Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Oscars: Why do you care?

How it all wound up on TV
First, a bit of history. Although the Oscars were first awarded in 1929, it was not until 1960 that they were telecast, and that was due to economic necessity. Because Hollywood studios didn't want to financially support their own awards.

In 1958, the winner for Best Picture was The Bridge on the River Kwai. It was not an American film; it was released by 20th Century-Fox, but it was done by a British production company. The studios realized that their support of AMPAS, the Oscar academy, was funding awards for their foreign competitors. The studios, which I believe were led by the struggling MGM, cut their financial support for AMPAS.

That was bad. AMPAS, as they occasionally mention on their own telecast, do more than hand out gold statuettes. The "Academy Leader" of countdown numbers is their best-known technical contribution to film, but they've done much more. Although film seems to be an extinct medium in this digital age, they are still working with it and learning new ways it can still be used. They also run an internship program to get talented students working on actual productions, so they can gather experience and reputation and eventually get jobs.

All of that, not just the gold-plated bald men, was at risk. So AMPAS took a daring step. They sold the broadcast rights for the ceremony to network television. It put the studios in a bad place. They didn't want anything to do with television, which they saw (properly) as stealing their audiences. The studios banned their actors from appearing on TV. But they wanted the prestige of the Oscars. So they were forced to put their stars on television, in the ceremony, and watch as AMPAS found a new income stream.

Novelty turns to boredom.
I think the first Oscar telecast I saw was in 1962. It was a big show for whatever network ran it (I forget; perhaps it was ABC). Bob Hope hosted it. Hope was "America's favorite comedian," and although he was later to be revealed as a grouch, a mechanical comic and a cold man, at that time he met the standard of "America's favorite comedian."

It was amazing to see the greatest stars of the movies (many of whose movies I couldn't and didn't see) appearing on that little black and white screen in my own home. It was glamor unknown to a middle-class family in a small Saint Louis suburb. They were also unscripted. One year, when a hydraulic podium accidentally sank into the stage, making the microphones unavailable, Hope broke out into a soft-shoe dance. He, at least, could ad-lib.

That unscripted nature of the awards were also precious, because they showed that these famous people were human. They could make mistakes. Sally Field could yell out "You love me! You really love me!" and look like your uncle or aunt in their dumber moments. They were human...and yet something more than human.

The cracks show...and start to widen.
Year after year, there were great moments, but they began to decrease. For some reason, every time the Academy tries to present real entertainment, they fail. The presentation of the "Best Song" nominees is always, always clunky. The staging, the settings, the backup dancers, the performers who seem like they've never been in front of a live's always awful.

More and more, the actors who read the nominations act awkward while reading their scripted jokes. I think they know they're dying in front of the live audience and before the entire nation, and they look like first graders reading before an audience of their parents.

The only great moment I have seen in the last decade or so, the only one that made me cheer, was when Michael Moore received the Best Documentary Oscar for Bowling for Columbine. He stumbled and mis-spoke, but he dared to say something real on stage. Not the pretentious, fake Indian girl who ranted while picking up Marlon Brando's unwanted Oscar, but something from a working-class man bringing a little reality into the phony black-tie world of the Oscars. And he really meant that "it was a great honor to be nominated" by bringing his fellow nominees up on stage with him. That was class, that was meaning that the show biz world would never do.

Who cares about these particular movies?
Each year, the pictures nominated for the major awards are films that I and my friends don't normally watch. Even after the Oscar awards, we don't go out to catch up on "this film that was so great it got an Oscar."

Most of the films treasured by film lovers and the mass audience, the films that encourage us to get out and go to the movies, the films we quote from and do fanfic and stupid parodies of, are not even nominated in anything but the Special Effects categories. Yes, an honest award should not be given on simple popularity but by intrinsic artistic merit. But that merit has always been judged by people who are not involved in the real world - not simply the real world of motion picture production or marketing, but the real world where we agonize over how much a gallon of milk costs.

Finally, who cares about Joan Rivers?
Open disclosure: I paid to see Joan Rivers in Las Vegas many years ago. About halfway through her performance, I realized what I had suspected for years was true; she was a cruel, backbiting woman without a touch of humor or humanity. Her own movies, like her script for The Girl Most Likely To... (an early slasher film marketed as a comedy) are little more than bile.

In the last decade, she has stood out on the red carpet to criticize the clothing and attitudes of every female walking into the Oscar ceremony. That this is cruel and pointless is besides the point; she is grandfathered (grandmothered?) into the position, and when she dies, no one else, not even a flaming gay male like Mr. Blackwell, will be able to do it again.

Okay, having read that, we should ask, why do we care what the women wear or what Joan Rivers says? Isn't the Oscars supposed to be about the movies?

Obviously not, because watching the couture is more interesting than watching the ceremonies or the movies the ceremonies are supposed to be celebrating. The sideshow is more interesting than the circus. The supported purpose for tuning in, losing sleep and watching this cheesy spectacle is no longer there.

If you wish to catalog this as a rant by a bitter old man who is yelling at clouds - in other words, a John McCain speech - so be it. But think about why you're bothering to watch the Oscars again this year. Is this what you call glamor? Intellect? Humor? Or is this what someone tells you you're supposed to like?