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"Oscar Wiles"

By Michael Sragow

The kitsch didn't really hit the fan until the scene was set for Charles Chaplin's honorary Oscar. Daniel Taradash, the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and Hollywood lefty of decent standing, introduced the world's greatest film comic and actor--and some would say director--as a man who always strove to prove that "man's humanity to man is far greater than his inhumanity to man." Then, after a film clip melange predictably slapped together by Peter boy-do-I-know-films Bogdanovich. Chaplin emerged from the same stage cockpit as the first gargantuan statue which Joel Grey had serenaded with an ode to the studios in the opening number.

And, dammit all, the man was crying. As the sequined obsequious applauded, as Taradash called for a chorus of "Smile," even as he was framed by the TV insignia of not only Shell ("our products perform") but Chevrolet ("...see the U.S.A.")--Chaplin was touched. After years of exile self-imposed after more than a decade of government harassment and two decades of press scandal-mongering, he had returned to reap the honor of an industry which, with its new "enlightened" veneer, is always up for the chance to acquire a "humane" credential. He gave the 44th annual presentation of awards an emotional kick it really couldn't handle, and thus made the show harder for a slumming viewer to enjoy.

By now the only excuse for watching the ceremonies is the appeal of a mildly decadent good time. It's been so long since people really believed Hollywood to produce much "popular art" that serious aggravation over inadequate nominations--once a favorite space-filling ploy of earnest local columnists--has virtually ceased. And, as it's doubtful that Oscars add much today to a picture's gross, even "industry-followers" are left without an alibi.

The Oscars, in short, are just another horserace, which makes the contest perfect for the armchair attitudinizing most "culture" demons don't have a chance to indulge in.

This year's nominations were altogether perverse. Although legends of ballot-stuffing are legion, usually the good ladies and gentlemen of the Academy pick the films they feel are good for the industry image. How anyone could back an out-and-out stinker like Nicholas and Alexandra while there were greater moneymakers of far greater quality in the offing--Sunday. Bloody Sunday, McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Little Murders. Straw Dogs--is beyond the understanding of rational man. (Especially as Nick and Alex was produced independently.)

Once the nominations were set, the winners followed fairly logically. A bunch of sentimental favorites like Ben Johnson, Gene Hackman (always pick the Hollywood veteran over a qualified candidate without the homegrown background). Sops for such costly items as negligible as Bedknobs and Broom-sticks. And the final award tally divided between what Hollywood thinks of as Art--The Last Picture Show--and what it makes better, enjoys more, and thrives on financially--The French Connection.

Consider, however, that most critical film circles in this country, given the same nominees for Best Picture, would have picked Kubrick's Clock work Orange, the most highhanded and humorless allegory since the Old Testament, and you might be won over to the Academy's way of thinking.

Actually, there was one major disappointment which even the most casual observer couldn't fail to note. Jane Fonda did not cite Merleau-Ponte or Cesar Chavez or George McGovern for inspiring her winning performance in Klute, didn't chastise the hypocrites who would never have backed Chaplin when he was under fire--didn't really say much of anything. She simply thanked the Academy and walked off the stage, showing far more class than to indulge in the liberal sanctimony which has marked the affair in years past. I hope she boycotted the post-awards parties as well.

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