“What’s with all these awards?” asks Alvy Singer in his usual tone of nerdy nerviness. “They’re always giving out awards. ‘Best Fascist Dictator: Adolf Hitler.’” Woody Allen, Alvy’s creator and embodier, holds just as virulent a contempt for competitive awards. Nor is Woody-Alvy, a lifelong New York City chauvinist, the biggest fan of Los Angeles — “a city where the only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light.” No surprise, then, that Allen didn’t show up in L.A. on April 3, 1978, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences handed out four major statuettes to Annie Hall, for Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay (Allen and Marshall Brickman) and Actress (Diane Keaton). A light fictionalizing of Allen’s longtime affair with Keaton (real name: Diane “Annie” Hall), the movie marked the end of Allen’s experiments in movie parody and the instant apex of his autobiographical period. Aside from showcasing Keaton’s thrift-shop couture, which briefly became chic, and giving Christopher Walken his first screen break as Annie’s extraterrestrial brother, Allen expanded his stand-up persona into an improbable movie hero, and distilled the ’70s Upper West Side for export to the wide movie world. The result was the definitive urban romantic comedy, about a sweet, stammering shiksa and her neurotic beau who defends his chronic masturbating as “sex with someone I love.” The Oscar has gone to many worthy celebrities, but Allen deserves another award: Best Missing Winner.
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An earlier New York romantic dramedy about a fretful fellow and a pretty, mixed-up girl, The Apartment brought Billy Wilder the same Oscars that Woody Allen would earn for Annie Hall: Picture, Director and Original Screenplay (with writing partner I.A.L. Diamond). Perhaps the Academy was offering Wilder a year-late apology for not even having nominated his previous film, the immortal Some Like It Hot, as Best Picture; but The Apartment fully merited its laurels, as did the stars Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, who were nominated but didn’t win. In his second of seven Wilder films, Lemmon plays Bud Baxter, the junior executive who hopes to scale the corporate ladder by lending out his one-bedroom West Side flat for his lecherous bosses’ trysts. MacLaine, who would reteam with Wilder and Lemmon in Irma La Douce, is Fran Kubelik, the elevator operator in a dead-end affair with married executive J.J. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). Of course Bud, unsuited for his role as second-hand pimp, is crazy for Fran, whose bitter maxims — “Why do people have to love people anyway?” “Why can’t I ever fall in love with someone nice like you?” — provide snapshots of a soul in mortal jeopardy. Dealing with serial infidelity, corporate chicanery and attempted suicide, The Apartment challenges its audience to decide when to laugh and when to cry; the emotional and moral shades of gray were appropriate for the last Best Picture winner totally in black-and-white. (Schindler’s List had flashes of color.) If The Artist wins this year, that will break a 51-year streak.