Come Oscar time, everyone becomes an armchair member of the Academy. If you’ve sat in front of your television during the Oscars and said “What were they thinking,” I have just the book for you! Author Robert James is undertaking a massive effort to watch every Oscar telecast and give his thoughts on what movies the Academy failed to recognize in his fantastic series Who Won?!?: An Irreverent Look at the Oscars. Having just concluded Volume 1, focused on the awards from 1927-1943 (and volume two expected on shelves in July), I am yearning to read more, particularly as we get to the years where I’ve seen and reviewed a lot of the films. James has a fun style of writing that’s not afraid to take the Academy down a peg, or three. If you have any interest in the Academy Awards, get in on this series now!
The tome is a massive 614 pages detailing every category developed throughout the history of the Academy Awards. An added bonus of the book is not simply James’ assertions of what the Academy got right or wrong, but in the subtle changes throughout the history of the awards themselves. James mentions the continued challenges the Academy had with the writing categories, and what constituted an original screenplay or an adaptation. You see this with the musical categories, where at one point, an award could be given out for the reuse of a past song. When James gets to these categories, he has no problem removing a movie from one section and putting it in another. Films that are based far too much on adapted material (a prime example is So Proudly We Hail which acknowledges using real nurses stories) will be moved to that particular category. Throughout, James creates his prime Oscar telecast, and asks the reader which category they prefer; I’m personally for bringing back the adapted music category.
You’ll find yourself agreeing and disagreeing with James profusely throughout. The sheer honesty comes through in James’ writing, and yet he never takes on a snooty academic air. He doesn’t say, “This movie is garbage, and I can say that because I’m smarter;” he takes the time to tell you why he feels a particular movie is overrated or underrated. He values reader opinion and mentions a few times emailing him if you don’t like his views. Several times I found myself defending a particular title, or saying “Yeah, why didn’t Bride of Frankenstein get an award.” James loves genre pictures, and like most movie fans, agrees that horror and comedy are brutally cast aside in favor of prestige films. I’m itching to read the 1950s volume to see if he makes a case for certain B-movies. If you don’t know the movies in question, James briefly sums up the plot and why it deserves a nod, without getting bogged down in plot synopsis and history. He does include a brief history of the awards at the beginning of each chapter, which I also found historically interesting in terms of showing how the Oscars started out as a quick dinner before flourishing into the spectacle it is now.
The personal take James presents is what makes the book such fun; it’s like discussing the Oscars with an old friend. James puts in little asides throughout the book, such as detailing his lack of funds to watch particular archived films, and an invitation to have readers take him and his family on vacation! Later on, I found myself laughing at James’ continual jabs at actor Leslie Howard (I finally found someone who agrees he’s totally boring!), and he continually mentions that certain films aren’t as good as they’re claimed to be. He takes the time out to mention things that bother him about established films, such as The Wizard of Oz being a more enduring film than Gone With the Wind. And I appreciate his conclusions about the rape in GWTW that I argue with fans over. That’s not to say the man is infallible, and a few instances I had to shake my head and disagree, but that was few and far between. Hey, anybody who doesn’t make me feel bad for bashing Mrs. Miniver can do no wrong!
The book is lengthy, but it’ll please Oscarphiles as well as the basic movie viewer. James love for the Oscars is evident, or else why would he devote all this time! He champions what he enjoys, but never devolves into petty arguments. If you can, I highly recommend picking it up; not to mention, James was kind enough to give me his Oscar picks!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.