Charlie Chaplin Classes Up the 1972 Oscars Ceremony
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April 20, 1972, Vol. XVII, No. 16
films in focus
By Andrew Sarris
The 44th annual festivities of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences began with a whimper and ended with a bang, demonstrating that, among other things, Oscar needed Charlie more than Charlie needed Oscar. Indeed, until Charlie Chaplin became the focus of attention, this had been the dullest of all Academy Award telecasts. But Charlie made it all very worthwhile. Charlie and the extraordinarily perceptive compilation film on Chaplin's career put together by Peter Bogdanovich and Richard Patterson. For once, we got away from the public domain Sennett-and-Essanay slapstick into the richer veins of humor and sentiment to be found in his feature films. The old critical canard that Chaplin's muse declined in mirth from about 1920 on was tossed into the garbage can where it belonged. For more than half a century intellectuals have been bemoaning the fact that other intellectuals have ruined Chaplin. What nonsense!
Chaplin's art became richer and more resonant as it extended its range of moods and expanded its autobiographical feelings. Robert Frost once observed that a long poem requires more than a series of gags. What I liked especially about the Oscar compilation film was its direct confrontation of the lyricism and even the sentimentality in Chaplin's work, most notably in the courageously complete chase-and-rescue sequence from "The Kid," in the put-down by Georgia Hale's dance-hall girl from "The Gold Rush," in the bedside lament for a lost audience to Claire Bloom from "Limelight," in the awesomely anal balloon ballet from "The Great Dictator," and in the ultra-symbolic closing star-and-circle shuffle from "The Circus." On the purely humorous side was the relatively unfamiliar mechanical doll sequence from "The Circus," the boxing ballet from "City Lights," and the filet of shoe episode from "The Gold Rush." All in all, the individual passages were well chosen, well balanced, and very carefully graded to achieve an emotional climax. Chaplin himself could not have done any better.
Curiously, no one seems to remember that Chaplin received a kind of honorary Academy Award way back in 1928, on the occasion of the first Oscars. I've always said that Chaplin and Garbo never received a "competitive" Oscar, but I always assumed that people knew about Chaplin's honorary award for "The Circus." Actually, Chaplin, even more than Garbo, has always been so "incomparable" that people stopped comparing him with other people. In the 1927-28 competition, Chaplin lost out as best actor to Emil Jannings for "The Last Command" and "The Way of All Flesh," and as best comedy director to Lewis Milestone for "Two Arabian Knights." After "The Circus," Chaplin was eligible again for "City Lights" (1930-31), "Modern Times" (1936), "The Great Dictator" (1940), and "Limelight" (1952). As an actor, Chaplin was passed over for Lionel Barrymore ("A Free Soul") in 1931, for Gary Cooper ("High Noon") in 1952. The New York Film Critics didn't start giving awards until 1935, and so they couldn't have honored Chaplin for "The Circus" and "City Lights" even if they had so desired. But in 1936, they passed up Chaplin for Walter Huston's "Dodsworth" (a much stronger choice than the Academy's of bearded Muni). In 1940, the New York Film Critics chose Chaplin as best actor for "The Great Dictator," and picked "The Grapes of Wrath" as best picture. (The Academy picked "Rebecca.") In 1947, the Critics honored William Powell's fussy performance in "Life With Father" over Chaplin's Verdoux. (Here I preferred the Academy's choice of Colman over Powell). In 1952, the New York Film Critics chose Sir Ralph Richardson in "Breaking the Sound Barrier" over both Chaplin's performance in "Limelight" and the Academy's choice of Cooper in "High Noon." Since Richardson appeared also in "Outcast of the Islands" that year, he was a formidable candidate for acting honors against anyone, even Chaplin.
It must be remembered that Chaplin gave essentially silent performances well into the talkie era in both "City Lights" and "Modern Times," and there was a sizeable body of opinion that considered his approach aesthetically reactionary. In retrospect, Chaplin and "City Lights" were clear winners by any standard in 1931 over Lionel Barrymore's grunting and heaving courtroom hysterics in "A Free Soul," and "Cimarron," one of the worst movies ever to win an Oscar. The fact that it beat out "City Lights" in 1931 doesn't say much for the Academy membership of 1931. After 1931, I would have voted for Chaplin every time, but I would have understood other preferences as well. Walter Huston in "Dodsworth," Charles Laughton in "Rembrandt," James Cagney in "Ceiling Zero," Gary Cooper in "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," "The Plainsman," "Desire," and "The General Died at Dawn" are interesting competition in 1936. Henry Fonda in "The Grapes of Wrath," Laurence Olivier in "Pride and Prejudice" and "Rebecca," Cary Grant in "His Girl Friday," Robert Montgomery in "Earl of Chicago," and James Stewart in "Shop Around the Corner" were other possibilities in 1940. There's not much point in exploring the full range of possibilities in 1947 and 1952 because by that time Chaplin had been completely discredited both aesthetically and politically. So the key year for a competitive Oscar was 1931 with "City Lights." (For Garbo, the crucial year was 1937 with "Camille," but the backbiting at Metro with Luise Rainer as more the Norma Shearer (or rather Mrs. Irving J. Thalberg) type probably militated against Garbo every getting a crack at the award she so richly deserved on merit.)
