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COLOR HIM PURPLE : Why Can't the Oscars Be as Dramatic as the Movies?

March 30, 1986|JACK MATHEWS

My heart sank the moment Barbra Streisand opened the best-director envelope Monday and began singing "Memories. . . ."

You'll recall that that was the first word of the theme song from "The Way We Were," in which she and Robert Redford performed for Sydney Pollack, and I knew immediately that it was Pollack's name she had plucked from that envelope.

The evening was in ruin. Not because I was rooting against Pollack or his film, "Out of Africa," but because I was on deadline for these pages and the "Out of Africa" steamroller had just flattened the dramatic prospects of the evening. After all the talk about this being the most wide-open awards race in years, it had turned into just one more in a series of sweeps.

I felt betrayed. Where was the academy's sense of drama? How could they not give the best director award to 79-year-old John Huston, whose clever black comedy "Prizzi's Honor" might possibly conclude one of the industry's most notable careers?

That award, combined with the supporting-actress Oscar presented earlier in the festivities to his daughter Anjelica, would have brought the event to a storybook ending. A one-of-a-kind family sequel. He wins Oscars for himself and his father in 1949 for "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," and returns 37 years later to treat himself and his daughter to two more.

At Calendar, we were ready to tell that story. We had breathtaking trivia about other family affairs with Oscar. We had loving Huston family quotes from our '49 morgue files that we planned to pair with fresh ones from '86. We even had an old backstage photo of young John and his father Walter grasping Oscars and beaming at each other.

Monday night, Times photographer Iris Schneider had a copy of that photo, hoping to get John and Anjelica to strike a similar pose when they walked into the deadline photo room with this year's set of family Oscars. The two photos, we all agreed, would look terrific in tandem on the front page of Tuesday's Calendar.

Then Barbra began singing "Memories" (an ironic footnote for future Oscarographies) and it was all over, drama-wise.

Suddenly, I'm staring at a blank computer screen, with its cursor blinking impatiently. I was trying to think of a dramatic way to say that nothing dramatic had happened. The big movie, the one with a whole continent in its title, took it all. That's one sentence!

To write about the Oscars during the Oscars is to discover the thin depth of your commitments. When they open those envelopes, which names do you really hope to hear? Those you picked in the office pool? Those you think actually deserve to win? Those you know will make the best stories?

The stories, every time.

Of this year's best-picture nominees, I picked "Out of Africa" in the office pool, even though my favorite film was "Prizzi's Honor." But when that last envelope was opened, the words coming out of my mouth, in a desperate chant, were "Color Purple . . . Color Purple . . . Color Purple!"

I didn't like the movie, but its win would have made a great story. Snubbed for a best-director nominee. Snubbed in nine previous categories that night. Then, on a sentimental crest for Steven Spielberg, to pull out the Big One in the last act!

We were prepared to tell that story, too. I even overheard an editor verbally composing a headline for it: " 'Africa,' 6, 'Purple,' Won.' "

But no. It was "Out of Africa" one more time. Its total of seven wasn't as monotonous as the nine-Oscar sweep of "Gandhi" (the eyelids grow heavy at the mention) in 1982, but try to write about them.

The last time the Oscars were fun, on a deadline, was 1981. That was the year that "Reds," the pre-show favorite, won two early awards, then picked up late momentum with a best-director Oscar for Warren Beatty. But the next two awards went to actors Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn and we started composing sentences about the sentimental victory of "On Golden Pond."

When "Chariots of Fire" came out of the envelope as best picture, we tore up everything we had written (or struck a kill button on our computers) and started over. It was a frantic and exciting scene backstage, and a great story--one of the few the Oscars have produced in the last decade.

I'll tell you how good it was. I didn't even like "Chariots of Fire" and was thrilled that it had won.

I think I had "Reds" in the pool.

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