02.27 Sun

February 27, 2011
Jeremy Horwitz & Byron Walden

[Note: This is the syndicated L.A. Times puzzle. It does not appear in the actual newspaper, but is available for free at cruciverb.com.]

Theme: "It's an Honor Just to Be Nominated" — The eight films for which Peter O'Toole received a Best Actor Oscar nomination...and lost.

Theme Entries:
  • 1A: *1964 (BECKET).
  • 7A: *2006 (VENUS).
  • 28A: *1968 (THE LION IN WINTER).
  • 43A: *1972, with "The" (RULING CLASS).
  • 65A: *1982 (MY FAVORITE YEAR).
  • 67A/71A: *1962 (LAWRENCE OF ARABIA).
  • 72A: *1969 (GOODBYE MR. CHIPS).
  • 96A: *1980 (THE STUNT MAN).
  • 112A: See 127-Across (BEST ACTOR OSCARS).
  • 127A/128A: Performer nominated for 112-A (he didn't win any) in all the answers to starred clues (PETER O'TOOLE).
Hi, everybody. Brad Wilber here, making my INAUGURAL (83D) foray into public puzzle commentary. Doug, I’m sure, surmised that asking me to guest-solve on Oscar Sunday would be the equivalent of a lazy pitch right over the plate to Ron CEY (54A) or Mel OTT (78A). I won’t claim to be top movie maven among cruciverbalists —- not with John Farmer and others out there –- but I am something of a student of Oscar and lack only 25-30 films in my long-running aim to see every Oscar-nominated performance in major categories (all four acting races, Picture, Director, writing, cinematography, etc.)

So did I have an overconfident start to the puzzle? Yes, I think that’s fair to say. Confronted with dates as my only clues to theme entries, I started penciling in Best Picture winners, and it was my bad luck to start with 1969 at 72A. MIDNIGHT COWBOY fit neatly. But oops – 1980’s ORDINARY PEOPLE did not find a home at 96A. So I shrugged philosophically and allowed my eyes to light on the last clue on the page. Great – TAO (120D). And, of course, the bottom line of the puzzle is where the key twist on the Oscar theme lurked. As soon as I knew Jeremy and Byron were giving us a splendid tribute to PETER O’TOOLE – well, at the risk of sounding obnoxious, I could lay in all the theme entries without waiting for crossings. MIDNIGHT COWBOY was gone in a cloud of eraser dust, replaced by GOODBYE MR. CHIPS (you know this version is a quasi-musical, right?). Then the rest, with a brief pause at 112A before I could pin down that BEST ACTOR OSCARS was going to be plural.

If you’re going to serve up a tribute puzzle, this is the way to do it and please the purists and the completists. All of the films for which O’Toole was nominated appear, and with gratifying symmetry, entries BECKET / VENUS mirror PETER / O’TOOLE. Having to snip the initial article from THE RULING CLASS to make it fit must have been a mildly galling moment for our constructing duo, but not a big deal. Compensation – having three of the films stacked in adjacent rows right at the heart of the grid (MY FAVORITE YEAR, CHIPS, and a split-up LAWRENCE OF ARABIA).

So theme-wise I had just one “light bulb” moment as opposed to seven or eight, but movie knowledge alone does not give you a finished puzzle. I still had plenty of work to, with lots of fun moments along the way.

