- The Washington Times - Friday, February 1, 2008

A shadow lies over the 80th annual Academy Awards ceremony planned for Feb. 24 at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood: A lingering strike by the Writers Guild of America could result in picketing or reduced attendance or even, in the worst-case scenario, a cancellation. Nevertheless, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences maintains a business-as-usual stance.

Ditto for Turner Classic Movies, the cable channel that presents television’s most conspicuous retrospective series devoted to the Academy Awards, the annual “31 Days of Oscar” tribute. The tenure of the principal host, Robert Osborne, who came to TCM in 1994, coincides with the tradition of “31 Days.”

Last month, the genial Mr. Osborne completed taping his segments for the series, which begins today. He doesn’t completely discount the possibility of a disrupted, postponed or canceled Oscar ceremony. However, he regards such outcomes as unlikely and observes that TCM celebrates the cavalcade of Oscar history rather than the upcoming ceremony, whatever its status.

Mr. Osborne has enjoyed a long association with the Oscars. He became the official chronicler for the academy after publishing “Academy Awards Illustrated” in 1969. The annals, now titled “Years of the Oscar,” are updated every five years. The 80th anniversary edition is due in September. Obviously, Mr. Osborne needs to attend the Oscar ceremony on a regular basis. He also inherited duties as the academy’s official red-carpet greeter from Army Archerd, a trade-press colleague, a few years ago.

Mr. Osborne’s fascination with the Academy Awards goes back to a small-town moviegoing boyhood in Colfax, Wash. He recalls a radio broadcast of the 1946 ceremony in March of the following year, when he was 14. “I’m not sure the entire show was carried on radio,” he says, “but I distinctly remember Olivia de Havilland winning for ‘To Each His Own.’ I was more intrigued by the sound of film clips they were showing the audience. There was a long one of Jennifer Jones, a best actress nominee for ‘Duel in the Sun,’ which I hadn’t seen. I was a great Jennifer Jones fan, so that had me salivating. I longed to be there.”

He got there as a member of the public (and struggling TV actor) in 1961, when it was still possible for mere fans to purchase tickets to the Oscar show. So he was on hand when Elizabeth Taylor accepted her get-well best-actress statuette for “Butterfield 8,” having survived a prolonged viral infection that led to pneumonia.

That commenced a certain history with Miss Taylor. A volunteer seat-filler at the 1970 show, Mr. Osborne found himself the actress’s companion for much of the evening.

“Richard Burton was a nominee for ‘Anne of the Thousand Days,’ ” Mr. Osborne explains, “but he vanished, and I took his seat. The idea is that the auditorium will always look full when the cameras pan the audience, even if guests need to use the bathroom or go backstage before presenting awards. Elizabeth assumed Richard was backstage drinking, not an unwarranted assumption. He never returned, so she was seething. But she stayed put, because she had promised to be there for the cameras. She later presented the best movie award, for ‘Midnight Cowboy.’ That was the night she wore that huge diamond, remember? She looked stunning, and she had kept the rock covered with a scarf until making her appearance on stage.”

Mr. Osborne also suffered a painful long-distance interlude with Miss Taylor while working in a hometown movie theater during his teens. “I fell from a ladder and broke both arms while changing the letters on our marquee,” he recalls. “We were installing Elizabeth’s name and the title ‘Courage of Lassie.’ She was trouble for me at a tender age.”

Mr. Osborne regretted the cancellation of the Golden Globes ceremony last month. “It’s more of a good time,” he says. “People can eat and drink and relax and table-hop. The way the Oscars have become, it’s no longer possible to sit in the auditorium and have much fun. That begins at the parties afterwards. There’s so much riding on the Oscars now that the tension in the room can be suffocating. The Golden Globes aren’t that important to anybody, but they’re organized in an enjoyable way. It would be nice if the Oscars could recapture some of that enjoyment, which must have been easier when the awards were still a banquet.”

The TCM series is frequently organized around Oscar categories. Not this year. Genres, stars or topics (from “Love and Kisses” to “Communists”) will be emphasized during the daytime and decades during the evening. Adventure movies kick off the programming today, starting at 6 a.m. with “The Adventures of Robin Hood.” The 1970s get the spotlight this evening, starting at 8 p.m. with “Jaws.” Is it sheer coincidence that these pictures won Oscars for their composers, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and John Williams, respectively?

About 350 titles will be revived this month. Given adequate curiosity and stamina, “31 Days” can be trusted to close a lot of gaps in one’s experience of Hollywood and its venerable awards process.

SERIES: “31 Days of Oscar”

CONTENT: A daily repertory of feature-movie revivals, showcasing about 350 titles that were nominated for Academy Awards or received them between 1927 and 2003

WHEN: Today through March 2

WHERE: Turner Classic Movies cable channel

WEB SITE: www.tcm.com

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