Thus we can look at Oscars either in terms of relative choices or in terms of absolutes. Most of the time, the Academy doesn't even make the right nominations. Thus, the odds on making an ultimately and eternally valid final choice are astronomical. What depressed me the most this year was the failure to honor Peter Finch for the best performance in the past decade, and the choice of "The Hellstrom Chronicle" over "The Sorrow and the Pity." I was especially disappointed in the latter gaffe because I had thought in advance (erroneously as it turned out) that the Academy had an opportunity to pick the right film for the wrong reasons. But for losers like Finch, Bogdanovich, and Kubrick, there was only one explanation. The Academy had chosen to play it safe this year with "The French Connection." "The Last Picture Show" was too sexy, and "Clockwork Orange" was downright subversive. It's all right for David Lean to make movies in England, but not for a boy from the Bronx. Of course, the Academy would have preferred "Fiddler on the Roof," but it simply wasn't good enough even on the "Sound of Music" level of technical expertise. I would have preferred Ellen Burstyn to Cloris Leachman, but both are acceptable. Curiously, I found myself leaning more to Roy Schneider than to Ben Johnson, the only occasion on which I leaned toward "The French Connection" rather than away from it. I still wish that Warren Oates had picked up one of the New York awards. I didn't mind Chayevsky's award for writing as much as Tidyman's. "The Hospital" is writer's cinema whereas "The French Connection" is producer's cinema. But I don't think the Academy had anything against Penelope Gilliatt. It was just that too many of its ancient members never got used to the idea of two men kissing on the sacredly silver screen.
As for the songs, the Academy might consider abandoning the category altogether. It is becoming an annual disgrace. As presently constituted, the competition is too parochial. The title song from "Cabaret," for example, will be ineligible for the best song category next year because it was composed originally for a Broadway show. To make matters worse, the Academy manages to dig up the seediest performers in captivity to render the songs year after year in production numbers so numbing that the commercials come as a welcome relief.
There was no Bob Hope this year, although he might have provided some dialectical excitement by giving Jane Fonda her award. For her part, Jane Fonda generously subordinated her deepest feelings for the sake of the final ovation for Chaplin. She is one of the very few representatives of the new breed with distinctive mythic reverberations of her own. Even when her performances have been very bad and very peculiar, they have never been uninteresting. One always sensed she had a personality. On this night of nights she showed she had character.
On the vavoom level, Cybill Shephard, Jennifer O'Neill, and Jill St. John managed to bust through the smog. Sally Kellerman, Karen Black, and Ann-Margret remained relatively mystifying, and Raquel Welch's inducements to lust seemed hopelessly mired in the lowest level of popular mechanics. I am certain that some people were gratified by the resurrection of Betty Grable and Dick Haymes. For myself, I prefer to make a distinction between meaningful nostalgia (Chaplin) and mere nostalgia (Grable-Haymes). Needless to say, one critic's most meaningful nostalgia is another's merest nostalgia, and vice versa.
If I may end on a reasonably constructive note, I think it is a mistake for the Academy to pull away from its strength (its cinematic heritage) to go its weakness (third-rate televised vaudeville). To its credit, the Oscar ceremony is not as pompous as it once was. There is still much too much teleprompter patter; the naked unconscious of the stars and starlets would be infinitely more interesting even if the scheduling had to be stretched a bit. I wouldn't cut down on the technical awards on air time; suggestions of such cuts are misplaced media thinking. But I would cut out all attempts at original numbers. This year it was Joel Grey hoofing his way through a feeble skit on film history. I yield to no one in my admiration of Mr. Grey's performance in "Cabaret," but what's the point of "evoking" or satirizing the Astaire-Rogers musicals when with one flick of the projection switch, we could see Astaire and Rogers dancing to the strains of Jerome Kern's "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" from "Roberta." Wake up, Hollywood. Your greatness is not in your flesh or your spirit, but in your vaults packed with canned dreams, yours and ours, now and forever.
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