Sunday, February 27, 2011

# 20 ~ Highlights from the Oscars, Then and Now

I have to admit, I've never been particularly interested in watching the Oscars.  Other people block off the evening, invite their friends over, prepare special menus and even get into formal wear to watch it all on their televisions.  It does come at a good time, with the celebrations and the hype breaking up the winter blahs, when spring is still a few weeks away.  I absolutely love going to the cinema, but I think that my disinterest in the Oscars might stem from the fact that I don't care what other people have to say about what I've seen.  Either I like a movie, or I don't, and if doesn't matter to me what a critic has to say, then I'm disinclined to see how a movie performs at the Oscars.  Also, to me a movie is a package deal.  I tend not to take it apart and measure up the ingredients, the acting, the music, the sound or music quality or the way in which it was filmed.  I like it when all those elements are cohesive and work well together for a good finished product.

Toronto has a part in the Oscars, of course.  For years, we've been providing fodder for "Hollywood's big night".  We've contributed some of the leading men and women in the movies, and of course, we've been the backdrop for many of them.  Dozens, even hundreds, of movies have been made in Toronto over the last several decades.  "Chicago", starring Richard Gere, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Renee Zellwegger was rather famously filmed in Toronto.  The whole movie was made here, with none of it actually being filmed in Chicago ~ a fact that made the Mayor of Chicago discontented enough to run a scathing editorial in all of the local newspapers.  In most cases, Toronto is rarely actually Toronto; it's Chicago, or Boston, or New York, or every so often, even more exotic locales in Europe or the Middle East.  Last year, there was a great deal of hype about "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World".  Not only was it filmed in Toronto, it was actually set here, too.  The creator of the original series of graphic novels, Bryan Lee O'Malley, had been born in London, Ontario, but set his original work in Toronto, and fortunately, it remained the same in the film version.  The Toronto setting of the film resulted in a great deal of buzz last year.  Last year's "RED" starring Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman and Helen Mirren was another film shot in Toronto.  Helen Mirren, who's last major Hollywood role was as the eponymous character in "The Queen", stayed at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel, where several scenes in "RED" were filmed.  A visit by the actual Queen in the summer of last year resulted in the sovereign's signature appearing back to back with Helen Mirren's in the hotel's VIP guest book.

NOW : The skylines of Chicago (above) and Toronto (below).  Toronto has been the backdrop in hundreds of movies and television shows, and has portrayed cities all over the world, but rarely gets the chance to play itself.

THEN : In 2010, "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" became one of the first big release pictures to not only be filmed in Toronto, but to actually be set here, too.

A short listing of other movies to be made, at least partially, in Toronto over recent years includes "Adventures in Babysitting" (1987), "American Psycho" (2000), along with its 2002 sequel, "Bowling for Columbine" (2002), "Brokeback Mountain" (2005), "A Christmas Story" (1983), "Chloe" (2009), "Cinderella Man" (2005),  "Cocktail" (made in 1988, when Tom Cruise was still a young heart throb and not front cover material for the supermarket tabloids), "Fantastic Four" (2005),  "Good Will Hunting" (1997), "Hairspray" (2007), "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" (2007), "Twister" (1996),  "X-Men" (2000), as well as several installments of the Police Academy and Saw film series.

THEN : "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" (2007) was badly panned by some critics, but I liked it, and it was fun seeing all the Toronto landmarks that appeared in the movie, including King Street West and Allan Gardens.

The other major contribution that Toronto makes to the Oscars is the Toronto International Film Festival.  Every September, celebrities, media and regular every day film buffs gather in Toronto to see the latest that Hollywood has to offer.  Toronto's film festival has come to be regarded as one of the best in the world, second only Cannes, perhaps, for its notoriety.  The screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival have come to be regarded as a kind of touchstone for figuring out who will go on to win big at the Oscars.

NOW : The Toronto International Film Festival is one of the world's best, and is often a key indicator of who will win Oscars.

So, for those of you watching the Oscars tonight, enjoy the festivities.  Get in to the Hollywood hype but don't forget the Toronto connections to what Hollywood churns out.  To close, here is a brief list of some of the historical highlights from the Oscar's history.

A History of the Academy Awards

1929 : the first awards ceremony is held on May 16.  The awards were presented at a brunch held at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.  There was an audience of about 270 people, many of whom went to an after party at the Mayfair Hotel.  A total of fifteen statuettes were handed out, celebrating the leading contributions to the film industry made in 1927 and 1928.  A ticket to the awards ceremony cost $5.00.

