Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi The Archaeologist of Oscar

By Devin D. O'Leary

MARCH 22, 1999:  Among his many careers, movie-lover Robert Osborne has been an actor, an author, a journalist, an on-air host for Turner Classic Movies and the official Oscar Historian for the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). The latest, updated edition of Osborne's definitive coffee table tome, 70 Years of the Oscar, can be found in bookstores now. The suave silver-hair can also be seen doing the host thing for TCM's "Oscars A to Z" festival all month long on the popular cable movie channel. Recently, Osborne was kind enough to talk to the Alibi about his long-standing relationship with Hollywood, the movie industry and a little gold man named Oscar.

So what, exactly, does an official Oscar Historian do? Does it involve a lot of paperwork?

It does. Actually, I put together this book, 70 Years of the Oscar, for the Academy. They had never really had an official record of their history. And by official I mean they never said, "There's some things you shouldn't write about." All the people running the Academy now were not around when it was originally organized, so they really wanted an up-to-date record of their history. They knew that they didn't have any big scandals involved, but they also knew that there were a lot of records that were in disarray--particularly during the '50s when the House Un-American Activities Committee was going on. A lot of those people who wrote movies [during the '50s] were not properly credited for movies they wrote. The Academy has been updating all their records and giving Oscars where they deserved to go after all these years. They wanted that all in a complete Oscar history, so that's what they assigned me to do. The fun part was going through the files and not only looking at old ballots and old records, but also getting to go through Academy files of stills and picking stills that hadn't been published before. It was great fun. It kind of is the history of the sound era. The first year of the Awards, all the films were silent, and after that everything was sound. So the Oscars are a great history of the movie industry.

How did AMPAS choose you for this honor?

Because, I think, for two reasons. I had, early on, written a book about the Academy Awards called Academy Awards Illustrated. I think they liked my approach to writing. Also I had been writing a column for The Hollywood Reporter and they kind of knew my take on the industry--which was, I could be critical, but I also was never out for scandal or ever too nasty about things. You know they're very protective of their Academy members, and they also didn't want somebody to come in and start criticizing certain people who had won. And I agree with that. If they won an Oscar, obviously enough people at that point voted for them that they deserved to win it at that time.

How did you get involved in the movie industry to begin with?

I went to California in the early '60s, and I was under contract to Lucille Ball as an actor. She learned of my interest in old movies--and that was before nostalgia or anything like that, so it was kind of rare to run into somebody as young as I was who knew so much about movies. She encouraged that. She said, "You really should write. We have enough actors, we don't have enough writers. We particulary don't have enough people writing about the history of the industry." So she was the one who encouraged me to write and to do a book and all that. That's where my credentials started. But what really helped me more than anything was the connection with The Hollywood Reporter. Because after that, everything sort of fell into place. I started out doing a column visiting various film sets. It was called "On Location," and I'd go visit any movies being made around the United States. I started working on television, then went to work for several years with The Movie Channel and then in 1994 came to Turner Classic Movies. We're about to celebrate our fifth anniversary.

For someone who loves movies, that must be like a kid working in a candy store.

It's paradise. Yeah. It's just what I'd want to be doing if I had time for a hobby. I must say, I really am proud of the channel. It's really exciting when you go places, and the people who have seen it are so excited about it. The programming is great. I love our library. I love our look on the air. I love the way they present things. That's very important.

This whole month is nothing but Oscar-winning movies on TCM.

Yeah. We started on March 1, and we go 24 hours a day until the early hours of April 1, actually, with Oscar-winning films going from A to Z. We've had Oscar festivals for several years, but [this year] we're including a lot of movies that we've never shown before, like Airport and Autumn Sonata with Ingrid Bergman and The Sting with Redford and Newman, Spartacus, Oliver!, Little Shop of Horrors. It's a great mix of movies.

In doing all your Oscar research, are there any particular anecdotes that stand out in your mind?

Well, one of the things I found most interesting was that in 1934 when Bette Davis made the movie Of Human Bondage, she didn't get an Oscar nomination. And there was such an uproar about it that a lot of people started protesting to the Academy. They got so many protests that the Academy decided, "OK, we'll let write-in votes be counted." That year, it was a free-for-all. Anybody could write in any name they wanted. And when they counted it up, everybody thought Bette Davis would win--but she didn't. The one who actually won was Claudette Colbert for It Happened One Night, who had been nominated. But there was somebody who did win on the write-in vote, and that was cinematographer Hal Moore, who had not been nominated for the film A Midsummer Night's Dream. And he got the Oscar.

What do you think some of the major changes have been in the Oscars since 1927?

Well, certainly going on television has [been] a big change. That happened in 1953. In the early days, they used to just give a wonderful little party, and everyone would get kinda tanked up and sit around and have a good time. Then, when the Second World War came along, they thought, "Well, we can't have a party and dress up and have a good time when so many people are being bombed out of their houses." So they got a little more sober and moved into a theater, where they still are. After that, when television came in, it really changed, because then the Oscars were a marketing tool. And you were on television, so if you got tanked up everybody in the world was gonna see it--so you had to start putting on good party manners and looking your best. You had to start dressing for the cameras and not just the photographers out front. And that's what it all became about. So that was an enormous change.

People often ask me what the real purpose of the Oscars is. Is it a popularity contest? Is it politics?

I think it's all that. I think it's also a great merchandising tool for the movies, because once a year it brings great attention to the movie industry. Also, because of the tremendous amount of international publicity it gets, it makes a lot of money for a lot of people. All that aside--because that's all kind of commercial, the money side--the good thing is that it gives people something to aim for. I think if we didn't have the Oscars, we wouldn't have as many good movies as we do. Not that we have all that many. If there wasn't an Oscar out there, I'm not sure some of the people would make some of the movies they do. But I think people kind of lust after it. They lust after the attention that an Academy Award nomination gets them, and certainly the attention that a win gets them. Because once you win an Oscar, you're sort of in a strata within the industry--and in the eyes of the world--unlike any other. So I think that's wonderful to have.

Anything you're particularly rooting for in this year's Oscar race?

Well, I'd like to see Shakespeare in Love do well, because I think it's so literate and comical and entertaining and fun. My favorite, the one I really wanted to see win, isn't even up for an Oscar, and that's Lisa Kudrow for The Opposite of Sex. I think she should have been nominated. But I don't care where it goes as long as they're worthy people, and I think this year there's not a weak nominee on the list.

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