Oscar the Ouch

Mistake-laden book by local professor gets panned by readers

In a parody of Sally Field's infamous Oscar acceptance speech, readers of a new book are exclaiming, "I dislike it! I really dislike it!"

That's the response from a small band of movie buffs who've taken to the Internet to denounce Oscar Fever, a factually challenged study of the Academy Awards written by Emanuel Levy, a film instructor at ASU West.

Although there is no shortage of nominees in the gaffe-ridden tome, top contenders for best goof would definitely include Levy's contention that actress Joan Fontaine won an Oscar for To Have and Have Not, a Humphrey Bogart film in which she never appeared. Other eyebrow-raisers include the statement that Art Carney, one of Oscar's older recipients, somehow managed to be both 54 and57 at the time of his win, and that Kim Hunter won a Best Supporting Actress award for her "spectacular debut" in 1951's A Streetcar Named Desire, even though she had been appearing in movies for nearly a decade prior to her victory.

But the probable winner in this star-studded blunder fest? The heretofore unknown fact that Peter Fonda and Lynn Redgrave are actually brother and sister.

Originally published in hardback to coincide with last February's Oscar nominations, a paperback reprint that appeared earlier this summer has triggered a spate of negative commentary on Amazon.com's reader comment site.

In a post titled "Fact Checker Wanted!", a Long Beach, California, reader claims to be "stunned by the number of errors, omissions and contradictions in these pages." Reeling off a laundry list of bum info (among other things, Levy omitted Ingrid Bergman, Robert De Niro, Greer Garson and Jessica Lange from a list of performers who'd accrued six or more nominations), the correspondent warns potential buyers, "if the facts matter to you, you'd be better off with another book."

"I have never seen a non-fiction book filled with so many errors!" marvels a Florida reader who offers up a litany of further mistakes, including Levy's assertion that only two African-American actors (Denzel Washington and Lou Gossett) ever won Best Supporting Actor awards, completely forgetting Cuba Gooding Jr.'s victory in that category, a fact acknowledged just one page earlier.

Another e-critic supplies further evidence of the book's lack of consistency. On one page, Levy credits both Kate Winslet (Titanic) and Isabelle Adjani (The Story of Adele H) as the youngest performer to be nominated as Best Actress, even though Winslet's age is stated as 22 and Adjani's as 21. "What?" asks the baffled reader.

Oddly, Levy professes to be heartened by readers' reaction to the glut of misinformation in his book. "I am flattered, because it means that when it comes to Oscar, people are really paying attention." According to Levy, one of those people even wrote to him to dispute the ages of a number of actors who appear in the book. "We corresponded and, with a sense of humor, I said, 'You try to establish the age of Bette Davis or Joan Crawford.' All of these women -- and some of the men -- were lying about their age."

Still, that age issue is the least of the book's many goofs. In a discussion of performers who've earned nominations for re-creating Broadway roles on the screen, Levy cites the 1958 nominations of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof co-stars Paul Newman and Burl Ives. But Newman didn't play the role onstage (Ben Gazzara did). Ives, meanwhile, did appear in the Broadway production but was not nominated for replaying the role in the movie. (Ives won a Best Supporting Actor trophy that year for The Big Country.)

Compounding all this cinematic chaos is the fact that Oscar Feveris an expanded version of Levy's . . . And the Winner Is . . ., another Oscar study first published in 1987. Although the earlier book had its share of mistakes (many of which pop up uncorrected in the updated opus), some things that may have been correct 14 years ago no longer hold true. As a result, readers are told that the last black-and-white film to win Best Picture was 1960's The Apartment -- a distinction that now goes to Schindler's List. And thanks to the relatively recent victories of Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven, 1930's Cimarron is no longer the last Western to be so awarded.

How did so many goofs find their way into a book by an alleged expert in his field? (In addition to his ASU duties, Levy was, until recently, senior film critic for the show-business trade paper Variety.)

Addressing the glaring Fonda/Redgrave faux pas, Levy draws a heavy breath. "That was a mistake and it should be corrected," he says. "But I can tell you what I was thinking -- 'Peter Fonda . . . Jane Fonda . . . Lynn Redgrave . . . Colin Redgrave . . .'"

Levy suggests that by nit-picking, readers are losing sight of the broader picture he'd hoped to bring to light: that socially uplifting pictures usually beat out downbeat tales, flashy roles are more apt to win Oscar than mousy characters and so on. He points out that the book's initial hardback run (6,000 copies at $29.95) sold out; furthermore, the book received advance praise from such diverse sources as the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures and Publishers Weekly, a tip sheet whose positive review probably ensures that the book will wind up on a lot of library shelves. Veteran film critic Andrew Sarris even contributed a cover blurb, hailing Levy's opus as "an invaluable addition to the literature of one of the few unifying spectacles in American life." (It might be noted that earlier this year, Levy edited a book titled Citizen Sarris, American Film Critic.)

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