Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Very Worst Oscar Snub (It's Not What You Think)

By Lars Trodson

For me, it’s not the fact that Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” was not nominated for Best Picture because, for one, it was never going to win. Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment” deservedly took home the statuette that year, so it’s only mildly irritating that the grandaddy of all slasher films didn’t get the nod. I can live with that.

But there are two greater “Psycho” injustices, and they are the two worst Oscar decisions in its 85 years. When you realize that “Psycho” was dissed in both the editing and music categories, you begin to realize what a significant oversight this was.

It’s only been in the last 20 years or so — when home video equipment became so ubiquitous — that the average film viewer became aware of the editing process (because everyone became an editor, from family movies to micro-indies in the back yard). Today’s viewer is aware of how a film is cut.

That was not true in 1960, when “Psycho” was released. Yet contemporaneous audiences were utterly aware of how editing influenced its reaction because they experienced it: when Norman Bates pulls back that shower curtain and the film cuts to Janet Leigh’s screaming face, the plasticity of celluloid became apparent. How the film was cut — how you never actually see the knife touching Leigh’s body — was an almost immediate topic of discussion. The power of this editing, which was accomplished by George Tomasini, who was Hitchcock’s cutter for 10 years, is unassailable.

The editing award that year went to Daniel Mandell for “The Apartment” — certainly a credible candidate, but it was no “Psycho.”

Then there is the music. The central idea of a movie’s musical soundtrack was that it not get in the way of the story — that it enhance but not overpower the image on the screen. This notion, of course, does not apply to Bernard Herrmann’s soundtrack. The slashing strings directly comment on and exist along side the horrible images of Leigh’s naked body trying to escape the attack. In one moment music accompaniment was changed forever, and opened up ideas for others (think of how important the music is in Kubrick's "2001."

The winner that year was Ernest Gold’s score for “Exodus” — a film that probably means nothing to anybody. The other nominees were Dimitri Tiomkin for John Wayne’s “The Alamo,” “Andre Previn for “Elmer Gantry,” Alex North for “Spartacus” (I’m sure the melodies from all these movies comes immediately to mind) and, finally, the only plausible competition to Herrmann: Elmer Bernstein's wonderful, iconic score for “The Magnificent Seven.”

I only have one side note to this. This is only my pet theory, which means nothing — but I think there are striking similarities to some of Herrmann’s musical themes in “Psycho” to the third movement of William Schumann’s “Symphony for Strings” (from 1943). I find that third movement eerily similar to Herrmann’s work in the movie — I don’t want to say he cribbed from it because others may listen to the two pieces and hear nothing even remotely similar, but my untrained ears would disagree.

One other thing that annoys me: The great Irish actor Robert Shaw received exactly one Oscar nomination: playing Henry the VIII in “A Man For All Seasons” from 1966. He was overlooked for his gangster Doyle Lonnegan in “The Sting” and for Quint in “Jaws.” Perhaps one can overlook “The Sting”— the competition that year was pretty stiff — but when I think that George Burns (God bless him) won in 1975 for his role in “The Sunshine Boys,” well, it makes me a little unhappy. The other nominees that year were Brad Dourif (“Cuckoo’s Nest”), Burgess Meredith (“Day of the Locust”), Chris Sarandon “Dog Day Afternoon”) and Jack Warden (“Shampoo”). How Robert Shaw got overlooked is one of the great Oscar mysteries. He died of a heart attack at 51.