Although Mankiewicz won in absentia, Cecil B. De Mille showed up to bear out his foreboding. The producer forgot one of the 10 commandments of after- dinner speaking - Check Your Notes - and called the guest of honor, the Chinese ambassador, "the Jap."
The truth of the Oscars is that millions of people tuned in then and do so now in anticipation of a humiliation such as Mankiewicz feared or a blunder such as De Mille's. The Oscars have evolved from a private gathering of film industry's elite to a massively publicized media event. The Academy Awards broadacst (beginning at 9 p.m. tomorrow on ABC) has slipped in the ratings in the last decade, but it still commands a huge audience.
Why do 60 million people watch in rapt fascination that can turn to numb fatigue as the thank-you speeches drone on? It can't be the suspense over who's going to win for best costume design. The Oscars have never lacked for chroniclers and historians, but a good man to ask at the moment is Damien Bona.
Bona, in collaboration with Mason Wiley, has compiled a massive, gossipy 850-page tome called Inside Oscar: An Informal History of the Academy Awards. Their survey covers everything you could conceivably wish to know about the Oscars and just about everything the winners and losers have said about it in the last 58 years.
SUCCESS - AND FAILURE
The popular theory about the Oscars holds that millions of people who have to deal with the setbacks and aggravations of everyday life love to see the rich and famous fail. It is a sentiment that Hollywood often panders to when it makes a film about Hollywood. It is the A Star is Born syndrome, in which somebody climbs the ladder to a level of success that the audience can only
dream about. And then falls off.
The same aura of expectation surrounds the Oscar broadcast each year. Viewers live to see the losers try to keep the smiles fixed as a rival walks to the stage. They know the camera is on them.
If Mankiewicz avoided humiliation by writing the script for what is widely regarded as the finest achievement in the history of America cinema, many others have not been so lucky down through the years. Technology has allowed television to put the five tense, agonized faces on the screen at the same time as the dreaded envelope is opened. Whatever happens, four famous people will suffer in public.
"The failure has a lot to do with it," Bona said from his New York apartment. "I mean that it really is cruel when you can see everyone's reaction in the process. That's one of the things we have tried to do in the book. To show what the people were like when they were pitted against each other in competition."
Bona perceives the changes in the fortunes and exposure of the Oscars in terms of media attention. The Academy was, he pointed out, originally formed by Louis B. Mayer as a way of countering the increasingly powerful unions in Hollywood by bringing industry leaders together. By forming an association that represented studio interests, Mayer believed the unions could be controlled.
"The awards were only a secondary part of the thing then," Bona said. ''Mayer wanted to keep the unions out of Hollywood. The awards were just a chance to bring people together and pat them on the back. It was only in the middle to late '30s that the awards became more important. Up until 1943 it was basically a big banquet."
Radio changed that in 1944, and television made all the difference in 1952. In that year, the studios, citing hard economic times, stopped sponsoring the Oscars, and NBC stepped in with an offer of $100,000 for the rights.
"The impact has been twofold," Bona noted. "It made the event much less informal, and people had to be on their best behavior. And, secondly, it was television that made the Oscars the national pastime. In that first year, it had its highest rating of all time. The ratings leveled off in the '70s, and there's generally been a downward spiral since."
FORGOTTEN - AND REMEMBERED
Bona believes that viewers recall great or embarrassing Oscar moments more than winners and losers. His nominee for all-time tear-jerker: Louise Fletcher addressing her deaf parents back home in Alabama in sign language after she won the best actress award for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. For embarrassing excess? Sally Field crowing, "You really like me!"
After every broadcast of the Oscars, film critics and television columnists weigh in with complaints about its boredom and inordinate length. The tirades are as predictable as the show itself, and the cries for reform are forgotten by Memorial Day. After all, most acceptance speeches at the Oscars are only of interest to the winner's immediate family and friends - and sometimes not even to them. At least we remember Field, and Marlon Brando sending an Indian surrogate in 1972.
Bona, who is an avowed Oscar fan, is not blind to all this criticism. ''The real problem is the production numbers," he suggested. "They don't work. They go on and on, and they are too Las Vegas. What they should do is get on with the show. The other thing they should cut is all the banter between the presenters."
But he is an Oscar purist when it comes to the sanctity of the thank-you speech in which the winner commonly recites a list of names no one in the television audience has heard of. "The acceptance speeches are part of the show," he contended. "One thing they should do, perhaps, is have only one person accepting for the technical awards. But then it's the moment in the sun for these people. It's all the awards that make up the story of each Oscar show.
"I don't imagine they'll change much," he said with a laugh. "They'll still have the production numbers, the dumb jokes, and go on for three or four hours. But remember what was said when the awards were on television for the first time. It's Hollywood's show, and TV is just a guest."