  • 1D: Like the most secure passports nowadays (BIOMETRIC). This is the kind of cluing that makes me pleasantly gooey inside – an elegant snippet of writing, specific but still a bit mysterious, and offering a break from strictly lexical match-ups. Ditto U.S. BORDER at 88A (It runs through four Great Lakes). 
  • 7D: Facilities for many ex-GIs (VFW HALLS). With V__H__L_ in place from my movie titles, I was betting on VALHALLA before I saw the clue.
  • 44D: Remedy for a pain in the neck (NERVE BLOCK). New crossword entry born out of the need to have the N, the E and the B in their appointed spots. But also eminently familiar.
  • 65D: “Who wants candy?” response ("ME! ME!"). Much more verve in this cluing avenue, to my mind, than in asking for an Internet MEME. Excuse me while I go get a bag of Swedish Fish.
  • 70D: "Ice Age" unit, e.g. (CEL). Going along quickly, I almost put CEN. as an abbreviation for “century,” since ice ages, you know, took a while. I have a feeling that’s just the kind of gentle trap the guys wanted to lay for us. But...maybe it wasn’t deliberate at all. Speaking of AGE, a few extra minutes of my life went by before that answer occurred to me for 111A (It always increases). Nice!
  • 99A: Tennis shoe that debuted at Wimbledon in 1966 (K-SWISS). The first all- leather sneaker, with a striped shield logo. File it in that part of your brain where the other tennis apparel is, like ELLESSE (go, Chrissie!) and FILA.
  • 81A: How nice that OSH by itself it a (Kyrgyzstan city) and we don’t have to have a rhyming fill-in-the-blank.
  • 47A: (Item, such as interest, recorded only when earned) clues NON-ASSET, another entry new to me. Sometimes when I go through puzzles my lack of background in accounting and economics is a non-asset.
  • 92D: Prince Andrew’s younger daughter (EUGENIE). Did you waver between EUGENIA and EUGENIE? Moseying right next door – come on! Given the timing can we not have LESBIAN referencing “The Kids Are All Right” (nominated for four big awards tonight)? Although that movie technically involves three parents, two of whom are lesbian, so the potential clue suddenly becomes more syntactically complicated than the one we got.
  • 60A: It was pretty cool to get almost to the end of the puzzle and encounter a double-J with HAJJI (Muslim pilgrim). The crossing at 62D made me recall that I thought "Jai Ho" from "Slumdog Millionaire" was a little bit inert compared to the infectious giddiness of the VERY best Bollywood numbers. Anybody agree?

  • 25A: A.O. SCOTT should send Byron a gift basket – this is at least the second occasion Byron has worked the New York Times film critic into a puzzle (2009-'10 "At the movies" cohost).
  • The puzzle has a fair amount of cross-referencing even apart from the instances needed to execute the theme. The fellows turned such a nice trick with ONE-SEATER (22A and 39A) that I wished they could have shoehorned LAUDER into the grid and spared us a stand-alone ESTEE at 107D. Oh, well.
In case you do trivia at your Oscar party tonight, here are some other “bridesmaid” multiple nominees: Richard Burton (7), Deborah Kerr (6), Thelma Ritter (6), Glenn Close (5), Irene Dunne (5), Albert Finney (5), and Arthur Kennedy (5). Directors Clarence Brown, King Vidor, and Robert Altman also have 5 nominations each, without a win.

Back to O’Toole for a minute. Do I think he was ever “robbed”? Truthfully, no. In the abstract, yes, I think he deserves to have an Oscar on his mantel as much as anyone. But considering each of the years in which he competed, it’s hard to imagine changing the verdict in Peter’s favor. You wouldn’t want Gregory Peck to be without his award in 1962 for TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, and at that stage voters probably thought the upstart O’Toole had plenty of time for a future victory. In 1964, whatever you think about Rex Harrison in MY FAIR LADY, how could you give an Oscar to a guy in BECKET who didn’t play Becket? In 1968, voters were happy enough to let THE LION IN WINTER accolades go to Hepburn, and Cliff Robertson had the trump card of playing a sympathetic soul coping with disability instead of a braying king. 1969’s nomination for MR. CHIPS was more recognition for maintaining dignity in the face of bad material than a dog that would hunt. And all of O’Toole’s remaining nominations (1972, 1980, 1982, 2006) found him up against can’t-miss performances (Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone, Robert DeNiro as Jake LaMotta, Ben Kingsley as Gandhi, and Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin).

What Mr. O’Toole needed, in my opinion, was another movie like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA whose sheer scale could have better absorbed his big acting style. His LORD JIM (1965) is such a film – an underrated one – and I think if he’d been able to snag a nod that year he might have been in with a real shot. Or I do wonder what would have happened if he’d slipped in as a Supporting nominee in 1987 for his tutor in THE LAST EMPEROR – by then, doing some very subtle work.

Geez – I’ve overstayed my welcome and sort of strayed from the puzzle. Let’s go to the videotape!

