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Book Review - All About Oscar
by Matt Bartley

Admit it, we all love the Oscars even if we say we don't. We tune in year after year, in the hope that the Academy will get things right and vote for the film or the actors/actresses that absolutely deserve to win. We cheer when they get it right (Return of the King!) and boo when they get it wrong (Titanic?). For those Oscar buffs who want to get a little more information, then Emanuel Levy's book is an invaluable source of folklore, history and hard facts. Just don't be put off by the picture of Halle Berry on the cover.

A book about the Oscars could go in any number of directions: a straightforward historical list, a scandal-filled gossip piece or a look at the history and recurring themes of the Oscars. Levy decides to combine all three, and for the most part, it works.

This isn't just an Oscar suck-up, because although Levy is quick to point out the eternal fascination of the awards, he's equally quick to point out years or areas where the Oscars have fallen victim to fashion or fads - you'll find no love for 'Gandhi', 'Chocolat' or 'Dr. Dolittle' here. Levy also offers up athorough examination of the 'making up' theory - where an artist gains an Oscar to make up for losing out in previous years. So for example, Renee Zellweger won last year to make up for losing out in the previous two years. But as Levy points out, this has been going on since 1935 with Bette Davis' win for 'Dangerous'.

And this is a good indication of how much research and analysis has been put into breaking down the Oscars into easily digestible sections. For those who are percentage minded there's a thorough break down of the ages of Oscar winners, the age of first nominations, the age of first wins etc. It makes fascinating reading because the winners hold up against Levy's facts and figures. Put it this way, fans of Bill Murray will really be despondent after reading this, as it seems quite clear that 'Lost in Translation' is likely to be his only shot at the Oscar.

But 'All About Oscar' doesn't lose itself in facts and figures, instead breaking itself down into sections such as 'Is the Oscar a White Man's Award?', 'The Importance of Being Eccentric' and 'Noble and Heroic - Oscar's Middlebrow Sensibility'. It's a sign of the books research, that the evidence it presents for the Academy being essentially conservative, is so thorough it smacks you in the head as being obvious. And it doesn't merely serve as a listing of what genre is the most popular, Levy is highly critical when he wants to be, of performances and films snubbed because they don't fit into Oscar's preferred sensibility (you can only wonder what he would make of the controversy over 'Million Dollar Baby').

It also reads as a good history of the Academy itself (strange to read that when it was first set up, the notion of giving out yearly awards was done almost as an afterthought) and a source of the scandal and controversy that has dogged the winners and losers throughout the years. As entertaining as the bitching between sisters Joan Fontaine and Olivia De Havilland is, it's upstaged by a priceless story of Richard Burton and Humphrey Bogart with an Oscar statuette used as the defining argument in a dick wagging contest.

Sadly, Levy is not as good a writer as he is a chronicler, and he desperately needs a proof-reader in places. At times, his writing style suffers from too much punctuation and becomes too stop-start for his own good. And there are a few glaring errors. Dustin Hoffman won his second Oscar for 'Tootsie' did he? Funny, I could have sworn it was for 'Rain Man'. And ultimately, any book about the Oscars is going to be immediately outdated, as Levy's book stops just after 'A Beautiful Mind' scooped best picture. It would be interesting to see just what he would have made of 'Return of the Kings' mammoth haul last year.

It may not be the best written or most incisive film book you'll read this year, but for those whose favourite time of year is the end of February it's hugely informative and constantly entertaining.

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originally posted: 02/08/05 03:50:38
last updated: 02/08/05 03:50:56
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