Book Review: 85 Years of the Oscar (2013)

85 years of the oscar

85 Years of the Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards
Robert Osborne
Release Date: October 29, 2013
Abbeville Press
Hardcover, 472 pages

Turner Classic Movies’ annual tribute to Academy Award-winning film gets underway tomorrow with this year’s celebration of “31 Days of Oscar.” The network is kicking things off with quite a bang, with a day of programming featuring the ten Oscar-nominated films from the storied year of 1939. Then at 8PM EST, TCM will play host to the premiere of the new documentary And the Oscar Goes To …, which takes a look back at the history of the Academy Awards.

While the documentary has received some warm reviews from those critics and bloggers who have seen it, it’s nigh on impossible to imagine that a 90-minute film can fully capture the entirety of the complicated history of the Oscars. And that’s where longtime TCM host Robert Osborne comes in–albeit off your television screen, in this case.

Osborne, the official historian of the Academy Awards, first published an AMPAS-sanctioned history of the awards twenty-five years ago, and has faithfully updated this exhaustive tome on the awards in five-year increments ever since. Last fall, the newest installment was released in recognition of Oscar’s eighty-fifth anniversary, and like its predecessors, this is an impressively detailed compendium of facts and reminiscences from more than eight decades of the Academy Awards.

85 Years of the Oscar focuses on the evolution of the Oscars from the earliest days of what was initially known as the International Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, through the turbulent years of World War II and its effects on the film industry (both during and post-war), the effects of McCarthyism and the blacklist that interrupted so many Hollywood careers, to the changing landscape of film through the 1960s and beyond. This latest update of the book also highlights the newest developments in the Awards’ long history, including the recent return to a maximum of ten Best Picture nominees, the establishment of a separate Governors Awards ceremony, and the introduction of online Oscar ballots.

Though reverential, the book is far from a simple paean to the Academy; Osborne doesn’t shy away from addressing the various controversies that have plagued the Academy Awards over the years, from perceived slights among the nominations in certain years to accusations that performers and studios actively lobbied for votes from Academy members. Nor is it a mere timeline of events, for Osborne peppers his own narrative with anecdotes and remembrances from the stars and filmmakers who received Oscars over the years. Some of the recollections are serious and thoughtful, while others take the opportunity to work in a joke or two (Red Buttons, winner of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 1957’s Sayonara: “I am proud to own an Oscar. Some of the greatest people in the history of the world never got an Oscar. Adam–who said in the Garden of Eden, ‘I’ve got more ribs, have you got more girls?’–never got an Oscar …”). But all of them add a personal dimension to an awards ceremony that, at times, comes across as too far removed from the comparative mundanity of reality.

Accompanying the text is a gorgeous array of photographs, a mixture of behind-the-scenes shots, onstage antics (naturally, the shot of Oscar host David Niven being stage-crashed by a streaker is present here), and stills from the nominated motion pictures. Indeed, the book boasts an impressive 765 illustrations, with 96 in full, beautiful color.

Bottom line: Robert Osborne’s latest edition of the history of the Academy Awards is a massive*, but essential, addition to your personal film library. Filled with entertaining detail and brilliantly-reproduced images, 85 Years of the Oscar presents both film nuts and casual movie fans with a fascinating look back through eight-plus decades of cinematic glory. Highly recommended.

*Seriously, this thing is a brick. A lovely, well-written brick. It needs a very sturdy shelf. (Trust me. I speak from experience.)


True Classics thanks Abbeville Press for providing a copy of this book for the purposes of this review.

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