Peter O’Toole was given an honorary Oscar in 2003. Initially he wrote to the Academy begging off, saying he wanted to win “the lovely bugger outright,” but he showed up to receive his honor and gave a speech that oozed class. If you're one who holds the view that plenty of Oscar winners have sentiment and politics to thank as much as merit, maybe you'll agree with one of the comments made during O'Toole's campaign for VENUS, to the effect that an O'Toole win at some point in history would have legitimized Oscar, not the other way around:

2003 – O’Toole recipient of Honorary Oscar

Some other Best Actor clips of Oscar ceremonies involving O’Toole (he’s only shown in two of them). Presenters Sally Field and John Travolta both have deer-in-the-headlights syndrome:

1969 – O’Toole in Goodbye Mr. Chips loses to John Wayne

1972 – O’Toole in The Ruling Class loses to Marlon Brando

1980 – O’Toole in The Stunt Man loses to Robert De Niro

1982 – O’Toole in My Favorite Year loses to Ben Kingsley

Others who received a competitive acting nomination or win AFTER being awarded an honorary Oscar are Henry Fonda, Paul Newman, and Alec Guinness.

2006 – Peter O’Toole in Venus loses to Forest Whitaker

Thanks for allowing me to visit...and ramble...everyone. If you'll be tuning in to the ceremony tonight, enjoy!


Doug P said...

Many thanks to Brad for filling in for me today! Fantastic write-up.

I heard that we were going to have an Oscar-themed puzzle this Sunday, and I got a little nervous. I saw four movies in theaters last year (and one of them was "Jonah Hex"), so I felt eminently unqualified to handle a cinematic puzzle. But I did enjoy solving it. I wasn't familiar with THE RULING CLASS or THE STUNTMAN, but the rest of the theme entries were quite familiar. And the non-theme stuff was excellent: BIOMETRIC, VFW HALLS, US BORDER, NERVE BLOCK, K-SWISS.

If you watch the Oscars tonight, be sure to look for me on the red carpet. I'm Steve Buscemi's official umbrella holder, and it looks like we might get some rain.

Rube said...

Started this puzzle with great trepidation as I am "pop culture challenged". However, when I realized that the theme answers were all "oldies", I soon got into it and enjoyed it immensely. Doug pointed out some of the really good fill, so I'll point out BLEARED as the low point, (Made misty).

The 2 3x9 long downs in the NW & SE were well done. Some of the lues were excellent: Obsession -> SCENT; Hunt subject => EGG; and, "Ice Age" => CEL.

I do have one problem. What is the meaning of NUSxis? Or am I just not getting it?

Thx Brad for the interesting and educating write-up.

Rube said...

Never mind. I just figured it out. Greek.

mac said...

Fantastic puzzle and what a stroke of brilliance to ask Brad Wilbur to do the blog! Amazing knowledge and lots to go back to when there's no-one else in my family room and I can crank up the sound.

I didn't know several of the movies, either, but got there with the crosses. What a feat. Now I'm really ready for Oscar night. Am working on the movable feast, we'll be snacking all evening!

mac said...

Sorry, Brad, I know it's Wilber...

hazel said...

Great puzzle and incredibly interesting write-up. Thank you.

Joon said...

doug, you couldn't have picked a better guest blogger. and brad, i'd like to see you & farmer john go toe-to-toe on movie trivia.

nifty puzzle, too. has something of the tour-de-force nature to it, so even though 4 of the movies were totally unfamiliar to me (7a, 43a, 65a, 96a), i enjoyed the solve. honestly, though, the guy in the picture doesn't look familiar in the least. maybe it's because i often get peter o'toole confused with peter sellers?

Anonymous said...

I still don't get NUSXIS - i've googled it and if it is Greek, then I think it is kind of sketchy (three letters before xis would easily be PRAxis in English or PLExis - a company name).

And I suppose I'm showing my age here, but I don't think "cel" as in "celluloid" as in "kind of animation" is reasonable for "Ice Age" - too many links to make (Oh, they're talking about the film, and its an animation, and so it was on celluloid, aha "cel"). Gimme a break!

I did get a kick out of the rest of it. I'm not knowledgable enough about the oscars to know years and films but I am aware enough of them to catch the titles once I've got a few of the crossed words in place. Nice job. And nice job on the blog - fun and engaging.

Mu Nu Xi Omicron said...

Anon 6:58, that's Greek alphabet.

Anonymous said...

Nu is the greek letter than comes before xi. Therefore, nus come before xis. Kind of obtuse for a Monday.