from James Perloff:
One evening in the late 1960s (I was then in high school), my father and I were watching television. The local station announced that, later that week, it would show the winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1947, Gentleman’s Agreement.
My father and I awaited the film with anticipation. After all, we equated “Best Picture” Oscars with superior entertainment—films like All about Eve, On the Waterfront,Lawrence of Arabia, and A Man for All Seasons.
To our disappointment, Gentleman’s Agreement, a two-hour sermon on the woe of American anti-Semitism, was one of the dullest films we’d ever watched. It was all dialogue, no action. No humor either. A token romance was thrown in, but it had no spark.
Here’s the plot: Gregory Peck plays a writer who moves to New York City after being hired by a magazine. The editor assigns him to write a series on anti-Semitism. In order to write from real experience, Peck pretends to be Jewish. He sends two job applications to various employers, knowing the one with the Jewish name will get rejected. He soon discovers anti-Semitism lurking under every rock—at hotels, in his secretary, his doctor, his janitor, and even his new girlfriend, played by Dorothy McGuire. Peck spends much of the film lecturing these people about their bigotry, no matter how subtly they expressed it.
(Dialog box is of course my own parody)
My father and I kept waiting for this soap opera to turn a corner and become interesting. Near the film’s end, the magazine’s staff are ecstatically leafing through Peck’s article, exclaiming things like “It’s dynamite!” At this point my father remarked: “The actors are just looking at blank pages!” We both burst out laughing. Yes, Gentleman’s Agreementwas so dull that we had to provide our own comic relief to stay focused on it.
What amazed us was that this yawner had won the “Best Picture” Oscar. Mind you, we had nothing against the film’s message: that anti-Semitism is wrong. My father was Jewish himself, though non-practicing and completely assimilated into American culture. What bothered us was the flat-tire script that not even Gregory Peck or the gifted director Elia Kazan could pump life into.
Today, nearly half a century later, as a veteran alt-media writer, that Oscar no longer mystifies me. It was awarded on March 20, 1948. Less than two months later, the state of Israel was proclaimed; on that same day, ignoring the objections of his advisers, Harry Truman made the United States the world’s only country to recognize it.
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