1930 : a year after it started, the awards ceremony had its first scandal.  Toronto's own Mary Pickford, the world's first internationally renowned movie star, had chaired the voting committee.  She won the "best actress" award for her role in the movie "Coquette".  The rules were quickly changed so that no one so closely associated with the selection of winners could themselves be the recipient of a major award.  "Coquette", incidentally, was Mary Pickford's first role in a talking movie.  Although Pickford had initially embraced talking movies, her career quickly faded after they took hold, and she retired from acting in 1933.  Pickford's next Oscar came in 1976, when she won a lifetime achievement award.  She died in Santa Monica three years later. 

THEN : "Coquette" was Mary Pickford's first talking film role, and a hit at the Oscars.  She controversially won the award for Best Actress, even though she had played a prominent role in setting up not only the Motion Picture Academy but also the awards that they hand out.

1932 : Walt Disney thanks the academy for his "Oscar", and the nickname became a reference to the statuettes handed out, and ultimately, for the ceremonies themselves. No one seems absolutely certain who first coined the term "Oscar".  Margaret Herrick, the executive secretary for the academy, is said to have remarked in 1931 on the resemblance of the statuette to her Uncle Oscar.  Eleanor Lilleberg, the executive secretary to Louis B. Mayer, was of Norwegian origin.  She claimed that the statuette reminded her of the Norwegian ruler, King Oscar II.  The original model for the statuette was a Mexican film maker and actor named Emilio Fernandez, and the original sculptor was George Stanley.  The academy officially adopted the nickname "Oscar" in 1939.

1938 : floods in California postpones the awards ceremony for a week, and few stars bother to attend when it is rescheduled.  

1940 : Hattie McDaniel becomes the first African-American to win an Oscar.  She won the best supporting actress award for her role as "Mammy" in "Gone With the Wind".  Much acclaim was made of her winning the award, although she was seated at the back of the auditorium, near the kitchen.  In her later career, many would criticize McDaniel for playing servant roles.  On hearing the criticism, she once quipped, "I'd rather play a maid and make $700 a week than be one for $7.00"

1953 : the awards are broadcast on television for the first time, live from RKO Pantages Theatre. NBC pays $100,000 for rights.

1960 : the awards ceremony bags its biggest ever share of the percentage of television viewers, with 82.4% of American televisions tuned into to watch the awards ceremony. "Ben-Hur" wins for best movie.

1971 : George C. Scott refuses an Oscar for his epic role in "Patton".  He actually distinguished himself by rejecting the same Oscar twice.  A letter to the academy accompanied his first rejection, and his missive stated that he "didn't feel himself to be in competition with other actors".  When he was invited to the ceremony a second time, he said, "The whole thing is a goddamn meat parade. I don't want any part of it."  He stayed at home instead, and watched soccer on television.

THEN : Both George C. Scott (above) and Marlon Brando (below) refused their Oscars for what was, for each of them, a landmark role.  "Patton" remains one of Scott's best known works, and "The Godfather" remains a canonical Brando movie.

1973 : Marlon Brando follows in Scott's footsteps, and turns down his Oscar for "The Godfather".  For decades, Brando had been an outspoken representative for several civil rights movements, calling for an end to things like racial segregation in America.  Instead of attending the Oscars himself, Brando sent Sacheen Littlefeather, a noted American aboriginal spokesperson, in his place.  Littlefeather appeared in full Apache dress, and used the opportunity to protest the depiction of American aboriginals in movies and television. You can see a clip of Littlefeather at the Oscars here :

Sacheen Littlefeather at the 1973 Oscars  

1981 : Oscars delayed for twenty-four hours after John Hinckley shoots Ronald Reagan.  Hinckley had become obsessed with Jodie Foster, stalking her, sending her love notes and trying to call her on the telephone.  When Foster continued to ignore him, Hinckley made an attempt on the president's life to impress her.  It's one of the reasons why Jodie Foster has kept such a private life, away from the media attention that has infiltrated the personal lives of so many other celebrities.

In recent years, the Oscars have received their lowest television ratings in the six decades that they've been aired.  2003, and then 2008, set records for the lowest numbers of viewers watching the Oscars.  The awards are losing the attention of younger viewers, and this year's co-hosts, James Franco and Anne Hathaway, were chosen at least in part to attract younger viewers.


Interested in cinema?  My new "Cinema and Scandal" tour through downtown Toronto starts this spring.  From vaudeville, to burlesque, to the gritty days of Yonge Street in the 1970s, this one covers it all.  Contact me at or (416) 487-9017.

Check out for information on other tours.


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