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Popcorn & Prejudice: A Movie Blog

Seattle Times writer Moira Macdonald muses on moviegoing. Email Moira: mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

March 1, 2010 at 2:58 PM

Fifty years ago on Oscar night: Bob Hope and “Ben-Hur”

I’m pondering history this afternoon, and only partly because when a technician came to my desk earlier to fix my phone (it was making the sort of noises that Linda Blair made in “The Exorcist,” which, for the record, won Oscars for its sound and screenplay), she lifted it up and out fell a plastic fork, a pen, and a ferry receipt from 2004. (This is alarming because, although I remember the ferry trip, I’ve only been at this particular desk since 2008. Also alarming is the fact that none of these items were what was actually causing the phone problem. And the fact that now I’m wondering what else is in there. Best not to ponder this too much, I think.) Anyway, it seemed like a pleasant distraction to think about Oscars past; namely, 50 years ago, when a big, brash, special-effects filled and very expensive (some thought foolishly expensive) Hollywood epic won all of its categories except for screenplay . . .
At the 32nd annual Academy Awards on April 4, 1960, the big winner was “Ben-Hur,” which set a new record by winning 11 awards including best picture, director (William Wyler), actor (Charlton Heston), and supporting actor (Hugh Griffith). The other best picture nominees included “Anatomy of a Murder,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “The Nun’s Story” and “Room at the Top,” and astonishingly did not include “Some Like It Hot,” which received six nominations but only one award (for costume design in a black-and-white film). “High Hopes,” from the now mostly forgotten Capra/Sinatra movie “A Hole in the Head,” won best song, and its writers Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen cheerfully told the press, “We’re glad ‘Ben-Hur’ didn’t have a title song.”
Host Bob Hope, who referred to the evening as “Hollywood’s most glamorous strike meeting” (the Screen Actors Guild was on strike at the time) reminded Wyler that “your chariot is double-parked outside” and, after the acceptor of the foreign film award (for “Black Orpheus”) gave his speech in French, explained, “What he said was, ‘I did it all myself.'” But Hope was speechless when suprised with an award himself: the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. “I’ll get you for this,” he told Academy president B. B.Kahane. “I don’t know what to say. I don’t have writers for this type of work.” (Thanks to Mason Wiley and Damien Bona’s “Inside Oscar” for the anecdotes.)
What might we learn from this, other than that Oscar’s prejudice against comedy films has a long history, and that Best Song winners used to be songs people actually knew? That if “Avatar” takes it on all Sunday night, we’ll hear a quiet, half-century-old echo of Hollywood history.

Big winners 50 years ago: “Ben-Hur” and Charlton Heston. (AP photo)

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