A few days after Robin Williams died my friend Tristan asked me an interesting question: the last slot of the In Memoriam montage at the Oscars always goes to the most beloved person who passed away that year. Is there any scenario where someone other than Williams gets that spot this year?
My on the spot answer was Jack Nicholson. Whenever Nicholson dies he's getting "the hammer slot", because he's one of the most influential, iconic and respected performers in Hollywood history. It's going to be a big deal when he passes away. The conversation then switched to a discussion of Jack Nicholson's life and career, and then onto other topics entirely.
When Mike Nichols died my mind returned to that morbid debate. Could Nichols unseat Williams? He was older than Williams - old enough that his passing doesn't generate the same sadness - and he spent most of his career behind the camera so people have less of a personal attachment to him. Then again, he also had a much, much better career than Williams did. Williams was capable of greatness, but he seemed to have a problem with quality control, while Nichols was consistently great for decades. There's a reason why Williams had one Oscar, while Nichols had an EGOT - and not just any EGOT, since in addition to the Emmy, the Grammy, the Oscar and the Tony, Nichols had a BAFTA, a Golden Globe and more. He might be the only person in the BEGGOT club, but I haven't stopped to check.
Ever since Mike Nichols died I've been thinking about writing about "the hammer slot". There were a lot of reasons not to do it: It's morbid. It treats real people like they were abstract ideas. It's not directly related to movie reviews. Still, the idea won't leave my head... So I'm going to give in. It's time to play a round of "Who gets the hammer?"
Round one: Steven Spielberg is probably the most powerful director in Hollywood, Jack Nicholson is the most iconic actor, and Clint Eastwood is the person who best bridges both worlds, since he's an acclaimed actor and an acclaimed director. So if all three of them are in a plane that goes down, who gets the hammer?
We can rule out Eastwood, because a) he's too old to get a lot of sympathy and b) people are going to use that weird chair speech at the Republican National Convention against him. That leaves Spielberg and Nicholson. Jack's more of a public figure, so people have more of a connection to him... But Spielberg is generally credited with inventing the blockbuster, and the blockbuster is Hollywood's main cash cow. Never bet against the cash-cow. Winner: Spielberg.
Round Two: Daniel Day Lewis, Sean Penn and Tom Hanks all have multiple acting Oscars. Let's say they are on the ground underneath Spielberg's plane when it crashes. Which one of them gets top billing?
First of all, Penn doesn't stand a chance, because his personal life is a mess. He beat Madonna when he was married to her. and while his temper tantrums aren't in the news anymore it doesn't seem like he's become a nice person. That leaves DDL and Hanks, which is an interesting combination because DDL is probably more respected, but Hanks is more beloved. DDL invents amazing characters out of whole cloth, while Hanks often seems like he's coasting on charm - but what charm! Still, you've got to give it to Hanks, because beloved beats respected. When I found out Hanks has diabetes I felt like I'd failed him somehow even though I had nothing to do with it; if I found out DDL had diabetes I'd probably guess he was just doing really deep preparation for a role as a sugar junkie. Winner: Hanks
Tournament of Champions round: Spielberg, Hanks and Williams
Oh, yikes, this is gonna hurt. First of all, we gotta get Williams out of there. Sorry, Robin - we can forgive Patch Adams but we aren't going to forget. Hanks versus Spielberg... It's the irresistible force meeting the unmoveable object. On the one hand... But on the other... I dunno. I honestly do not know.
If I had to guess... If both Hanks and Spielberg died in the same year, it would be an American Pie situation. (It should go without saying that I'm talking about American Pie the song, not the movie.) McLean's song was about "the day the music died", and if both of those guys died, it would be a "day the cinema" died sort of thing. The same way that no more music was ever made after Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper died, there would be no more filmmaking if those two died simultaneously. Therefore the Oscars would be canceled that year, and thus no In Memoriam tribute. There might not even be a Hollywood after that; L.A. would sink into the ocean.
Well, ok, you twisted my arm: Spielberg.