by Emanuel Levy
Oscar Fever intends being an analysis of the trends of Oscar nominations and winners. As a reading experience, it is a chore, the kind of book where to find your eyes dancing around the page and your mind thinking of other things rather than being pulled along by the experience. Inside Oscar: Unofficial History of the Academy Awards, by Mason Wiley and Damien Bona, which I read about six years ago, is a much more enjoyable experience and is recommended wholeheartedly over this book.
It might have had a value as a means of settling bar bets or handicapping the office Oscar pool, but I suspect its reliability. A good rule of thumb that I think I just made up is that when you find, in a purported reference book, at least three things that you know are errors; assume it’s riddled with other ones that you just don’t know about.
According to Oscar Fever:
“In 1992, (host Billy) Crystal rode bareback on a twenty foot Oscar statuette that Oscar-winner Jack Palance dragged in by his teeth. Palance, who won supporting Oscar for City Slickers, then inexplicably dropped to the stage for one armed push-ups.”
In fact, Palance had won his award the previous year, and the athletics incident, intended to show his physical fitness in his 70s, took place then. Crystal and the show’s writers ran with it for the rest of the night, and his cameo in the opening of the following year’s show was a callback.
Sometimes these errors are just silly; author Emanuel Levy writes that the 1940 film Foreign Correspondent “was interpreted by some as an endorsement of the American involvement in the war.” In this case “some” must mean “anyone who saw it,” as that film ends with an explicit plea for the US to join the battle. But sometimes they show inattention to detail that in a supposed journalist is just sad. Levy has it that the secret of The Crying Game “comes as a total surprise to both Forest Whitaker and the audience.” Well, no, it came as a total surprise to Stephen Rea, the film’s male lead. Whitaker’s character, a supporting role, is dead at the time of the revelation to the audience. Jack Lemmon is reported as bemoaning the fact that after his nominated role in Days of Wine and Roses, “many people think of me as a drunk and send me letters telling me of the glories of Alcoholics Anonymous.” All very funny, except for the fact that the much-admired actor really was an alcoholic, as he admitted in the ’90s, and Levy fails to mention.
Levy is senior film critic for Variety and the author of other books, so I cannot explain his lead-footed prose, best exemplified by this excerpt:
“When Peter Finch’s publicist first met her client, she asked him what his ambition was. Finch replied unequivocally that the only thing he wanted was that when he dies they would write on his tombstone: ‘He was a good actor.’ Finch’s wish came true, though he didn’t live to see it happen.”
I call “well, duh.”
Oscar Fever has the air of a lecture by the kind of expert who has been blessed with a wealth of information but not the ability to communicate it engagingly. There are occasionally interesting facts and opinions, but you don’t notice because you’ve been nodding off. Levy claims in his intro that although he is “trained as an academic, (he) opted for a popular style that reduces scholarly jargon to a minimum.” At a minimum the jargon may be, but so is compelling narrative, humor and virtually anything else that could brighten the book up.
Continuum Books: http://www.continuumbooks.com