When Jane Fonda handed Dustin Hoffman his Oscar for "Kramer vs. Kramer" in 1980, the actor, who is slightly larger than the statuette, leaned over its shoulder, paused, then made the wry observation that "he has no genitalia and he's holding a sword."
Would that that were Oscar's only shortcoming.
On the eve of his 60th giveaway, Oscar is an icon on the verge of kitsch, an indiscriminately dispensed doodad resting on Hollywood mantels like so many "World's Greatest Dad" cups.
In China, where some of ABC-TV's claimed 1 billion viewers will be watching Monday night's telecast, they may think that Oscar is a healthy, imperious figure. Among those who care about what he represents, however, he has long since lost his luster. He's just an ordinary working stiff these days, the Ed McMahon of the awards circuit, serving as the sideline butt of Johnny Carson's--or Dustin Hoffman's--jokes.
What's wrong with Oscar? For one thing, the statuette--the symbol of excellence in movies-- has become a TV star!
"When I won my Oscar, I felt I was partaking in one of the true national rituals," said "Star Wars" film editor Paul Hirsch. "There are only two or three (such rituals)--say the World Series, the Super Bowl and the Oscars."
There you go, three of the biggest television events on the planet. The difference between them is that in the sporting events, there is at least direct competition and legitimate champions. In the Academy Awards, it's a sort of badly organized election, and who knows what factors are involved?
"Voting is always an imperfect institution," said Bob Gale, who co-wrote "Back to the Future" with director Bob Zemeckis. "Some people are voting for somebody, some are voting against somebody, some are voting for who they want to see win . . . and some people are voting for who they think could win because they know that the person they want to vote for isn't going to win. It's the same as in politics."
In the film industry, attitudes toward the Oscars can be described as three general types.
The Celibates. "There should be no awards. I wouldn't have one if you gave it to me."
The Semi-Celibates (also known as the "Half-Pregnants"). "It's ridiculous to think you can determine the best in any category. Let's have five nominations in each category and stop there."
The Orgiasts. "The more categories, the merrier. Let's give Oscars for best trailer, best poster, best Oscar campaign!"
"There was a while where they were getting so ridiculous, I was expecting there was going to be a category for 'best James Bond picture of the year,' " said Gale. "The more categories, it seems, the longer they can make the awards show go."
As to the length of the Oscar telecast, which now consumes slightly more time than the Super Bowl and slightly less than the World Series, people tend to believe one of two things:
The show will always be long and overproduced and there is nothing that can be done about it.
Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, will be along any minute to trim it with her magic wand.
Each year, the show's producer promises a shorter show and then falls long of his goal. Last year, Samuel Goldwyn Jr. privately assured people he would get the telecast down to about 2 1/2 hours. It came in at nearly 3 1/2 hours, but that was close enough for the academy's Board of Governors. They rehired Goldwyn for this year.
Most people who complain about the length of the Oscar show point specifically to its bloated production numbers as trimmable excess. Goldwyn proposed cutting some of the presentations for minor categories (he failed) and, like other producers before him, put a lid on the length of acceptance speeches.
"(The acceptance speeches) are the only moments of spontaneity in the whole show," said film editor Hirsch. "There are too many Vegas-style acts with star comedians doing bad card readings. . . . Cut the production numbers (not the speeches)."
Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel called the time limit (usually 30 seconds) silly and said, "When Sean Connery wins for 'The Untouchables,' I want him to talk for more than a minute.
"I'd love to hear him talk about what it's been like to be an outsider in the Hollywood film industry," Siskel said, "never having been nominated after giving so many fine performances and finally getting some recognition. . . . Let the big guys talk as long as they want. That's what we come for."
The show has indeed lost its spontaneity in recent years. Heightened security has prevented streakers and party crashers, policy changes have prevented surprise speakers (since Sacheen Littlefeather accepted for Marlon Brando in 1972, the only proxy recipient allowed was Jane Fonda, for dad Henry in 1981), and post-Vietnam, Reagan-era materialism has discouraged winners from political grandstanding. (Hanoi Jane is now Buy-My-Video Jane.)