Friday, 13 April 2018

40 years on: Star Wars at the Oscars – part three

George Lucas (bottom right) breaks into a smile as the winner of the Best Director Oscar is announced

Today, we conclude our look at the Academy Awards of April 3, 1978. It was one of the most controversial, often uncomfortable, Oscar ceremonies ever. 

As the biggest awards of the night loomed, how would Star Wars fare against Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Julia, The Goodbye Girl and Annie Hall

Alec Guinness, nominated for Best Supporting Actor

After the award for best foreign film, Michael Caine and Maggie Smith came on stage to present the Best Supporting Actor trophy. It was the only acting award that might go to Star Wars, thanks to Sir Alec Guinness.

Guinness – who had already won an Oscar as a leading actor in The Bridge On the River Kwai twenty years earlier – was not at the ceremony. But then, neither were Jason Roberts (nominated for Julia), Mikhail Baryshnikov (The Turning Point) or Maximilian Schell (Julia again). Peter Firth, nominated for Equus, was the only supporting actor nominee to enjoy the hospitality of the Academy that night. And he didn't win.

The name Maggie Smith pulled from the envelope was Jason Robards, who had taken home the same award the previous year for All the President's Men. The TV footage shows people looking around for Robards, as Caine says "Where is he?" After the presenters looked off stage for guidance, Smith said "Well, he isn't here, but we wish him very well and many congratulations", before both presenters explained that they were running short of time and got off the stage as quickly as possible.

"I think he's playing bridge with Marlon Brando and George Scott," said Bob Hope, referencing two Oscar winners who famously stayed away from the ceremony. It was a funny but unkind joke. In  fact, Robards was on stage in New York and insisted he had sent apologies. 

It was the first time that night that Star Wars had missed out on an award it was in contention for. But there would be a few more.

Star Wars wins Best Costumes

Natalie Wood took to the stage to introduce what must rank as one of the stranger events ever seen at an Oscars ceremony: a fashion parade featuring everything from Star Wars' stormtroopers to their real life equivalent, a Nazi officer.

The idea was for well-known actors to model outfits representing the films nominated for Best Costume Design. The other nominees were Airport '77, Julia, A Little Night Music and The Other Side of Midnight, and the models included Cyd Charisse, Stockard Channing, Priscilla Barnes and Karen Black. 

Wood's script didn't use the word "fashions" to describe John Mollo's Star Wars designs, but called them "intergalactic concepts". Susan George modelled Princess Leia's dress, accompanied by Kermit Eller in the Darth Vader suit and three stormtroopers. The orchestra, which had played John Williams' Star Wars theme quite a few times already that evening, struck up the Cantina Band music this time, along with a few bars of what sounded like Meco's disco version of Star Wars.

You surely have to have some sympathy with the Academy voters who had to judge Mollo's costumes alongside the work of the most famous Hollywood costume designer of them all, Edith Head (for Airport '77) and the period recreations of Julia. But in the end, they voted for Mollo, who took to the stage to give a modest speech.

"As you see, the costumes from Star Wars are really not so much costumes as a bit of plumbing and general automobile engineering," he said. "Anyway, my thanks to George and Gary, and particularly to the wardrobe department, especially Ron Beck. And to all of you for giving me this very happy tribute."

John Williams wins Best Original Score

John Williams had already been onstage that evening in a gathering of past Oscar winners. Now he was one of the few nominees to find himself competing with himself, since he had been nominated for both Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Henry Mancini, Johnny Green and Olivia Newton-John were the presenters of the award for Best Original Score, and the other nominees were Georges Delerue for Julia, Maurice Jarre for Mohammad – Messenger of God and Marvin Hamlisch for The Spy Who Loved Me.

