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AN OSCAR BABY'S LAMENT : A Once-Magical Night Has Lost Its Stars

March 31, 1985|PAUL ROSENFIELD

This is my last Oscar story of 1985. It's being written because (1) I'm sad and (2) I'll have to deal with Oscar again next year . . . and again I'll be sad. And even if Greta Garbo, in the year of her 80th birthday, should appear . . . I'll still be sad. The emotion is not unlike losing a trusted friend.

I was an Oscar Baby. Oscar Babies, like war babies or jazz babies, are demographically easy to define: They were born from around 1950 (when Oscar was on the brink of being televised) to around 1970 (when Oscar was on the brink of being dull). Oscar Babies spent their infancies worrying whether Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr would ever get their just rewards. For us, the real Super Bowl was on a Monday night in March or April. True Oscar Baby behavior: Playing hooky from high school the day Julie Christie squared off against Julie Andrews for best actress. Would the two Julies cancel each other out for the 1965 award? The question took full concentration, and it didn't matter that nobody in Springfield, Ohio, cared or understood. (Nobody's suggesting that Oscar Babies are healthy babies, only that they are out there.)

Or are they? Oscar Night, 1974, may have marked the end of something, and starpower may have been the name for it. The show was book-ended by Liza Minnelli's sizzling opening number, "Oscar," and Robert Opel's brief appearance as a streaker. But it was an off-camera moment that felt like a passage. Standing in the wings, stage right, were Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor and Barbra Streisand. The voltage of those three together was something one doesn't expect to see again. And so far we haven't.

It's not hard to see why. Hollywood created its own monster with the Academy Awards; so original and successful was the machinery that it got copied and cloned to virtual death. Every awards show on or off TV owes its debt to Oscar, and so does every Life Achievement Award. (More Hollywood time may now be spent doing honors than actually achieving, but that's another story.) The upshot this year? An Oscar show with 10 co-hosts, not one of whom has ever won an Oscar for acting. When Hollywood continues to label Diana Ross a movie star even though she hasn't made a movie in nearly a decade, it's time to redefine movie stardom.

Instead of Liza with a Z, we have Ann Reinking with a thud--not only performing (and lip-syncing) but also presenting. To strike even more chords, we have Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson doing a "Heartland" medley having more to do with their own careers than with the "farm films" they were meant to honor. Where was the comic relief of Richard Pryor or Chevy Chase or Dudley Moore or Bill Murray? Where was the sheer star wattage of Paul Newman or Jane Fonda or Clint Eastwood? Where was the actual glamour of Nastassja Kinski or Loretta Young?

The answer hopefully will be found in the new definition of stardom . Perhaps '80s movie stars--Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver and Timothy Hutton come to mind--don't need images the way even a John Travolta did a decade ago. Or perhaps these actors and others are merely waiting for the release dates of their next pictures before resurfacing. Unlike Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, who understand the long run, the new breed would rather self-promote and then disappear. Just like Andy Warhol predicted all those years ago, everybody in America may become famous for 15 minutes.

Hollywood, one could argue, has always existed in moments. Here and gone. But what's lost now is a sense of contest. It's a tradition at the Governors Ball following the ceremonies that one corner of the room belongs to the night's winning film, be it "Terms of Endearment" or "Amadeus." What's surprising about that particular corner is the lack of surprise. The media have practically crowned the winner weeks, sometimes months, earlier. Was there the slightest chance that Meryl Streep was not going to win for "Sophie's Choice"? Or Dustin Hoffman for "Kramer vs. Kramer"? No. Jimmy the Greek and People magazine and "Hollywood Close-up" already told us the outcomes. But Richard Burton vs. Peter O'Toole vs. Rex Harrison vs. Anthony Quinn vs. Peter Sellers-- that was a horse race. It was also 20 years ago.

Oscar Night now is not so much an occasion of state as it is a matter of marketing. And so what's discussed at the winning corner of the Governors Ball is not how wonderful it was to see Cary Grant and James Stewart share a stage. What's discussed is summer box office. It's the community reflecting America's revived fascination with money. Perhaps next year Marvin Davis and Rupert Murdoch, the co-owners of 20th Century Fox, should become co-presenters. A whole new generation of Oscar Babies would doubtless be riveted. And at least they could grow up rich instead of sad.

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