An interview with author and Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne, whose 80 Years of the Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards is published by Abbeville Press.
When did your love affair with the movies begin?
It actually began several years ago when I was a kid growing up in the state of Washington. It was the days of the Second World War, and I was too young to be in the war and too old to be ignored so I went to the movies all the time. And I think growing up during the war was kind of a wonderful time, actually, because everybody was pulling together—you went to the movies and it was all about the war effort and a very warm feeling of community and a whole world of people I wanted to belong to. I also found that the people in the movies were much more interesting than the people in the small town I was living in. So I always wanted to be around movies and movie people. The more I found out about the movies and would investigate them, which wasn’t that easy back in those days, the more I knew about an actor’s career, or a studio’s output, or the type of movies certain studios made, the more fascinating the whole thing became. That’s kind of what I do at Turner, try to give some of that background about movies, and what was going on in the world or at that studio or in that actor’s life.
What was the first Oscar ceremony you attended?
It was 1961 for the year 1960; it was the famous year that ElizabethTaylor was thought to be dying and was very hesitantly helped down the aisle by Eddie Fisher and could barely say “thank you” in a very soft voice. But it was a very exciting night. My father had died not too long before, and I got tickets—which had to be relatively easy to do in those days—and it was very thrilling, because my mother came down and we got all dressed up and went—and there was Elizabeth Taylor and Irene Dunne and Yul Brynner and Shirley Jones, who won that year. And when we went out to get our car afterwards Greer Garson was standing right in front of us, which thrilled my mother. It was very star-studded and very exciting.
When and why did non-industry people become so fascinated by the business of films—opening-week movie grosses, for example?
Well that really hasn’t been all that long. When I started at the Hollywood Reporter, in 1977, either the Reporter or Variety were the only places you could get that information. Now it’s in the New York Times, it’s on every Web site, you turn on the news and they’ll tell you the grosses, and [things like] this was the third movie in a row with Nicole Kidman that didn’t do well at the box office and all of that. My aunt, who lives on a farm in the state of Washington, can quote the grosses—what studio’s doing well, and Lion’s Gate’s not doing so well this month, and you say, wait a minute. I think it became when people began focusing so much on movies, and especially when money became the end-all for all of us. When I was growing up you’d read about actors, and they’d never tell you their age and how much they made a year as part of their definition. But now People magazine, the first thing they give you is their name and how much they make per picture I just think it’s part of the world today—it’s not about doing the good work or really enjoying your life; it’s about how much money you make.
What do you think was the biggest Oscar upset ever?
I think it goes back to 1951, when the two big important films of the year were A Streetcar Named Desire and A Place in the Sun. They were duking it out, but the winner was An American in Paris. It was a movie that had already played off; MGM could get no future money out of it basically, because there were no DVDs or anything like that; and they also had Singing in the Rain coming out, which they were concentrating on, not American in Paris. American in Paris winning was kind of thrilling, but it was a total, total upset. I’d say the next biggest upset, for me, was not that long ago, when Brokeback Mountain was up, which seemed like such a sure thing, and was such a fine film and Ang Lee won the best director award and all of a sudden the winner was Crash, which I didn’t take that seriously as an important film. It was a good film, but not an important one, and it’s also one of those films that I don’t think will have any shelf life at all. That really surprised me, because I thought it was all homophobia more than anything and had nothing to do with filmmaking. I thought if anything the film industry would be more tolerant of something like that because it was so beautifully done.
Another controversial Oscar year was 1950, when Judy Holliday won Best Actress (Born Yesterday) over Bette Davis (All About Eve) and Gloria Swanson (Sunset Boulevard). Who should have won?
I think Judy Holliday was fabulous in that movie, but also, the reason she really won was, not only that she was wonderful, but that movie was the last one released. Sunset Boulevard had come out early in the summer, All About Eve not too long after that, and Born Yesterday opened in December. It was fresh on everybody’s mind, and she knocked everybody out; she was so funny. You look at that now and it does seem… well, if I’d had a vote then, I probably would have given it to Bette Davis. I thought that not only was she really great, but she’s not in that movie very much—she tends to dominate the movie, but she actually has very few scenes. Also, I always felt that Bette Davis was one of the great screen actresses who never really got her due—she won two Oscars, but the last was in 1938, and that was really before all the great work that she did.
What’s the best thing about being Robert Osborne?
What’s wonderful about it is getting to do what I’ve wanted to do. I mean I love to be able to meet people who are successful, and I love them not because they’re successful but usually people who are successful have qualities that make them interesting to be around. I love being able to talk to people who I really admire; I love having this job because it puts me in front of them so they kind of know who I am and trust me to talk to me. I’m incredibly lucky because I was always acquiring this information about movies and there was no place to use it: such a job didn’t exist when I was growing up. And the fact that when this job did come along, I was the one who got to do it, is such luck. And if anybody tells you that luck doesn’t have anything to do with it, they’re crazy. And if I had stayed in Los Angeles instead of coming to New York I wouldn’t have gotten it; if I had had to audition for it, I wouldn’t have gotten it, because auditioning puts a whole different pressure on you than when you’re just sitting in a restaurant talking about movies.