It's pre-Oscar night at SteynOnline. I've reviewed three of this year's big contenders - Dunkirk, Darkest Hour, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. But from the Sunday Telegraph corner of the Steyn archives here's my profile from a few years back of the indispensable man - the one star without whom none of this would be possible. I considered updating this to include a couple of Harvey Weinstein gags, but concluded I like it with the faint whiff of celebrity yesteryear:
He's short. He's muscular. He has no private parts. No, not Tom Cruise. We're talking about one of that select handful of silver screen legends recognised instantly by their first name alone: Brad, Barbra, Arnie ...and Oscar. He's Hollywood's most indestructible star, unless your chauffeur accidentally reverses over him in the limo. He has Tinseltown's most consistent year-round tan - a rich golden glow that you can see your face in, and sometimes your name on.
He's been to more Academy Awards parties than most, his place in the motion picture firmament so secure that, like Liz Taylor and Donald Duck, he's one of those rare stars who can dispense with the tedious bother of actually making movies. But, more than that, he's a great humanitarian: over the years no one has given more generously to sick people. Not too sick, mind you: just an award-winning left foot à la Daniel Day-Lewis or a few decorative stick-on lesions like the Aids-stricken Tom Hanks in Philadelphia.
Oscar himself, after ninety years in the business, looks terrific - as young as he did when he made his professional debut on May 16, 1929. Friends insist that he's had no work done, though there isn't a cosmetics guy in town who wouldn't love to get him under his scalpel. "I've said to him, 'Oscar, Oscar, you're 13 1/2 inches tall'," sighs one Beverly Hills surgeon-to-the-stars." 'You'd be amazed what we can do with foot-lifts these days.' But he doesn't want to know." Friends badger him continually about the secret of those fabulous looks. "Well, he takes care of himself," says Bob Wagner. "He only goes out one night a year. And the other 364 days he just sits on the mantelpiece, staying away from rich food and ultraviolet rays."
Incredible as it seems, Oscar started in the age of silent pictures, giving George Marion Jnr an award for Best Title-Card Writing for Oh, Kay! (1928). Within months, pals such as Mary Pickford and Doug Fairbanks were taking voice lessons, but not Oscar: today, he's the only silent star left in Hollywood. His taciturn inclinations have stood him in good stead over the years. Unlike such controversial award-winners like Elia Kazan, Oscar never named names, despite three weeks of intensive questioning by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. As a frustrated Roy Cohn would later tell the press, "So he doesn't have any genitals. That doesn't mean he's not a faggot." Two thirds of a century on, Oscar's courageous stand is still widely admired in Hollywood.
But not by everybody. "What issue has he ever spoken out on?" says a leading activist. "Kevin Costner speaks up in favour of the environment, Richard Gere in favour of the Dalai Lama, Alec Baldwin in favour of stoning Henry Hyde to death. But Oscar just gives the whole industry a bad name: people look at him and say, wow, that is one dumb movie star. It's not as if he's fooling anyone. For one night, he doesn't mind being seen in the arms of really macho, hetero Best Actor winners, but the rest of the year he's in the closet. Or on the mantlepiece."
After nine decades of keeping his mouth shut, this most enduring of celebrities remains an enigma. Lauren Bacall first met him when she was asked to present the Scientific and Technical awards in 1955. "Oh, I've known him forever," she says in her gravelly drawl. "But I don't feel I've ever got close to him." Other stars testify to Oscar's generosity. "What can I say?" giggles on-again, off-again, on-again companion Sally Field. "He likes me, he really likes me."
Today, as he stands there being air-kissed by celebrity chums such as Angelina Jolie and Sean Penn, it's hard to believe he was born in the humblest of circumstances. His father was an unemployed art school graduate called George Stanley, whom Louis B Mayer paid $500 for his services. His mother was Academy librarian Margaret Herrick, who on first seeing the little fellow exclaimed: "He looks like my Uncle Oscar!"
It was a tough childhood: they couldn't afford any clothes, only a heavy sword he carried with him everywhere. But in 1920s Hollywood it wasn't easy being a naked guy with a sword, unless you were a Cecil B De Mille extra: early on, Oscar developed that hard, cold shell that few have managed to penetrate. "I tried everything," recalled Mae West in conversation with Barry Norman on BBC1's Film '37. "I said, 'A hard man is good to find.' I said, 'Is that a rapier you're holding or are you just pleased to see me?' I said, 'You're stiffer than Nelson Eddy but I like that in my men.' I said, 'I've nothing against a man who's 13 1/2 inches.' But he just stood there giving me both cold shoulders."
But a later generation of actresses feels very differently. "He was a pioneer," says Sharon Stone. "He was the first star to be comfortable with his sexuality, and in a time of repression and censorship he paid a heavy price for his refusal to not do nude scenes. In that sense, he was a major influence on me, though, of course, he's never uncrossed his legs." Demi Moore agrees. "Before we shot the nude dancing scenes in Striptease," she says, "I insisted on watching all his old Awards ceremonies - not just for the way he's at ease with his body, but also for all his great moves, that incredible sense of rhythm. I think there's a tremendous bond between us. If you notice, when you tap on it, my chest has the same dull metallic ping as his."
For a while, Oscar persisted with the acting career. He played the title role, with the aid of prosthetics, in The Maltese Falcon and he was briefly James Bond - the bland, stiff one between Sean Connery and Roger Moore whom no one remembers. But he hasn't taken a major screen part since he played himself in The Oscar (1966). "He was never a good actor. He wasn't even a good straight man," sneered his long-time co-host Bob Hope. "I'd come out and say, 'Welcome to the Academy Awards. Or, as they're known in my house, Passover.' And he'd just stand there staring blankly at the teleprompter and frosting up the joint. Boy, I wanna tell you. . . ." Tensions between the two eventually led to Hope quitting the show in the Seventies. The times they were a-changin' and Oscar found himself drawn to a new generation of film-makers born of the trauma of Vietnam and championing the causes of anti-militarism and sexual liberation. "Yeah, right," scoffed Hope. " 'Make love, not war'? From a guy with no penis and a sword?"
Hope's frustration that Oscar wasn't pulling his weight (6lb 10oz) is shared by other co-hosts. But, while it's true that he can't read the prompter, neither can most of the other actors; and, while it's also true that he can't do the big dance numbers because his feet are stuck together, that didn't stop Rob Lowe during the famous 1988 Snow White duet. In a sense then, Oscar's very human limitations somehow infuse the spirit of the entire ceremony. And while he remains, to quote Titanic director, James Cameron, "king of the world", the obvious question lingers: why, on one of fashion's great nights, does he never wear any clothes? "That's not fair," says style-watcher Julien LeRent. "Each year, he orders a glamorous, exciting new outfit. But at the last minute he realises he's gone too far and he'll end up looking like an idiot. So he gives it to Cher."
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