BOOK REVIEW / When the spotlight sweeps away: 'The Oscars' - Anthony Holden: Little Brown, 20 pounds

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IN THE spirit of the Oscars themselves, the problem with this book is hype. The subtitle promises a juicy 'Secret History of Hollywood's Academy Awards'; and the long list of 'impossible withouts' include such tantalising names as Warren Beatty, Kevin Costner and Jack Nicholson. But the book turns out to be an extremely thorough, not particularly revelatory, history of the Academy Awards - what you might expect from an author whose curriculum vitae includes five royal biographies but nothing, before this, on the film business. Like the annual ceremony, the end product is rather long and rather dull, with some brilliant moments.

Essentially, Holden's book is a chronological list of winners and losers, from 1926 to 1992. 'Ironweed,' he reports, 'won Jack Nicholson an unprecedented sixth Best Actor award from the New York Film Critics, and his ninth Oscar nomination (to Streep's seventh), placing him in a tie for fourth with Spencer Tracy in the all-time Oscar league table, behind only Hepburn, Davis and Olivier . . .' The train-spotting fans of such facts and figures need refer only to the comprehensive appendices at the back of the book, which include: 'The only television play to be made into a feature film which won Best Picture.' (Marty, 1955.) To be fair, I was stunned to learn that Rocky, starring Sylvester Stallone, won Best Picture and Best Director in 1976; and that only one woman director has even been nominated as best director: Lina Wertmuller for Seven Beauties in 1976.

Where Holden could use a bit more detail is in his attempts at cultural history. 'On the assumption that he would be able to organise a future award for his mistress, Marion Davies,' he claims, '(William Randolph) Hearst wanted them to become the industry's most sought-after prize.' I'm sure that it's true, but I would like some evidence.

Or again, Holden claims that Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Studios, made All Quiet on the Western Front specifically to win an Oscar; and that in 1940 Henry Fonda took a role in The Grapes of Wrath followed by The Lady Eve to increase his Oscar chances ('versatility is often a cunning route to victory'). He makes it sound as though Hollywood revolves round the Oscars, which it doesn't; its god has always been the box office.

When it comes to 'secrets', the best Holden comes up with are pretty routine: such as the fact that actors tend to be honoured for their worst pictures, playing 'physical or mental defectives' (sic) in what Pauline Kael called a highly 'conspicuous' acting style. Hence Al Pacino, who has been nominated but failed to win an Oscar a record-busting six times, is a strong contender this year for his portrayal of a blind, alcoholic, disgraced general in Scent of a Woman.

Similarly, big, bad hits are generally given visual awards as booby prizes (see Dracula, nominated for art direction, costume design and make-up). Maverick directors may secure the occasional nomination but that is merely to add class to the list; hence no prizes for Robert Altman's The Player. But one hardly needs a high-level conversation with Warren Beatty to work out these rules: they are the staple of film trade- paper editorials. The real secrets, such as what percentage of Academy members return their ballots, remain hidden.

But, gee folks, this is the Oscars: the highlights are priceless. In 1947, a montage of Best Picures was accidentally projected upside-down, backwards and on to the ceiling rather than the screen. 'This picture embodies the glories of our past, the memories of our present and the inspiration of our future,' intoned an oblivious Ronald Reagan, newly elected president of the Screen Actors Guild.

Then there was the blush- making time when Frank Capra was nominated for Lady for a Day in 1933. 'Come and get it, Frank]' said the presenter. 'It was a long way to the open dance floor,' recalled Capra, 'but I wedged through the crowded tables . . . Over here] I waved. Then the spotlight suddenly swept away from me - and picked up a flustered man standing on the other side of the dance floor - Frank Lloyd (director of Cavalcade)]' Capra's journey back to his seat, amid cries of 'Sit down] Down in front]' was 'the longest, saddest, most shattering walk of my life'.

The thank-yous are always the part of the Oscars everyone loves to hate. And Holden picks out some toe-curling moments: when Lawrence Olivier accepted his Lifetime Achievement award in 1978 from Cary Grant, whom he had met perhaps twice in this life, he threw away his cue cards and began: 'Oh dear friends, am I supposed to speak after that? Cary, my dear old friend for many a year - from the earliest years of either of us working in this country - thank you for that beautiful citation and the trouble you have taken to make it . . .' and so it goes on, year after year after year.