"The New Hollywood,” which is the insurmountable subject of the latest issue of Film Comment and is the inevitable subject of major articles in every magazine from Esquire to Ms., was no less the subject of the Oscar giveaway earlier this month. For the past several years, throughout the decade of George Scott and Jane Fonda and Sacheen Little Feather and The Streaker, this durable but disreputable awards ceremony has developed the atmosphere of a party going sour. The party, by the looks of it (this year's set: a forest of towering gold busts that resembled something Buster Crabbe might have stumbled upon in darkest Africa), is thrown with a mind to pleasing the true believers and the old faithfuls and rekindling past sentiments and past glories, and its spoiled seemingly, by the needling and nit picking and conscience nagging of the younger generation. The movie industry’s “Establishment,” just barely holding itself together, appears annually to be left with a case of the shivers, or the shakes.
If you witnessed this year’s ordeal, you will remember — you will not easily forget — Danny Thomas’s stricken expression, his beloved nose drooping an inch lower, when he retook the podium after Bert Schneider had read the thank-you telegram from the Viet Cong: and you will remember Frank Sintara’s traffic-cop brusqueness when he returned on stage to lead the sing along finale after Warren Beatty had whipped a line of his ready wit, such as it is, at Sinatra's back ("You old Republican, you." Beatty said, cutting deep). Beatty’s attack was not unprovoked. Sinatra, just before introducing Beatty, had read an unofficial repudiation — written, it was reported later, by Bob Hope — of any and all political opinion expressed on the show; and this bombshell announcement had stirred up audience reaction to the extent that, on television, four people could be heard applauding, two hooting, and three yawning.
Probably no one really underestimates the number of raw nerves, predatory glares, and invidious tongues residing in or near the movie colony. Things there do not go unfelt, unnoticed, and uncommented upon. Anybody in doubt about the situation need only look at Joyce Haber's daily column (especially last summer's two part tirade, "The Education of Pauline Kael,’” in rebuttal to a piece by Kael in The New Yorker) or at Tom Laughlin's newest crusade (the "Billy Jack-vs.-The Critics" melodrama going on now in the newspapers). In this year's Oscar show, further evidence was provided in the form of a few sidelong snarls at absentee-nominee Dustin Hoffman and a final, ringing, point-blank address by Sinatra, whose trunk is gradually turning into a stout, imposing oak (No, Mr. Hoffman, the Oscar is not embarrassing, it is not obsolete ...). All this attention must have come as something of a surprise to Hoffman himself and something of a puzzle to most observers, who, if not for these geysers of bile, would have bean blissfully ignorant of, and indifferent to, Hoffman’s “views” on the Oscar. These “views” had been aired two days earlier in a television interview, and, in due course, had spread instantaneously into craws all around town, into gossip, and into the script for the Oscar telecast.
Somewhere in the spectacle of deep-rooted and gnawed-on feelings, imperfectly suppressed and smoothed over, is one of the main reasons that the Oscar show, even one as poorly produced as this, is still worth watching. This show, like afternoon soap operas, tests the threshold of the viewer's embarrassment. At peak moments, it should push the viewer to exclaim at last, "I can't look." And because of the high stakes the exposure, the attempted aplomb, and the covert feelings, these moment, occur without fail. There have always been minor gaffs, of course — Sammy Davis introducing Susan Blakely as "Susan Berkeley" (Blakely. Berkeley. Broccoli! if they'd given him Ava Gardner, there'd have been no problem), and the award winning technicians of Earthquake, the most addled of the evening, at one point thanking the director "Mark Robinson" (that's Robson) and later thanking "Ted (that's John) Mack." In recent years, though, the edgiest moments have transpired across the immeasurable rift between Hollywood Past and Hollywood Present.
The suitable symbol of the younger generation was Francis Ford Coppola, a bouncing baby boy in the front row. And the suitable symbol of the ancient regime was Howard Hawks, who looked as if, to prepare for the affair, he and his tuxedo had been pressed like a rose petal between two oversized Webster's Dictionaries, and who ferociously stifled any trace of pleasure while picking up the first Oscar ever, a special award for "career achievement." (John Wayne, the presenter, demonstrated his "personal interest" in the award by naming the "four movies" he'd made with Hawks, and — perhaps in researching his speech he’d relied on a pre-Seventies reference book — by forgetting to count the fifth and most recent, Rio Lobo.) Hawks set the suitable tone, too, reciting a doleful anecdote about this friend John Ford, “when he went to the desert to die.” The anecdote went on about the time Ford won an award "for a picture that wasn’t so good” in competition with Hawk's Sergeant York; by a coincidence, and by a faint irony. Hawks was referring to the year that the Motion Picture Academy, in its selections, passed over Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.
It is Welles who stands out as the likeliest candidate for patron saint of the New Hollywood , if only insofar as he himself was immediately on his first dazzling appearance branded an alien and heaped with hostility. Something of the same suspicious attitude seems prevalent with each recent Oscar race: The central problem seems to be, How can they avoid giving it to Bogdanovich? or to Coppola? or to Nicholson? or to Hoffman? (It should probably be kept in mind that this new generation of moviemakers came into existence during the demise of the Studio System, and it is consequently rather difficult for a young moviemaker, under present production conditions, not to look like what was once recognized as a renegade). Lately, the ways around the problem have become harder to find; with last year's winner, The Sting, they went about as far as they could go: this year must be scored as a sweep, the first ever, for the new blood, Coppola, De Niro, Burstyn, Towne. To the casual or distant on-looker, who has only the vaguest mental image of how HoIlywood breaks up into separate camps, tribes, huddles, it might be difficult to see, on the face of it, why and how much there is resentment in the so-called Establishment of a movie like The Godfather or Chinatown or A Woman Under the Influence.
Perhaps the most burdensome thing, after all, about watching the Oscar presentations is the thought of all the rehashing, second-guessing, head-scratching, upbraiding, tsk-tsk-ing, and back-patting that must follow for certain in its wake. (Do politics and politeness mix? and did you notice Peter Davis's bowtie was on crooked? and isn't it a crying shame about Fred Astaire? and what more does Jack Nicholson have to do to win an Oscar?) One basic truth which ought to, but will not, diminish the afterthoughts and aftershocks is this: Hardly anyone has ever won an Oscar, or has ever been nominated for an Oscar, who did not deserve to win it. To this, a hasty amendment should stress that deserving to win an Oscar and deserving to be certified the Best are not strictly the same things.