Oscar: My Life as Oscar Fan, Oscar Viewer, and Oscar Critic

levy_and_the_winner_isMy interest in studying the Oscar Award in a systematic and methodical ways began in 1978, when I was asked to teach a course on popular culture at Hunter College in NYC.

But my curiosity about the Oscar as a uniquely American spectacle goes much farther back, to my childhood in France and Israel.  Television was introduced to the Israeli public rather late, in 1967, and in a limited way. There was only one channel, which broadcast only several hours per evening.  Hence, movies were–and in many ways still are–the primary medium of entertainment.


My parents were both avid moviegoers.  My father, a womanizer, loved beautiful women, onscreen and off–his favorite stars in the 1950s were Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, and Susan Hayward.  But he also loved John Wayne and Gary Cooper Westerns, Hitchcock thrillers, screwball comedies, and crime-gangster pictures, so my movie education was well-rounded, based on impressive range of tastes.  After my parents’ divorce, I was taken to the movies at least twice a week by my mother and my aunt, who was high level civil servant and thus could also get tickets at the last moment for a nickel or so!

As a research site and a symbol that captures the essence of the American Dream, I couldn’t have found a more appropriate topic for my concerns than the Oscar Award. I have always been amazed by the immense popularity of the Oscar Award, which was established by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927, and the Oscar show, which first took place  rather modestly in 1929.  I thought that exploring this subject from a socio-cultural and historical perspectives would be of great interest–and tremendous fun too.  And surely it was–and continues to be decades later.

Several of my books, John Wayne: Prophet of the American Way of Life, Small-Town America in Film, Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film, Citizen Sarris, American Film Critic, all deal with uniquely American phenomena.  All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Oscar Award adds another panel to what has emerged as a rather coherent research agenda, representing 27 years of teaching and writing about film.  Singly and jointly, these books also indicate various phases of my assimilation into American society and culture, first as an outsider and then as an insider, particularly after I became a film scholar and a film critic.

I began to collect data on the Oscars in 1981, which resulted in the first edition of this book, And the Winner Is: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards, a very different chronicle in both format and style from the second edition, which was named Oscar Fever, and from the new book reported here, a new, revised and expanded chronicle titled All About Oscar.

My goal to be thorough and comprehensive forced me to go back to the very beginnings, the establishment of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science in 1927, the year in which the first talkie was released.  I soon realized that due to limitations of time and space, the book would have to focus on the important award categories: Best Picture, Best Director, the four acting (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress, and the two Writing Awards, Best Original and Best Adapted Screenplay.

For All About Oscar, I not only updated the information, but also expanded substantially the scope of the book, which includes six new chapters, including new investigations of the Best Foreign-Language Oscar, Is the Oscar a White Man’s Award, under-representing women and ethnic minorities, The Importance of Being Eccentric, a detailed examination of kinds of roles and performances that tend to be nominated for and win Oscars (including the use of accents, heavy make-up, portrayal of various physical and mental illnesses), and an account of the Oscar’s Middlebrow Sensibility, the preference for films that are soft, noble, heroic and soothing (rather than provocative) in their messages.

The book reported here is not a chronological, year-by-year, history of the Oscars.  Rather, it provides a sociological view of the historical, cultural, and political contexts within which specific films and filmmakers have been nominated for and have won the Oscar Award over the past 80 years.

The Oscar Award assumes a special meaning and offers a great many pleasures to numerous viewers all over the world, who know the text, context, and subtext of the Oscar Award and the annual Oscar show.  I would like to provide a number of clarifications about the ways I use data in All About Oscar.

First, when I discuss Oscar-nominated or winning films, I am using the year in which they were released, but when the Oscar show is concerned, I am using the date in which it took place.  For example, when analyzing Julia Roberts’s role in Erin Brockovich, I refer to it as a 2000 film, but when describing Roberts’s acceptance speech, I refer to it as a presentation that took place in the 2001 Oscar ceremonies.

Second, it’s often impossible to determine accurately the age of the nominees (particularly female).  I have tried to use two different sources, and not to rely on info provided by the studios’ publicity departments. It’s indicative of the culture and society in which we live that often an actress’ biological age is revealed after her death (prime example for this is Marlene Dietrich, whose date of birth in many dictionaries is 1904, whereas in actuality, it was 1901).  I therefore apologize in advance if readers will find inconsistent info regarding age (and other attributes).

Third, I take full responsibility for the specific genre designation of the Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning film.  A number of readers have claimed that Terms of Endearment is a melodrama, whereas in All About Oscar, I describe it as a serio comedy.  Ditto for Driving Miss Daisy.  Furthermore, I analyze Tom Jones and Shakespeare in Love as historical (and epic) comedies, rather than costume or period pieces, as they’re often described by the industry.

A word about the title of the book, All About Oscar, is in order. Avid moviegoers and avid viewers of the Oscar show need no explanation.  But I would like to acknowledge two of my all-time favorite films that have given me immeasurable gratification and have also inspired the new title of this work: Joe Mankiewicz’s 1950 Oscar-winning All About Eve and Pedro Almodovar’s 2000 Oscar-winning All About My Mother, a film that makes explicit references to the 1950 film, as well as to another cherished film, A Streetcar Named Desire.

I have enjoyed meeting both the late Mankiewicz and the very much alive Almodovar, both professionally and socially, and though they men could not have been different, they do share one thing in common–passion for film.

Many friends and colleagues have read and commented on earlier drafts of this book, and on papers presented in various conferences.  I would like to thank Judith Blau, Herman Enzer, Gary Alan Fine, Wendy Griswold, Edward Johnson, Rob Remley, Pamela J. Riley, Yaffa Schlesinger, Bill Shepard, and Andrea Walsh for providing helpful comments. I have benefited immensely from conversations about film and popular culture with two of my professors and friends at Columbia University, the late Sigmund Diamond and Allan Silver.


This book owes an intellectual debt to my teacher Harriet A. Zuckerman, whose excellent study of the Nobel Prize contributed to the way I formulated significant research problems about the Oscar as a unique and peculiar reward system.  The application of the cumulative advantage theory to the film world is based on my teacher Robert K. Merton’s influential ideas in the sociology of science and the profession.

During the past 37 years, I have shown numerous Oscar-winning and Oscar-nominated films to my students at City University of New York, Columbia University, Wellesley College, UCLA, ASU, and NYU.  These students have contributed immeasurably to my evolution as a scholar and critic by incessantly challenging my ideas about the intricate links between film, popular culture, politics, and society.  Their candid, often spontaneous remarks have continued to make the teaching of film studies a stimulating and rewarding enterprise.

The collection of data for the book took place in several libraries. I would like to thank the personnel of the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, particularly Linda Maer and Sondra Archer; the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts, and the libraries of the AFI, the Museum of Modern Art, UCLA, and USC.  My special thanks to Mr. Bruce Davis, the Executive Administrator of the Academy, for the useful information he provided, and to Mary Corliss and Terry Geesken of MoMA’s Stills Archive for their patient guidance in selecting pictures for this book.  I note with great regret the decision to close down their department and move the invaluable collection of photos outside of New York.