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Grabbing Oscar.

WITH THE ACADEMY AWARDS fast approaching, a proverbial water cooler question always is, "Did the fight person win?" It hardly is news that the names called often are based upon things besides the actual performance. Several potential factors sometimes come into play. First, insiders frequently feel an actor won because an earlier nominated role by said thespian was neglected. Most recently, this was the thinking on Colin Firth's Best Actor nod for "The King's Speech" (2010). Though a moving performance, even he felt his best acting had occurred in his Oscar nominated role as the mourning gay professor of "A Single Man" (2009).

However, the prime example along these lines concerns Jimmy Stewart's Best Actor statuette for "The Philadelphia Story" (1940). He is channing as the frustrated novelist forced into coveting a society wedding, but filmland's take on the subject suggests it was more about Stewart not winning the previous year in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939). This was Hollywood's year of years, and the other nominees included Clark Gable in "Gone With the Wind," Laurence Olivier in "Wuthering Heights," Mickey Rooney (America's top box office star that year) in "Babes in Arms," and the ultimate winner, Robert Donat, in "Goodbye, Mr. Chips." Today, it seems amazing that neither Gable nor Stewart won. Yet, in that era, major studios strongly could encourage how their guild members voted. "Chips" was produced by the British division of MGM at Denham (England) studios, and all-powerful MGM (with "more stars than the heavens") felt "Chips" would do more domestic business with an Oscar and acted (mad, pressured) accordingly. MGM also had produced "Babes in Arms" and distributed "Gone With the Wind," but there were no concerns about audiences turning out for either picture.

A second subtextual reason for possibly winning is what might be called career neglect, such as an aging John Wayne's Oscar for "True Grit" (1969), when today it seems surprising that the star of another Western sounding picture that year did not win--Dustin Hoffman in "Midnight Cowboy." Still, my favorite example of a prolonged neglect winner is Al Pacino coming up short seven times before finally taking home the gold for his brash, blind, hard-drinking ex-Army colonel in "Scent of a Women" (1992). When fellow nominee Denzel Washington ("Malcolm X") later appeared on a talk show and the host attempted to bait him into commenting on Pacino's win being a "career award," Washington would have none of it, and even reminded said host: Pacino was so good he also had been nominated in the supporting actor category that same year for "Glengarry Glen Ross." (The eventual winner was Gene Hackman for "Unforgiven.")

The third something extra for Oscar would be the sympathy card, such as Elizabeth Taylor's Best Actress award for "Butterfield 8" (1960), after nearly dying during the Motion Picture Academy voting period. Even Taylor felt that was the sole reason she won, in a year when the logical choice would have been Shirley MacLaine in 'The Apartment." Yet, a more interestingly complex example involves Katharine Hepburn's Best Actress Oscar for "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" (1967). She always believed it was the result of Spencer Tracy's death--her costar in the film and real life love companion, though, at the time, their relationship pretty much was unknown outside of Hollywood. That is, Tracy also was nominated for Best Actor, but died just after shooting was completed. Yet, a then longtime tradition in Oscar history was the statuette should be reserved for the living. Thus, Hepburn believed her Oscar really was in honor of Tracy. (The Best Actor award that year went to Rod Steiger for "In the Heat of the Night.")

The most provocative example of Hollywood's unwritten rule about no posthumous statuettes involves James Dean. Though a darkly comic Humphrey Bogart spoke the truth when he said Dean's death was a great (forever young) career move, it did not help him get a win from the Motion Picture Academy. The actor, who died in a car crash in 1955, was both the first actor to receive a posthumous Oscar nomination for Best Actor ("East of Eden," 1955, with Ernest Borgnine winning for "Marty"), and the only performer to have had two posthumous acting nominations, the second being for "Giant" (1956, with Yul Brynner winning for "The King and I"). "Giant" was George Stevens' epic adaption of Edna Ferber's historically sprawling novel, and it involved a lengthy post-production period, carrying the release well into 1956 and explaining the timing of Dean's second nomination. Ironically, death no longer is an

Academy Award roadblock. Two Australian actors have won posthumous statuettes. The first was Peter Finch for his demented television anchorman Howard "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore" Beale in "Network" (1976). The second, of course, was Heath Ledger's Supporting Actor nod as the Joker in 'The Dark Knight" (2008).

Of course, no one can prove any of these fringe factors made a difference in an Academy Awards court of law, unless maybe it was a Hollywood court. Yet, now try not to factor in such subjects the next time you watch the ceremony.

Wes D. Gehring, Associate Mass Media Editor of USA Today, is professor of film, Ball State University, Muncie, Ind., and the author of several books on cinema.
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Title Annotation:REEL WORLD; Academy Awards
Author:Gehring, Wes D.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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