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'360 Degrees of Oscar'

By Ed Blank
Thursday, January 26, 2006

Turner Classic Movies (TCM) calls it "360 Degrees of Oscar," a double-meaning label for the movies it will be running from 6 a.m. Feb. 1 through 7:02 a.m. March 4.

All 360 movies being shown during the month leading up to the March 5 Academy Awards ceremony were nominated for, or won, at least one Oscar. And the 360 are lined up as a daisy chain, linked by cast members - an application of the "six degrees of separation" principle.

The first movie, "Mogambo," features Ava Gardner, who co-stars in the second film, "Show Boat" (1951 version), with Kathryn Grayson, who co-stars in the third movie, "Thousands Cheer," with Donna Reed and so on.

Not all of the 360 linking players are well known. When was the last time you deliberately set out to watch two consecutive movies with Jean Willes or Dort Clark? Eric Pohlmann isn't so well known, either, and he's the guy who completes the daisy chain, appearing in the 360th movie, "Lust for Life" (5 a.m. March 4) and the month-launching "Mogambo."

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TCM's Robert Osborne will introduce roughly 124 of the 360. He hosts any that begin between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m. and sometimes a bit later.

He lives in New York City but does most of the taping in Atlanta, to which he has been traveling by train about once a month since 9/11.

Hosting the films associates him with a permanent inventory of 3,348 movies Turner Entertainment Co. owns and thousands of others that rotate through on leases.

"I think we have about 7,000, but the total changes so frequently," Osborne says. "Turner is constantly acquiring packages, so the total varies.

"One contract may give us unlimited use of the Selznick library for maybe five years. Another may give us 10 showings of certain movies over a five-year period. In another case, we may be able to select 30 Columbia Pictures from a list of 300 to show one time.

"Every case is different. In some cases performers such as Bob Hope or Cary Grant or a director like (Alfred) Hitchcock made deals with the studios whereby the rights reverted back to them (as a key participant) after so many years. Those guys had great foresight.

"So did John Payne, who for certain B pictures he made had stipulations he'd get the rights after a certain numbers of years, and they all had to be shot in Technicolor. He saw that they'd have more value in color on TV later. He became very wealthy as a result of that."

The off-screen Osborne is a bottomless pit of information and opinion about thousands of movies and Hollywood history.

Besides authoring more than a dozen books on the Oscars, including "75 Years of the Oscar," he was, after he graduated from the University of Washington, under personal contract to Lucille Ball, who formed a troupe of young performers to mentor as a theater company.

He also, for The Hollywood Reporter, reviews Broadway and writes a column on movies.

Ask Osborne how some of the oddest victories in Oscar history occurred, as when Grace Kelly, as the long-suffering wife of an alcoholic actor in "The Country Girl" (1954), beat the conspicuously great portrayal by Judy Garland in "A Star Is Born" as ... the long-suffering wife of an alcoholic actor.

"Grace was the new girl in town, and everybody adored her," Osborne says. "Very classy, very (ideally) representative of the movie industry. Judy was brilliant in her movie, but she was trouble on the set, and she would only work at night, and she couldn't work on some days, and people were sick of that. She was a pain for years about that stuff.

"But when you look at those movies today, there's no comparison whose performance is better."

The 2002 race for best picture and director seemed to come down to the two so heavily promoted by Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein. It was "Chicago," directed by former Pittsburgh and first-time filmmaker Rob Marshall, vs. "Gangs of New York," directed by the veteran Martin Scorsese, a long-revered multi-time nominee.

"Chicago" won as picture. Certainly it was the best-liked contender. But the two Miramax film directors lost in a major upset to Roman Polanski of "The Pianist."

"I think that's where the politicking got into it. I think Harvey Weinstein (who spent very heavily to promote his company's primary contenders) had it all mapped out (with 'Chicago' having the better chance for picture and Scorsese having the better chance for director).

"His thinking probably was that Marshall was a young guy with more chances and Scorsese was more like Custer's Last Stand and wanted to pay him off, but he couldn't pay him off with best picture because 'Gangs of New York' wasn't that good."

Somehow that ambivalence nudged open the door for Polanski to get in with a Holocaust movie that was well enough liked to win for its screenplay and for its leading man, Adrien Brody.

"Polanski was from out of left field. He was the underdog, the exile."

Polanski infamously fled the States in 1978 to avoid being sentenced in a Los Angeles legal case involving the alleged drugging and raping of a 13-year-old girl.

Oscar nominations for 2005 movies will be announced Tuesday. Already Osborne finds "Brokeback Mountain" just about unbeatable in the main category despite gay content that would have made it a long shot at best in earlier times.

"I think 'Brokeback' deserves to (win). I think it's chances are helped enormously by the fact one producer is a woman and the other is a straight man, who has kids, as is the director, who is straight and has kids, and both lead actors, who are straight.

"All that stuff makes it safe enough. Someday I don't think that will matter, and it shouldn't now. But the fact it was made by straight people takes the curse off it.

"If it were like the Tony Awards, where (winners) get up and kiss their (same sex) partner on stage, people say 'Whoa!' I think that 'Brokeback Mountain,' though, has enough of a straight pedigree that it makes it OK for people to vote for it. It makes it safe to talk about and to like the movie."

Osborne is heading for Los Angeles because his star is being embedded Wednesday in the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

"It's going to be pulling together a lot of old friends I haven't seen in some time, mainly Tom Troupe and Carole Cook," husband-and-wife performers who date back to the Lucille Ball ensemble.

"One of the things I'm pleased about," Osborne says, "is that the star will be on Vine Street in front of what used to be the Huntington-Hartford Theater that became the James Doolittle and is now, I believe, the Ricardo Montalban Theater.

"It was built by NBC around 1936 for the old Lux Radio Theater. When I first got to L.A., Lucy used to take Carole and me there when we were under contract to her because we couldn't afford to go. We saw Bette Davis and so many others perform there, so that means something to me."

Ed Blank can be reached at
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The Turner Entertainment Co. film library consists of:

1,707 MGM feature films (1915-86)
854 Warner Bros. feature films (1924-49)
787 RKO feature films (1929-58)
1,450 Warner Bros. short subjects
948 MGM short subjects
335 Warner Bros. cartoons
320 MGM cartoons
51 RKO short subjects

At any given time, Turner has as many as 3,500 additional, leased films in its library.

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