Newton-John opened the envelope to reveal Williams' Star Wars scores as the winner. He gave a short speech heapig credit on other people. "Thank you very much, George Lucas and Gary Kurtz, for the opportunity of composing a score for your marvellous film. And to Lionel Newman, Herb Spencer and the London Symphony Orchestra for a splendid performance, and I think a great recording by Eric Tomlinson. And for myself, ladies and gentlemen, my warmest thanks for this very treasured award and marvellous moment."

Star Wars wins Best Film Editing

Surprisingly, Gilbert Taylor's cinematography on Star Wars didn't earn an Oscar nomination, leaving the way clear for Vilmos Zsigmond to achieve the only win for Close Encounters of the Third Kind that evening. After some honorary awards, it was on to Best Film Editing, presented by Farrah Fawcett and Marcello Mastroianni.

The editing of Star Wars had been a fraught process. George Lucas had dispensed with the services of British veteran John Jympson and had ended up with a team of three cutters Paul Hirsch, Marcia Lucas and Richard Chew working under intense pressure to shape the movie.  The other nominees for the Oscar that year were Michael Kahn for Close Encounters, George Lucas's former collaborator Walter Murch for Julia, William Hannemann and Angelo Ross for Smokey and the Bandit and William Reynolds for The Turning Point

Farrah Fawcett opened the envelope to announce that Star Wars had won. The three editors went on stage, but Paul Hirsch was nominated to speak."This is a great honour, especially in light of the excellence of the competition this year," he said.

"On a personal note, I'd like to thank Brian De Palma for believing in me for so many years. And I'd like to express my admiration for my colleagues, Marcia and Richard, who are not only great editors, they are great people. We had a wonderful, hard-working staff: Todd Boekelheide, Jay Miracle, Mike Kitchens and Pam Malouf. We had an inspired sound editor in Ben Burtt; one of the most knowledgeable producers in the business in Gary Kurtz. And last, but most significantly, we had a director who, apart from his many other obvious talents, is himself a fine editor, George Lucas. Thank you, George."

Years later, Marcia Lucas would recall her surprise that Brian De Palma received top billing among Hirsch's acknowledgements. "There were three of us, and we all determined that we'd let Paul make the speech. He's a rock-solid guy. But it kind of surprised me because he ended up thanking Brian De Palma for his career. And he was up there taking the Oscar because of George," she said.

Marcia also told SFGate: "After you win, you go up there on the stage, then you never get to go back to your seat. You don't really talk to anybody until the ceremony's over, and then you get to go back to your seat and meet up with your friends. You know, all of these technical awards and documentary awards – the press isn't all that hot. They want to see the movie stars and the directors. You're just sort of pushed along."

With Marcia now behind the scenes, the question was whether the other half of the Lucas household might need to get up onto the stage.

George Lucas nominated for Best Director

After the Best Song trophy and the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, it was onto the first prize that George Lucas was personally nominated for. 

According to his first biographer, Dale Pollock, Lucas had not wanted to go to the awards. He had agreed to attend as the spouse of a Best Film Editing nominee rather than as a nominated writer and director.  But he was about to lose out to a writer-director who really didn't turn up.

Actress Cicely Tyson and veteran director King Vidor read out the nominations.  Alongside Lucas were Woody Allen for Annie Hall, Steven Spielberg for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Fred Zinnemann for Julia and Herbert Ross for The Turning Point

It was almost impossible to read any expression under Lucas's beard and spectacles as the envelope was opened. But when Tyson read out the name Woody Allen, he broke into a smile. 

For the first of several times that evening, the Academy was honouring a film which took a withering look at Los Angeles, and whose director was not there. 

It was well known that Allen was in New York, keeping his regular date playing clarinet at Michael's Pub. So it was left to King Vidor to announce: "The Academy congratulates Woody Allen and accepts this award on his behalf."

George Lucas nominated for Best Original Screenplay

As the ceremony moved onto the writing awards, the big controversy of the evening flared up again. 

