10 Oscars That Make the Academy Look Good

The Oscars take themselves so seriously, most of us would like to see the statuette slip on a banana peel. But for the moment, let's play along. Here's a glance back at 10 Academy Awards that were awarded to truly worthy winners.

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One of the recurring cries at any Oscar party is the taunt, "Why on earth did that ever get nominated?" We all play the game of what really should have gotten noticed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and, especially, what really should have won an Oscar. We know the Hall of Fame of Academy Shutouts, and we treasure the glaring errors in Oscar's history. Well, peace and forgiveness on all those very lucky winners. Any system set up like Oscar's is going to make mistakes. On the other hand, there have been some awards over the years that had us standing and cheering, decisions that brought credit to the Academy, to the electorate and to the very idea of prizes. I mean worthy Oscars, awards that meant something more than one happy recipient. Here are 10 such Oscars, each awarded in a major category, for achievements the Academy itself deserves accolades for recognizing.

It's a long time ago now, but for my first choice I'd go back to 1934, when It Happened One Night won Best Picture. You see, when the Oscars were founded, there was a lot of pressure to give Best Picture to exemplary, very serious and dauntingly respectable films. The award was a way of proving to the public--and to those moral guardians suspicious of Hollywood--that the picture business had lofty aspirations, profound hopes of self-improvement and a desire for dignity. This bogus pose of uprightness has never entirely gone away, but in the early years of Oscar it was so strident it threatened to cripple the prize. In 1927, after all, the Best Picture award was initially shared by Wings and Sunrise. The second film, Sunrise, which was the first American movie made by the German expressionist director F.W. Murnau, got slipped in as the winner for "Artistic Quality of Production" because of all the people who wanted to seem arty, sincere and nonprofit. In succeeding years, the Best, Picture award went to Broadway Melody (an acknowledgement of pioneering sound), All Quiet on the Western Front (what about film, Mr. Nobel?), Cimarron (it was BIG), Grand Hotel (look at all those stars) and Cavalcade (Hollywood as a historian of modern times). There's some virtue in all of those pictures, and yet, truth to tell, they're on the boring side today, and even in their time they were overly heavy with good intentions.

In 1934 the statuette grinned and did a flip. The award went to a flat-out comedy from a small studio, Columbia Pictures. Frank Capra's It Happened One Night won not just Best Picture, but several other Oscars, for Capra as director, Robert Riskin for script, and Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert for acting. It swept, as no picture had before, and in that triumph it became clear for all time that Oscar was intended for the thing Hollywood did best--entertainments so smart and beguiling you wondered whether even art could be better.

A couple of years after Capra's big night, David O. Selznick formed his independent production company and bought the rights to Gone With the Wind. That fall, he hired the noted playwright Sidney Howard to turn the vast Margaret Mitchell novel into a workable screenplay. Howard was practical, phlegmatic, professional. He did the job, and he was then idealistic enough to yield to Selznick's urging to quit his beloved farm in Massachusetts and come out to California and work together on the rewrites. Selznick never made their meetings. Instead, he asked Howard to rewrite other scripts. At last, the weary writer called it a day and went home. Years passed as Selznick searched for his Scarlett O'Hara and other writers reduced the Howard script to tatters. Rewriting was still going on when they began shooting. The script was such a mess and the director, George Cukor, had gone so stale on the scenes that Selznick had to call a halt. Ben Hecht was enlisted to "save" the film, but when he unearthed Howard's first draft, he said, Look, this is pretty good. And so, grudgingly, Selznick went back to what he'd had all along.

The picture won nine Oscars in all, including one for Sidney Howard. But Howard could not be there to smile. A few months before the film opened, he was working on his farm when a tractor turned over and crushed him. Even with no living recipient for its award, the Academy had the sense to stand up for a script as the only reliable sail when the wind is coming in from all quarters.

That same year, at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, there had always been a plan for Dorothy to have a special, private song early on in The Wizard of Oz. It was to be the thing that locked us to her. The song would be written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg. For a while, it didn't come. Then Arlen and his wife were driving one day on Sunset Boulevard when he suddenly told her to stop the car. He got out at Schwab's Drugstore, where he wrote down a few phrases--including the two opening notes, heavy, ascending, so full of hope and fear. When Arlen had developed the whole tune and played it for Harburg, the lyricist was alarmed. This is a song for a little girl, he said, yet it sounds big, symphonic, a torch song nearly. He had difficulty with the lyrics. He liked the idea of "over a rainbow," but you couldn't fit that to the first two notes. Unless those opening syllables were "Some-where." Harburg wrote the rest in a rush. By this time the film's director, Victor Fleming, had been brought in to replace Cukor on Gone With the Wind, so King Vidor came on board The Wizard of Oz. He shot Judy Garland singing the song, in sepia, in a barnyard. The studio didn't like it. Louis B. Mayer cut it once, cut it twice, and only his pal Arthur Freed prevailed upon him to put it back.

Rising out of that doubt, "Over the Rainbow" became the song that sums up not just Dorothy's longing, but the whole enterprise of the movies and the wondrous things that may happen there. And, of course, it is a song that tells us we are both children and adults in the dark. For all of this, it won Best Song. For Garland, it became a theme song and maybe a force that drew her on towards disaster. For the rest of us, it will always mean dreaming and looking for the light.

There was a habit in the '30s and '40s of giving special Oscars to child actors. It began with Shirley Temple in 1934 and continued with Deanna Durbin, Mickey Rooney and Judy. The awards were miniature statuettes, and they had the advantage of honoring good work by kids without taking any awards from grown-ups. Today such an award would go to Haley Joel Osment. In 1944, it went to the child actress Margaret O'Brien. O'Brien never really sustained an adult career, but she was the child of that time closest to Osment in that she was not bouncy or cheery. She really acted. In Meet Me in St. Louis, she is the little girl who braves the most frightening house for Halloween, the sister who listens to Judy Garland sing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and then smashes the snowmen on the lawn--one of the great scenes in American film. What a horror it would have been to have that infant--Tootie, the youngest of the Smith children--go without reward.

Early in 1945, Billy Wilder completed work on The Lost Weekend at Paramount, under the disapproving eyes of several important studio executives who hated the project. It was all very well for Charles Jackson's novel on alcoholism to be a success--novels were different--but you couldn't put drunks up on the screen. And you couldn't show the real thing, the way Wilder wanted to do it, with d.t.'s and hallucinations of a rat. But Wilder made the movie, kept it harsh, and got an extraordinary, self-destructive performance out of Ray Milland, an actor previously known for light comedy. The Lost Weekend previewed disastrously. Somehow audiences were trained to think that drunkenness was always funny--so they laughed at the nightmarish picture. The mood at Paramount grew worse still. Then, because the war ended in Europe, Wilder had to return to the Germany he'd come from on official service. Back home, he saw the destruction, the camps, the end of a culture; he could smell death and evil. When he got back to America, his first wife sued him for divorce. Meanwhile, composer Miklos Rozsa had redone the score for The Lost Weekend using that new instrument, the theremin, which had a weird, dreamy sound to it. All of a sudden the picture played. Maybe, too, the extra realism of 1945 helped, for it was harder then to avoid how bad a place the world could be, and it was easy to see that many of the returning heroes had drinking problems.

The Lost Weekend took Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actor. (Miklos Rozsa won Best Score--for Spellbound.) The sweep established Wilder, but it also established the chance of treating tough subjects, and it served as a lesson to everyone that actors known for a decade or so for one kind of role might still have it in them to astonish you, if given a chance.

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