Sunday, February 26, 2012


As a young child I sat in a huge movie theatre and watched the epic fantasy movie, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS. Like most everybody in the audience, young and old, I was stunned by the special visual effects. They were then (and still are) spellbinding. Surrealist artist Hannes Bok called this film "traumatic". He was right. Those cinematic miracles were created by the screen's doyen of special visual effects, Ray Harryhausen. Those effects, combined with the powerful, moody music score by Bernard Herrmann, leading the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and the gorgeous cinematography of Wilkie Cooper, caused me to practically crawl out of the theatre on hands and knees.

When the following Spring arrived and the traditional Academy Awards ceremony was upon us I sat down with my family in front of the tube waiting for the special effects Oscar to be awarded. I wanted to watch Ray Harryhausen walk up to the stage and accept his well deserved honor. There was no doubt whatever in my mind that JASON would win the effects Oscar, and probably the music and photography Oscars as well.

The nominated films for Best Special Effects were at last to be announced by some actor (I forget whom). Giving my parents a knowing wink I sat glued to the TV screen. The first nomination was read: Ub Iwerks for THE BIRDS. Interesting. Though I hadn't seen the movie I'd heard good things about it. The second nomination....Emil Kosa for...CLEOPATRA. CLEOPATRA? My surprise and shock were evident. There were no other nominees. What happened to JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS? Could it be that the Academy had not seen the film? I simply couldn't believe my eyes, especially as they showed clips from the two nominated films, the one for CLEOPATRA being for, as I recall, a battle scene. CLEOPATRA got the award.

The photography award went to Leon Shamroy (a first class cameraman) for, of course, CLEOPATRA. Not even a nod for Wilkie Cooper. Then the music Oscar. Bernard Herrmann was not nominated, either. Of all films, TOM JONES received the Best original Score award. TOM JONES?? A pleasant, lightweight score, but nothing to write home about. Even more weirdly, it won over the brilliant Alfred Newman score for HOW THE WEST WAS WON which was nominated.

Even as a child I could then see that something was not quite right with the Academy Awards.

Since those days I have come to learn, from both inside the business and out, that Oscars are awarded on the basis of the lobbying efforts of the major studios. I hate to say that to people who still believe they are awarded for excellence or still believe in Santa Claus, but that is the reality. There is also personal jealousy heavily involved among various communities. I later learned (from the inside) that in those days the Special Effects award committee was headed by a good, solid but somewhat obtuse practitioner of the more mundane type of special effects and although he did generally fine, competent work during his long career, was simply not interested in the amazing achievements of Ray Harryhausen and went out of his way to dissuade other members on the committee from taking Harryhausen's triumph seriously. He also apparently did not understand how Harryhausen accomplished some of his magic and must have decided that what he didn't know wasn't worth knowing.

That is when I stopped taking the Oscars seriously and it has been getting more laughable with each passing year. Of course there are those rare exceptions, such as 1967's A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, which not only deserved to be honored but were in fact actually honored. But glancing over the non-talents and incompetents who are up for Oscars this year I think the best thing I can do on "Oscar night" is to watch a good movie made by people who loved and understood films. It probably won't be a film made in the last forty years, I can assure you.

[Postscript: Thanks to the efforts of a determined California school teacher, Ray Harryhausen was finally honored by the Academy mandarins with a "Gordon Sawyer Achievement Award" in 1992. Though long overdue, and not in time to have done the retired artist any good in his career it was, at least, some tribute to one of the most original, artistic men in motion pictures. Odd, though, that the Academy, which now calls its special effects category "The Best Achievement in Special Visual Effects", never gave the man an award in that category even though the term "special visual effects" was one coined by Ray Harryhausen himself in 1958.]

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