reasons was Clyde. Manis was the trained orangutan that played Clint Eastwood’s sidekick but the sequel Any Which Way You Can which came out in 1980 did not feature Manis as the “child actor” had grown too much between productions. Two other orangutans, C.J. and Buddha, shared the role.
 
Other Oscar winning films which feature various animals include Around the World in Eighty Days (5 Oscars including Best Film,1956); The Big Country (1 Oscar, 1958); Blood and Sand (1 Oscar, 1941); Born Free (2 Oscars, 1966); Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (4 Oscars, 1969); Calamity Jane (1 Oscar, 1953); Camelot (3 Oscars, 1967); The Deer Hunter (5 Oscars including Best Picture, 1978); Doctor Dolittle (2 Oscars, 1967); The Greatest Show on Earth (2 Oscars including Best Film, 1952); How the West Was Won (3 Oscars, 1963); Hud, (3 Oscars, 1963); Kentucky (1 Oscar, 1938); King Solomon’s Mines (2 Oscars, 1950); Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1 Oscar, 1935); National Velvet (2 Oscars, 1945); North West Mounted Police (1 Oscar, 1940); The Old Man and The Sea (1 Oscar, 1958); Out of Africa (7 Oscars including Best Film, 1985); Shane (1 Oscar, 1953); She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1 Oscar, 1949); Stagecoach (2 Oscars, 1939); True Grit (1 Oscar, 1969); The Yearling (2 Oscars, 1946).

In 1939 the American Humane Association, who monitor the treatment of animals in film and television did introduce the PATSY Awards (an acronym for Picture Animal Top Star of the Year) to honour animal actors after a preventable horse death occurred while filiming Jesse James. The awards were broken down into four categories: equine, canine, wild and special, but they ended in 1986 due to lack of funds. A few animal celebrties have earned stars on the Hollywood walk of fame. Three dogs, Strongheart, Rin Tin-Tin and Lassie have earned a coveted star as well as fictional characters such as Kermit the Frog, Donald Duck and Godzilla.
 
Some films might claim animals when there aren’t any. Dances with Wolves (Best Picture 1990) is not about wolves. The Silence of the Lambs (Best Picture 1991) does not have any lambs. And then there are the fake animals. King Kong is the undoubted star of the remade film that bears his name and sure enough that won the Oscar for best special effects in 1976. Jaws won 3 Oscars in 1975 but not for special effects as the shark was pretty unconvincing. The nearest I think that animals have come to winning an Award are the Special Awards. In 1931/2 Walt Disney received an Honorary Award “for the creation of Mickey Mouse”. And in 1968 John Chambers received a similar Award “for his outstanding makeup achievement for Planet of the Apes”.
 
And what about this year? The Best Picture Award went to The Shape of Water in which a woman has a sensual relationship with a “fishman” but to be fair the amphibian man is played by an actor Doug Jones. The film was nominated for 13 Awards and won four.
 
The Shape of Water cost less than $20 million to make continuing the recent trend of low budget movies winning the biggest prizes. The last four winners have been low budget: Moonlight ($1.5 million), Spotlight ($20 million) and Birdman ($18 million),  A generation ago the Best Picture usually went to a big, even epic production like Chariots of Fire, Gandhi, Out of Africa, Platoon, The Last Emperor, Dances with Wolves, Unforgiven, Schindler’s List, Braveheart, The English Patient and Titanic. These are films where most of the action takes place outside with big horizons across seas and continents. Occasionally a more conversational film focused on relationships like Driving Miss Daisy or Rainman would come along but not very often.[iv]
 
But in the last 20 years or so this has changed. Gladiator and The Lord of the Rings are the only two winners in the traditional epic style. I’m not sure this is what the audience wants but it’s become the mood of the Academy. The industry would do well to focus on movies that drive audiences into theatres as the biggest risk to Hollywood is piracy so Hollywood should do what it does best and make pictures that must be seen on the big screen. But Hollywood has survived the challenge from first radio and then TV and then video so it may do so again.
 
On a different note my wife and I were very pleased with this year’s winner of the Best Film in a Foreign Language Category. In a particularly strong field Fantastic Woman, the Chilean drama, featuring transgender actor Daniela Vega, prevailed over Swedish satire The Square and Russian fable Loveless. Directed by the great Chilean director Sebastian Lelio this was his follow-up to the acclaimed Gloria.  


[i] His memoir Uggie, My Story was published in October 2012. He died in 2015.
[ii] I backed Aldaniti to win
[iii] O’Toole holds the record for the most nominations for best actor -eight- without winning one.
[iv]  Why has the Oscars turned its back on the epic? Tim Robey The Sunday Telegraph 4 March 2018

Source: Animals and the Academy Awards: A History by Wendy Diamond




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