By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
The Oscars bring out the best and worst in people under pressure in ways that even the most vicious wanna-marry-a-wife-beater show cant touch. The stakes are higher, and there are more folks watching to see whether tripping on your gown causes you to forget to mention your spouse when it comes to naming 2000 people, five pets, and three deities in your gushily spontaneous yet rehearsed-for-six-months acceptance speech. The stars get to be their absolute shiniest and at the same time dredge up their most insincere sincerity and most vain humility as they compete for crumbs of acceptance and approval in wildly entertaining ways.
Infamously enough, Sally Fieldwas crucified in '85 because she dared to speak the truth when given her second Oscar, blurting what every winner feels"You like me!" Instead of admitting such needy sentiments, you're supposed to bite your lower lip and whimper something like "Making [middlebrow movie] was a labor of love, and I want to thank [middlebrow director], God, and William Morris for the opportunity, which was an award in itself. And now this! I'm not worthy!" Then you're required to drag up each of the four losing nominees and tell them how truly brilliant they were as they turn sallow with mortification. But you must neverneverlet everyone know how deeply validated this honor makes you feel because Oscar can't deal with knowing his own power, even if it secretly makes him hard.
The awards are rife with such internal contradictions as they layer cheese on top of caviar, straining for credibility while blatantly showboating for ratings. The telecast is that bizarre birda paean to quality with varying amounts of its ownand, just as it hates to be reminded of its impact, it also rejects any attempt to be treated as a pure entertainment. Last year's host, Whoopi Goldberg, was widely criticized for spouting supposedly vulgar jokesthis from a group of people who gather in tacky fashions to claw for gold statuettes and cheer lavish mediocrity! The uproar was all too typical of a community that can't decide if they should be pop culture icons or esteemed artistesand should just resign themselves to being at a perfectly delightful place in between. In fact, when Cherwas roundly chided for wearing what looked like a dead cockatoo on her head in '86, she should have actually been applauded for recognizing the sick spectacle that is Oscar and so vivaciously catering to it. But, no, the awards have to act as though they're not a circus but a celebration of what's best, forgetting that there isno bestand if there were, it wouldn't be Red Buttonsin Sayonara!
This year, Oscar's been even more torn than usual, conceding some nominations to audacious quirkathons like Boys Don't Cryand Being John Malkovich, though of course the same old lumpy puddinglike The Cider House Rulesgot recognized too, satisfying the cravings of the more gender-specific and hype- receptive crowds. Cider House"a tribute to the human spirit," according to Timemagazineis up for Best Picture and six other categories, though it didn't even make the top 40 in Premiere's critics' roundup of the year's best films. (It did place higher than another Best Picture nominee, The Green Mile, however.) Since its surprise validation, House has been the benefactor of gushy plugs from all sorts of scribes who either are in Miramax's thrall or just happen to adore the so-so movie. Not having received any promotional abortion-related gifts yet, I feel Cider House can go only so far, though having predicted that Saving Private Ryan would sweep last year, I'm not exactly the king of machination dish.
Most disturbingly, the awards' new producers, Richard D.and Lili Fini Zanuck, are acting out Oscar's self-hatred issues with a vengeance. They're removing all those fromage-y dance numbers, which makes perfect sense but comes as a dire disappointment to anyone who cares about getting their money's worth of garish lollapalooza. The Oscars are supposedto be about the campily inappropriate and the dazzlingly incongruousconcepts that came to an unbelievable apogee with Rob Lowe's immortal duet with Snow White on "Proud Mary" in '89 (only the interpretive tap dance to Private Ryan's music last year came close). As those two misfits preened and shrieked embarrassingly, Snow and Lowe were greeted with jaw dropping, revulsion, and undeniable glee. Adding to the duet's immortality, Disney filed a lawsuit moments after it happened.
The Zanucks are also planning to snip the presenters' scripted repartee, which seems insane when you consider that we liveto see all those stars and starlets struggling to read the strained banter off the TelePrompTer. This gives us a better glimpse into what these people are really like than any In Stylespread ever could, and besides, the jokes are one of the few Oscar elements we can't predict in our narcotized sleep. There's so much advance hype that by the time the telecast rolls aroundon March 26 at 8 p.m. on ABC, by the waywe feel like we've already seen the winners give their speeches (and we haveon the Golden Globes). Oscar buzz has become such a ritualized pastime that columnists start crystal-balling the winners a year ahead of time, prognosticating golden triumphs for doo-doo like Tea With Mussoliniand Liberty Heights, both of which ended up drawing complete blanks. Oscar ain't that dumb.