March 21, 1996

New guides to prize-winning videos

By John Hartl

Seattle Times

In all the years that festivals and critics' groups have been giving prizes to their favorite movies, there's never been one book that compiled all the major awards.

But the video market has created an appetite for just such a guide, and Michael Gebert has designed a book that does it all on a year-by-year basis: ``The Encyclopedia of Movie Awards'' (St. Martin's Paperbacks, $7.99). Allowing instant comparisons between the various groups, he devotes each chapter to one year, beginning with the Photoplay Medal of Honor in 1920 and ending with last year's Sundance Film Festival honors.

Here, for the first time in one volume, are all the winners from the Sundance, Cannes, Venice and Berlin festivals; the New York and Los Angeles critics' awards; the Independent Spirit awards and the National Society of Film Critics' awards; the Harvard Lampoon's ``Movie Worsts''; the Golden Raspberry awards; the top-grossing films of each year; the National Film Registry's list of 175 protected films; plus the winners of the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards.

What's more, Gebert's ``Encyclopedia'' is not just a list but a discriminating critic's guide to all the ins and outs of awards-giving, complete with ``Gebert's Golden Armchairs,'' the author's caustic, witty alternative guide to what should have won.

It's especially fun to watch him plow through those embarrassing early Oscar winners, which were often determined by studio politics. He calls ``Cimarron'' ``the least watchable Best Picture winner of all,'' and prefers to give his own top 1931 prize to Chaplin's ``City Lights.'' In his opinion, ``Cavalcade'' should have lost to ``King Kong'' in 1933, and 1936's best film was ``My Man Godfrey,'' not ``The Great Ziegfeld.''

No quarrel there, though he does turn more eccentric as the years pass. Was ``What's Opera, Doc?'' really the best picture of 1957? ``Dead Ringers'' the best of 1988? ``Jungle Fever'' the best of 1991? Of course he's entitled to his opinion, which he delivers without hesitation.

He compares 1958's big winner, ``Gigi,'' to ``a musical version of `The Story of O'.'' For Gebert, ``Gentleman's Agreement'' (best picture of 1947), is an inconsequential movie ``about Gregory Peck having trouble checking into hotels.''

He saves some of his most blistering comments for last year's ``best picture,'' ``Forrest Gump,'' nailing even Tom Hanks' performance: ``I think the singsong accent and stupefied look dampen down his natural charm, and the performance has grown monotonous by the time the damnable thing is (finally) over.''

One quibble: Gebert includes all of the Oscar nominees for best picture, director and actors, but he lists only the winners in other categories. Now, isn't the basis for every good movie its screenplay? Where would these actors and directors be without a solid script? And why would a writer eliminate the nominees in these categories?

The same mistake is perpetuated in John Harkness' ``The Academy Awards Handbook'' (Pinnacle Film, $4.99), which doesn't have Gebert's compensating sense of humor and perspective.

The closest Harkness gets to having fun with the subject is a chapter called ``Predicting the Oscars: Winning Your Office Pool,'' in which he suggests that ``you might be better seeing none of the nominated films.'' In his office pool, the most successful competitor is ``someone who rarely sees any movies at all, but simply listens to the buzz as the event itself approaches.''

Fortunately, all the Oscar nominees are present and accounted for in the latest edition of Damien Bona and the late Mason Wiley's invaluable, wonderfully gossipy ``Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards'' (Ballantine, $23).

As always, the ``points of interest'' section at the end of each year's list of nominees is filled with essential Oscar trivia. Did you know, for instance, that Robert Downey Jr., nominated for playing Charles Chaplin in ``Chaplin,'' is the ``first person nominated for playing another Oscar acting nominee''?

This is also the only book that gives you a full rundown on family relations at the Oscars. Last year's music nominees included Randy Newman (nominated for his song, ``Make Up Your Mind,'' from ``The Paper''), cousin of double nominee Thomas Newman (``Little Women,'' ``The Shawshank Redemption''), who's the son of nine-time Oscar-winning composer Alfred Newman (``The Song of Bernadette'').

The first updated edition in three years, this version of ``Inside Oscar'' was begun by Bona and Wiley, who died two years ago, and completed by Bona.


(c) 1996, Seattle Times. Distributed by Knight-Ridder/Tribune Information Services.