Paddy Chayefsky, who had won an Oscar the previous year for his script to Network, stepped up to present the two screenwriting awards. "Before I get to the writing awards, there's a little matter I'd like to tidy up, at least if I expect to live with myself tomorrow morning," he said. "I would like to say, personal opinion of course, that I'm sick and tired of people exploiting the Academy Award for the propagation of their own personal propaganda."

He was talking about Vanessa Redgrave's speech earlier in the evening in which she had denounced the "Zionist hoodlums" of the Jewish Defence League who were protesting outside.

"I would like to suggest to Miss Redgrave that her winning an Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history, does not require a proclamation and a simple 'Thank you' would have sufficed," he said. 

With that off his chest, Chayfesky gave a short discourse on the nature of great screenwriting and then started opening the envelope for Best Original Screenplay before realising: "Oh, I forgot to read the nominees." 

Those nominees were Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman for Annie Hall, Neil Simon for The Goodbye Girl, Robert Benton for The Late Show, Arthur Laurents for The Turning Point and Lucas for Star Wars. The winners, Chayefsky revealed, were Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman.

This time, at least, there was someone to go onstage on behalf of Annie Hall. Brickman praised Allen as "probably the greatest collaborator anybody could ever wish for" and made reference to one of the film's most frequently quoted lines: "I must confess, the only problem is I've been out here a week and I still have guilt when I make a right turn on a red light. Maybe this will help."

The pressure was off for Lucas personally, but Star Wars was still up for one more award  the biggest of them all.

Star Wars nominated for Best Picture

Annie Hall scored another victory when Diane Keaton was named Best Actress.  Then Richard Dreyfuss stepped up to collect the Best Actor trophy for The Goodbye Girl. Finally, it was time for Best Picture.

Jack Nicholson read out the nominations: Annie Hall, The Goodbye Girl, Julia, Star Wars and The Turning Point. The cameras picked out the producers representing their films, including Gary Kurtz for Star Wars.

The winner was the movie that had mocked the Los Angeles obsession with giving out awards: Annie Hall.

Charles Joffe, producer of Annie Hall, said "a couple of things about how a filmmaker like Woody evolves", thanking all those who had allowed Allen to "mature into a fine filmmaker". 

After a few words from co-producer Jack Rollins, the proceedings were over. Bob Hope made a final reference to Oscar turning fifty and offered to return as compere in fifty years' time. And then, the evening closed with a musical number based on That's Entertainment, which was pretty much impossible to see and hear on television, under the sponsors' announcements and end credits.

The audience had seen something more than a simple celebration of Hollywood that night. In fact, Hollywood had looked distinctly ill at ease with itself.

Bob Hope had delivered a few somewhat prejudiced gags about changing fashions and public tastes. The main awards had gone to a relatively low-grossing movie that had contained a strong strain of mockery of the LA entertainment industry, and whose director stayed in New York that night. Meanwhile, the biggest box office success ever seen had to content itself with sweeping the technical awards plus those for costumes and music.

Dale Pollock writes that, on the way out of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Marcia Lucas said: "You know, George, I think if this award was important to you, you might have won. I wanted it, and I did win. And you just didn't want it."  

But Pollock says that Lucas was still disappointed, while Kurtz was "crushed" that the film missed out on Best Picture.

As Bob Hope had mentioned, the film had already earned more than $200million at the box office, making it the most successful movie ever. Eleven months after its premiere, it was still showing in some venues and a successful re-release would take place that summer. 

What had happened to Jaws two years previously had happened to Star Wars. It had made a fortune but missed out on the top artistic accolades.  And the trend has continued ever since, with an ever-widening gulf between the films that make the most money and those that take the big prizes.

Perhaps it doesn't matter all that much.  When the Oscars go to relatively low-grossing movies, they can help draw attention to films that would otherwise pass the public by.  But it's ironic that as the Oscars celebrated their golden anniversary, Star Wars – the film that was such a rousing tribute to Hollywood's Golden Age – missed out on the biggest prizes.

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