When I was young, the Academy Awards still retained an unmistakeable aura of glamor and remove. There in one big room for one long evening, we all watched American royalty – the truly big names. The real stars. Cary Grant. Katherine Hepburn. Jimmy Stewart. John Wayne. Bette Davis. Lauren Bacall. Henry Fonda. Burt Lancaster. Bing Crosby. Bob Hope. Ingrid Bergman. Elizabeth Taylor. Laurence Olivier.
And many more – even the minor starlets and pretenders were given status by the giants they escorted to the state. It was an age where there was a real remove between celebrity and the general public; there was true distance between our living room floor and the black and white images on the television. The walk of fame was an island in a far-away land and we glimpsed it through a gauzy lens from the vantage-point of our common lives.
In the intervening years, celebrity has become common; the movie business became a corner of the media industry and the studios became operating units of multi-national conglomerates. The power of stardom was reduced, even as the money grew bigger. Great movies were still made, of course – and still are made. But now we’re a culture that knows both the details of the first weekend gross and international residuals and the unfortunate facts about the decomposition of Anna Nicole Smith’s corpse. Glamor we value no longer.
Still, when I think of the Oscars – and frankly, I really don’t, except for this one weekend – I think back to those early shows from – in my case – the 60s. The names are still amazing to read today, to think that they were all there in the front rows. That short speeches were made, a few clips shown, the orchestra played, a few quips (usally by Hope) were thrown around, and the curtain came down in two hours.
Last year, we took the kids to LA on the front end of one of my business trips and, of course, we reveled in touristry for a couple of days. We saw the Hollywood sign, shopped in Santa Monica, drove out toe Malibu for a day of sun, and took in the wonderfully real studio tour at Warner Brothers. There was the fire escape that Toby Maguire clung to in Spiderman, right down the “street” from the stoop where Cagney menaced in Angels with Dirty Faces. It was a true piece of old Hollywood, the old outdoor New York street scene set at Warner Brothers. We got out of the tram and walked around. Cagney filmed here. Edward G. Robinson too. Humphrey Bogart, and Joan Blondell, and Barbara Stanwyck all walked these sidewalks many times. The Jazz Singer was shot on this set. Parts of it were used in Casablanca.
As we walked around, in and out of doorways, through the thin walls into non-rooms beyond, it all felt strangely familiar. We knew this block, we knew this line of brownstones, we knew that corner drug store. We’d been here before, dozens of times. The set has been in constant use since the late 20s.
Later, the obligatory stop in what passes for “Hollywood” – the tinsel shops and placard stores along the walk of stars jammed with busloads of celebrity-seeking fellow travelers. Not worthwhile, except for one vestige – the corny, goofball handprints and cement signatures at the old Graumann’s Theater. Then those names from the glamorous past