Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Oscars®

Tonight, the 83rd annual Academy Awards will be handed out. It will be a time for Hollywood to honor the previous year’s excellence in the motion-picture arts — a dazzling combination of creative excellence, industrial fellowship, and gleaming glamor.

Or so the publicity arm of the Oscars would have us suppose.

What do I think of the ceremony? When I was in high school, my interest in film ballooning like a blockbuster’s budget, I looked upon the Academy Awards as the final arbiter in Hollywood’s superlatives in talent. In 1975, when the little-known Robert De Niro (in The Godfather, Part II) beat out sentimental favorite Fred Astaire (in The Towering Inferno) for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, that upset told me that the award-winning performance must have been something exceptional (it was). By the following year, when the competition boiled down to One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Dog Day Afternoon, my personal favorite was the latter title. So, when the Ken Kesey adaptation virtually swept its nominated categories, I finally figured out that the Academy Awards were as subject to the whims and fancies of its voters as what to have for breakfast.

Since that time, I have cheered those occasional years when the Oscar’s choices for Best Picture mirrored my own (Annie Hall, American Beauty), but more often nonplussed by those multitudinous years when they didn’t (Rocky beating out Network, All the President’s Men, Taxi Driver, and Bound for Glory? Ordinary People beating both Raging Bull and The Elephant Man?).

As the years have trundled on, I have stopped investing any emotion in the awards. I now view the annual event with a mix of closeness and detachment.

On the one hand, I watch the event — which I have caught on TV every year since 1976, except for when I was recovering from my operation — as an evening in which Hollywood celebrates itself and pats itself on the back. It’s nice, I think, to have one evening out of the year when much of the world’s attention focuses on the medium of cinema and its workings. I enjoy the public widely recognizing, if just for a few hours, that the arts of writing, producing, directing, and acting in films is in fact quite challenging and deserves reward in some form other than box-office receipts. The Academy Awards broadcast is often faulted for running too long, or as then-host Johnny Carson once put it in 1984, “two hours of sparkling entertainment spread out over a four-hour show.” But I don’t care: the show could run for weeks, and I’d be as happy as a celebrity aswim in swag. I even like the musical performances of the Best Song nominees. This is the aspect of the Oscars that I love.

On the other hand, the ultimate list of awardees makes for a mere snapshot of how Hollywood perceives itself at the moment. If the Oscars were held a month earlier or a month later, those taking home the trophies might have been different. And the choices for Best Picture throughout the years haven’t always withstood the test of time. The most noted example is the Best Picture award given in 1942: the now-panegyrized Citizen Kane lost to another title in an industry still beholden to William Randolph Hearst, the film’s veiled subject, and still put off by Orson Welles, the film’s upstart director. So, during this year’s Oscar ceremony, as the names of the winners are called and acceptance speeches given, I watch with full knowledge that in a year or two, very few people will recall them. This is the aspect of the Oscars that I watch with dispassionate bemusement.

So, on with the show! Bring on the red carpets, the evening gowns, the paparazzi’s flashbulbs, the awkward musical numbers, and the droning acceptance speeches! But the next day, expect me to remember it about as well as a dipsomaniac remembers a binge.

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