OSCARITIS—I’ve got it bad. I’ve filled out ballots (ballots!) in TV Guide. I’ve entered office pools and gone to award-night pizza parties. One year I was in Israel, and at 4 a.m. I was e-mailing back and forth with a friend (this was before Instant Messaging). Tonight I plan to start around seven, watching the Red Carpet parade of labels (these days, what is a show without a pre-show?). The next day, I’ll watch Joan Rivers and her ilk dole out grudging praise and gleeful put-downs.
I’m not as fanatical as I once was. Partly it’s that Oscar now has competition. Its thunder is stolen and the year’s front runners established by numerous other televised awards, particularly the interminable, multi-category Golden Globes, the SAGs, the Independent Spirits, the BAFTAs (the British Oscars). As a result, there isn’t a lot of suspense, and this year is no exception: Colin Firth, Natalie Portman, The King’s Speech, and maybe (for direction, screenplay?) The Social Network should carry the bigger categories.
So why watch? A brief list:
Cheesy traditions. The opening monologue and/or song; the tragically bad production numbers for the seemingly endless song nominees; the canned-sounding intros that only the most sophisticated actors (a British accent helps) can make sound like something somebody would actually say…these features and more make the Oscars easy to make fun of (and provide many chances for running to the kitchen for snacks).
Critical mass. You compare your picks to that of the Academy voters. You congratulate yourself smugly when your horse wins, even if that horse is, say, Colin Firth, and the other actors might as well have stayed home. You compare your best- and worst-dressed list to that of People magazine and shake your head ruefully at the way stars place their image in the inept hands of stylists and beauty experts who do them wrong, again and again.
Voyeurism. Awards are one of the few occasions upon which you can watch celebs in action, unscripted (unless the celeb in question is Charlie Sheen, whom one can see and hear live and uncensored any old time). It’s partly the gowns, the hair, the jewels, the fact that no matter how excessive the investment of time and money, many stars will wind up looking ridiculous and trying-too-hard. It’s partly that when they accept the awards (or bear the sting of defeat, knowing the camera will be slyly trained on them at the moment of disappointment), some real emotion may creep in. They might forget to thank their agent, or their wife! They might weep through their oddly nonwaterproof mascara! They might trip over the train of their trailing gown! At the BAFTAs the other night, Helena Bonham-Carter—who gave a long, rambling, charming acceptance speech for her role in The King’s Speech—said her Vivienne Westwood dress was bunched up in back, though with so bizarrely gothic a design it was hard to tell. Meow.
This year apparently there will be major online coverage that allows viewers to see what’s going on backstage. I won’t be doing the two-screen thing. Since everyone behind the scenes will know they’re being filmed, this will be simply an extension of the show, not an opportunity for eavesdropping. Actors will be circumspect; you’re not going to overhear them hissing and dissing disreputably about a rival’s weight or hair.
Schadenfreude. It’s shameful to admit, but public spontaneity and, possibly embarrassment, is what I’m hoping for. We civilians have a complicated and ambivalent relationship to film stars. We get crushes on them, we try to emulate them, but we also harbor a healthy resentment of their inflated salaries. Sure, they’re talented (we say to ourselves), but so are inspired teachers (badly paid) and parents (unpaid).
The Oscar show, I think, is a ritual that sneakily pokes holes in all this privilege: It extols movie people while making them unusually vulnerable. Watching celebrities lose or screw up before a vast international viewing audience is the common person’s way of pulling Hollywood’s starry firmament down to earth. If only for one night.
After the show: Everybody was too well behaved and collegial for my taste! Except Melissa Leo, bless her, who got bleeped. I’d forgotten how moving some of the acceptance speeches can be (especially when the winners are not famous). I thought David Fincher, director of The Social Network, was robbed. Best gown: the vintage Charles James (one of the greatest ever American designers) worn by Marisa Tomei.