I remember for a number of years I used to own a VHS tape called “Oscar’s Greatest Moments,” a unique peek at the Academy Awards over a 20-year stretch, from 1971 to 1991. Unique because the Academy rarely offers up this sort of material, for whatever reason. The organization’s YouTube channel has been a nice resource in recent years, but it’s been a while since we’ve seen something quite like Turner Classic Movies’ “And the Oscar Goes To” documentary, which premiered Saturday night and aired again this evening directly after the Super Bowl.
As deep dives go, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s film is not a profoundly illuminating experience and serves more as a stone skipped across the ceremony’s 85-year history. It’s also positioned as a nice promotion of the channel’s “31 Days of Oscar” scheduling, every day in February dedicated to Oscar-nominated filmmaking. But it’s nice to see the organization open the gates slightly with a polished, well-structured salute to Hollywood’s annual back-patting ritual.
The doc finds its way into the usual talking points, including the perspective on Academy embrace of minorities over the years. That’s a particularly hot button issue this season given that, in a year touted as a great one for African American filmmaking, only “12 Years a Slave” found recognition where other efforts such as “Fruitvale Station” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” were ignored.
“The handing out of Oscars on the Oscar show through the years has shown social change,” AMPAS president Cheryl Boone Isaacs says in the film. “I know for some not fast enough, but it has steadily moved in that direction.” Hattie McDaniel, Sidney Poitier, Louis Gossett Jr., Denzel Washington, Whoopi Goldberg and Halle Berry’s Oscar wins are featured.
Other controversies are touched upon, from the Academy’s reaction to the Hollywood black list to Sacheen Littlefeather declining Marlon Brando’s 1972 Best Actor award on the “Godfather” star’s behalf for Hollywood’s treatment of Native Americans to Michael Moore’s 2003 call of shame upon President George W. Bush for embarking upon the Iraq War (a moment that underscored, it seemed, the overall community’s tendency to come around to certain things quite slowly).Tom Hanks’ epic Best Actor acceptance speech for his work in “Philadelphia” drawing attention to the AIDS crisis is also featured.
Fortunately much time is spent on the below-the-line elements of filmmaking that are honored every year, and due to ratings concerns find their position on the show sometimes quietly under fire. Special Achievement Award-winning sound editor Ben Burtt explains how a hungry bear’s moans made for the ingredients of Chewbacca’s howls in “Star Wars” while back-to-back film editing victor Kirk Baxter (“The Social Network,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) breaks down the thought process behind building tension in a scene through how it’s assembled.
There’s great educational value on that level throughout the documentary, in fact. Martin Scorsese’s (nevertheless Oscar-losing) vision for the fight scenes of “Raging Bull” is laid out with expert precision by one talking head, for instance. And there’s great insight from previous nominees such as Jason Reitman and Scorsese. “As a 6-year-old, I probably thought my father was some sort of magician,” Reitman recalls of his filmmaker father, Ivan Reitman. “I just knew that when I showed up at his workplace, incredible things happened. I’ll always be the son of the guy who directed ‘Ghostbusters.'”
Reitman is also candid in the film about one of his biggest memories of Oscar night 2010 is losing for his work on “Up in the Air,” while “The Queen” star Helen Mirren explains how surreal the night really is when you’re waiting for the envelope to be opened. “It is a bit like being in a car crash: everything slows down,” she says. “Everything goes in slow motion. Tick. Tick. Tick. The. Oscar. Goes. To.”
Most delightful is seeing some of the backstage video and other stories from behind the curtain besides. Longtime Oscarcast writer Bruce Villanch recalls an awkward meeting between Jim Carrey, Nicolas Cage and Sophia Loren, while a lovely moment is caught on camera as 1992 Best Actor winner Anthony Hopkins (“The Silence of the Lambs”) is seen meeting Robert Duvall for the first time backstage with his trophy in hand.
All in all, it’s a nice appetizer for the upcoming March 2 ceremony and a decent step forward for an Academy obviously looking to change its public face as of late. Try to catch it on Turner Classics sometime this month. Your next shot is Friday, Feb. 7.