At first flicker, the Turner Classic Movies documentary “And the Oscar Goes To …” appears to be little more than a promotional film for the Academy Awards.
It is, after all, an inside job: co-directed by Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members Jeffrey Friedman and Robert Epstein, who is also a two-time Oscar winner and an Academy governor.
And the work, which debuts Saturday at 8 p.m. EST on TCM, was produced with cooperation from its subject, the Academy itself.
But just when the film starts to be too reverential or overly celebratory, along comes a chapter about the academy’s sometimes embarrassing past, followed by additional scattered criticism to offset the cheers.
While the academy and TCM were partners on the Oscar documentary, “We had final cut on the film,” explained Epstein (“The Times of Harvey Milk”) in a recent interview. “We wanted to tell the history as truthfully as we saw it.”
Epstein and Friedman got the idea for the film when they came across film footage of actress Jane Fonda backstage talking with media after winning her best-actress Oscar for the 1971 drama “Klute.” Many had expected Fonda, an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, to say something about the conflict in her acceptance speech. But she did not. After her win, she told reporters that she didn’t need to mention the “murders being committed in our name in Indochina. And I think everyone out there is as aware of it as I am,” she explained.
“That was really the moment that really crystalized this whole project for us,” said Epstein, who explained the clip inspired how he and Friedman would tell Oscar’s story. “We thought, ‘We have to find a way to tell this bigger story from the perspective of the people who are living out this experience,’ and there are so many layers to that experience.”
Fonda, Helen Mirren, Cher, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg are among those who granted the documentarians interviews, and reflected on the magic and mayhem of being an Oscar nominee, and winner.
Gold was also mined from the motion picture academy’s vaults, with the academy giving the filmmakers “carte blanche,” including footage not seen, or not seen in extended versions, since the original showing.
There’s an 86-year-old clip of an Oscar presentation to the first best-actress winner, Janet Gaynor. There’s a hilarious speech by actress Hermoine Gingold, accepting on behalf of the screenwriters of the 1956 epic “Around the World in 80 Days.”
And there’s a soundbite from a young Angelina Jolie, on the red carpet with father Jon Voight. A reporter asks her, “Actress?” Jolie, wearing braces, smiles nervously and says, “Not really.”
The serious stuff includes a mention of the academy’s earliest days, which included a brief period where it supported studios’ efforts against workers’ unions. There’s a more extensive section about the Academy’s denial of Oscars, even credits, to screenwriters on Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s so-called “blacklist.”
Whoopi Goldberg makes a powerful statement about the 24-year gap between Oscar wins for black actors, the first going to actress Hattie McDaniel in “Gone with the Wind” (1939), and next to actor Sidney Poitier for “Lillies of the Field” (1963).
“There’s a lot of white people in between,” Goldberg noted, with a chuckle of disbelief. “That’s a long time.”
“And the Oscar Goes To …” also acknowledges what could be the most consistent criticism of the Academy Awards: How they’ve turned artistic achievement into a competition.
“I could feel this hunger and grasping I didn’t like,” actress Ellen Burstyn says in the film, which shows her sitting in the audience as her category is being presented the year she won for the 1974 dramedy “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.”
Burstyn goes on to say of fellow nominee Gena Rowlands’ performance in “A Woman Under the Influence”:
“That’s an Academy Award-winning part. (Just) not my award.”
Since the Oscars were created 86 years ago, countless critics, guild and other shows have emerged to create an entire awards season in Hollywood and throughout the world.
And yet the film’s directors said the Academy Awards remains The Big Show of the movie-award statuettes.
“Well, the Oscars were first.” Friedman noted. “They were the ones that set the tone (86) years ago, and it’s retained that glow over time.”
Added Epstein, “I think the Academy has done a good job of keeping the yin and yang of the glam factor and the real, and the fact that both of those things really do co-exist as part of the Oscar experience. I think that that’s part of the magic of it.”