Only a few more days until the Academy Awards, Hollywood's annual 3½-hour orgy of fatuous self-congratulation.

I know whereof I speak because I grew up in Beverly Hills, a place where, as Oscar Levant said, "Strip the phony tinsel off Hollywood, and you'll find the real tinsel underneath."

I went to school with a lot of kids whose parents were in "the industry," as it's called, including Levant's daughter Amanda and Groucho Marx's daughter Melissa.

It was Melissa he was referring to when he penned his famous reply to the Brentwood Country Club, which blackballed him from membership because he was Jewish.

"My daughter is half-Jewish," he wrote. "Would it be all right if she only went in the swimming pool up to her waist?"

To me, the biggest joke of the Oscars is that people think they have anything to do with merit. They do not. They're all about who has the most effective marketing campaign.

Otherwise, how do you explain "The Greatest Show On Earth," a Cecil B. DeMille clunker about circus life that was stunningly boring, even by DeMille's depressed standards, winning in 1951 when "Singin' In The Rain," the greatest movie musical ever made, wasn't even nominated? Or "In The Heat Of The Night" beating "Bonnie And Clyde" in 1967, "Rocky" beating "Taxi Driver" in 1976, or "Ordinary People" beating "Raging Bull" in 1980?


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But sometimes even the best hype doesn't work. In 1960 Chill Wills, best known as the voice of Francis the Talking Mule, hired legendary publicist W.S. "Bow Wow" Wojciechowicz to run his best supporting actor campaign for his role in "The Alamo." Bow Wow ran full-page ads in the trade papers listing every member of the Academy, along with a picture of Wills and the words, "Win, lose or draw, you're all my cousins, and I love you all." This prompted Groucho Marx to run his own ad: "Dear Mr. Chill Wills, I am delighted to be your cousin, but I voted for Sal Mineo." (P.S. They both lost to Peter Ustinov.)

But every once in a while a moment of honest human emotion sneaks its way into the ceremony, as it did in 1977, when William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck were about to present the Oscar for best sound. Holden announced, "Before Barbara and I present the next award, I'd like to say something. Thirty-nine years ago this month, we were working on a film together called 'Golden Boy.' It wasn't going well, and I was going to be replaced. But due to this lovely human being and her interest and understanding and her professional integrity and, above all, her generosity, I'm here tonight."

Stanwyck could only gasp, "Oh, Bill!" And the two old friends embraced. Holden died in 1981. A few months later, Stanwyck -- one of many great actors who never won an Oscar -- was on stage at the Academy Awards to receive an honorary statuette for her lifetime's work.

"A few years ago, I stood on this stage with William Holden as a presenter," she said. "I loved him very much, and I miss him. He always wished that I would get an Oscar."

Raising the statuette over her head as her eyes brimmed with tears, she exclaimed, "And so tonight, my golden boy, you've got your wish!"

Reach Martin Snapp at catman@sunset.net.

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