Is there really any reason to watch the Oscars? I mean, in the grand scheme of things, does it actually matter?
No. Probably not.
Yet, this Sunday night, there I’ll be, hunkered down in front of my television, snacks and drinks to one side, computer in my lap, battening down the hatches for a long, long night. I haven’t missed an Oscar telecast for years. Many, many years. How many? Let’s put it this way—I have a distinct memory of throwing a fist up in celebration in 1974 when The Sting beat out The Exorcist for Best Picture. I remember when Rocky KO’d Taxi Driver and All the President’s Men, and then a few years later when Ordinary People took the title from Raging Bull.
Yeah, it’s been a while.
There must be a reason why I sit there year after year, complaining about the length of the show and hollering at my TV over how the Academy got the award for Best Sound Editing wrong. Actually, there are several reasons. Here they are, in no particular order:
- History. OK, let’s face it. These are the Oscars, after all. Of all the award shows in which wealthy, self-important, self-absorbed artists gather to pat each other on the back, this is the only one that counts. The Oscars stretch all the way back to 1927, and they’re the link in history that connects Spencer Tracy to Tom Hanks, Katherine Hepburn to Meryl Streep, James Cagney to Jamie Fox, and Mary Pickford to Jennifer Lawrence. It’s a cultural lineage that movie fans can cling to the way sports fans treasure their Halls of Fame. So there’s that.
- The Rooting Interests. Having invested so much of ourselves emotionally in the stories and characters these films present (as well as the people who create the movies), don’t we all go into the Oscars with favorites we’re pulling for? As a newspaper brat, wouldn’t I be thrilled to see The Post win Best Picture in a shocking upset? (Yes I would, even though it ain’t gonna happen.)
- The Monologue. The Oscar ceremony is where some of the great comedians in the history of the business bring their “A” Game, and no matter how the rest of the show turns out, the opening is usually pretty strong. Who can forget Chevy Chase (“Good evening, Hollywood phonies”), Johnny Carson (“Welcome to the 51st Academy Awards, two hours of sparkling entertainment spread over a four-hour show”) or the cavalcade of musical numbers presented by Billy Crystal (who quipped, “Nothing can take the sting out of world economic problems like watching millionaires present each other with golden statues”).
- The Horrified Faces of the Losers. I can’t deny it. When they put the faces of the five nominees on the screen, I’m not looking at the winner when the envelope is opened and the results are revealed. I’m watching how the losers react. Now that’s
- Waiting for Impending Disaster. The streaker behind David Niven. The indignant speech by Paddy Chayefsky. Marlon Brando and Sacheen Littlefeather. Rob Lowe’s cringe-worthy musical number with Snow White. And the absolute king of them all, the La La Land/Moonlight Best Picture Envelope Fiasco. Let’s face it, some people watch auto racing looking for a crash. When you have a live telecast as complex and unpredictable as the Academy Awards, sometimes the train goes off the rails. It’s not comfortable to watch sometimes—yet we cannot look away.
- I Want One. Sure, I kid the Oscars. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have my speech written and rehearsed for when I win one for Best Adapted Screenplay. I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.
- The Future of the Industry. It doesn’t always happen, but sometimes the Oscars are a bellwether of where films are headed. Do the nominations for Dunkirk and Darkest Hour mean we can look forward to more movies about World War II? Might Lady Bird and Call Me by Your Name usher in a new, forward-looking wave of coming-of-age films? Might last year’s Moonlight victory (along with this year’s Best Picture nomination for Get Out and the runaway success of Black Panther) signal a willingness on the behalf of studios to tell stories featuring characters (and filmmakers) of color? Hopefully. The Oscars not only give us a chance to look back at the previous year’s best. They allow us to look forward and see all the possibilities for the art form we love—the most vital art form our culture has seen over the past 100 years. It may just be showbiz, but it’s still like no business we know.