Exposing the dark side of the glittering prizes

They enrol in the autumn of their life and spend three years learning how to award Oscars
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MANY PEOPLE have written in to me asking why the Oscars are also known as the Academy Awards. What is the Academy after which they are named? Who goes to this Academy? What do they learn there?

Well, my children, the Academy after which the Oscars are named is a stately building in downtown California where the people who choose the Oscar winners are trained. Its full name is the Academy for Choosing Oscar Winners, the course is three years long and it is only open to people who have made a billion dollars out of the movie industry and are looking for a slightly quieter time. They enrol in the autumn of their life, and they spend three years and half a million dollars learning how to award Oscars. It's as simple as that.

Of course, nothing is quite as simple as that. They have to observe the ethos of the Academy (motto: "A happy film is a film that makes money") and behave impeccably for the three years they are there, for if a member of the Academy had a scandalous private life, it would reflect badly on the movie industry. That is why Oscar judges swear to observe three years of celibacy when entering the Academy, though a certificate of impotence will suffice instead.

There are various courses which they must attend at the Academy which will give them the grounding in basic Oscar-choosing. Some of the many courses on offer include:-

"Why British films can come second but not first"

"Why American remakes are better than the French original"

"Don't say Mafia - say anonymous funding"

"Look out - here comes Barry Norman!"

"A lifetime achievement - something you give to someone you forgot to give an Oscar to."

"Barry who?"

"Did you know Billy Wilder was still alive?"

"Ways in which we might use Bob Hope this year."

"Billy who?"

"Bob who?"

David Puttnam said recently that the difference between Hollywood and Europe was that the Hollywood tradition sprang from the retail trade, from people who were out there seeing what sold and what didn't, and that the European tradition was based on the idea of art, ie it came from people who wanted to make great personal statements in film, which is why European films don't make money.

There is a course at the Academy (motto: "A movie is only a movie, but special effects are special") which teaches this concept, pursuing it to the ultimate conclusion, which is that the award for Best Foreign Film must always go to a loss-making film which is so original that no American would ever want to remake it in English.

(British films, as another course stresses, come from a tradition which is different both from the European and the American tradition. British films try either to emulate an American formula or to be so British it hurts. One way you end up with ambitious films which the Americans would have done better; the other way you end up with Ealing comedies, black and white backstreet dramas or films with an ex-Python being silly in the lead role. Neither kind should ever be given an Oscar.)

Money is not neglected. The Academy offers courses in creative accountancy, showing how a film never makes a profit however successful, so that the "profits" do not need to be shared. There are courses in power structure study in the world of Hollywood, sorting out agents, actors, studio heads, producers and writers in their correct order of importance. That, as a matter of fact, is the correct order. There is a course on how to award prizes to writers...

(This is a hard one. Writers have to get prizes now and then, but do you give the prize to the writer who thought of it all, or the ones who replaced him? All writers on a film get fired except the last one, and he may not have written any of it. Writers, of course, don't get fired because they are no good. It is because some executive has to make it look as if he is doing something and firing is the only thing he knows how to do.)

The Academy stands in spacious grounds, dominated by a statue of Colin Welland standing at the rostrum to accept his prize for Chariots of Fire and shouting "The British are coming!" No British film-maker won anything for years afterwards. It is an awful warning. Almost as awful as the fact that the film which won the most Oscars, Ben Hur, was one of the worst movies of all time.

Not that any of this has ever worried the Academy (motto: "In the last resort, the movies are not about celluloid - they are about popcorn").