Oscar Wild!

My Ongoing Love Affair With Those Twisted Awards

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 can’t 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 Field was 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 never—never—let 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 bird—a paean to quality with varying amounts of its own—and, 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 jokes—this 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 artistes and should just resign themselves to being at a perfectly delightful place in between. In fact, when Cher was 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 is no best—and if there were, it wouldn't be Red Buttons in Sayonara!

illustration: Brian Biggs

This year, Oscar's been even more torn than usual, conceding some nominations to audacious quirkathons like Boys Don't Cry and Being John Malkovich, though of course the same old lumpy pudding—like The Cider House Rules—got recognized too, satisfying the cravings of the more gender-specific and hype- receptive crowds. Cider House—"a tribute to the human spirit," according to Time magazine—is 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 supposed to be about the campily inappropriate and the dazzlingly incongruous—concepts 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 live to 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 Style spread 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 around—on March 26 at 8 p.m. on ABC, by the way—we feel like we've already seen the winners give their speeches (and we have—on 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 Mussolini and Liberty Heights, both of which ended up drawing complete blanks. Oscar ain't that dumb.


My Predictions


Oh, well, let me chime in with my own wrong guesses. Oscar will go out on a light limb, honoring stuff that's ironic and edgy, but not so much so that it couldn't play on a double bill with Braveheart or The English Patient. Best Picture will be American Beauty, a witty enough Hollywood version of an independent movie, with the requisite amount of woman-hating and carefully averted blow jobs to be considered wildly daring. (Sorry, Cider House—if a couple of African Americans had been more visible in your avalanche of ads, it might have helped your credibility. But thanks for putting up enough of a fight that we were actually starting to feel sympathy for poor little gargantuan DreamWorks.) Best Actor is between Denzel Washington for The Hurricane and Kevin Spacey for his "I'm just wild about vagina" campaign; I'm praying for Denzel. Best Actress will probably go to Hilary Swank for her "I don't have a vagina" stunt performance in Boys Don't Cry, though Annette Bening is suddenly a contender, maybe because the Academy's realized Swank is Rob Lowe's sister-in-law.

Best Supporting Actor is between cheery abortionist Michael Caine and Magnolia's oozy "I hate vagina" prick Tom Cruise for a heavy-handed turn in a rotten movie's most nonsensical role, although he's a favorite for "guts," premature lifetime achievement, and his own pudendum expansion. (All right, who wants to tell the kid from The Sixth Sense that it's all over? Boys do cry.) Best Supporting Actress will be Angelina Jolie for her attention-seizing demento in Girl, Interrupted—though this category is usually rather nutty, so let's not rule out the other three broads or the mute. (Interjection: If you're counting, so far that's two actors who've denied gay rumors, one who told a friend not to play gay, a woman playing a woman who's a man, and one bisexual who doesn't talk to her father.) And while Sam Mendes will win for directing American Beauty because he did Cabaret on Broadway, Phil Collins will get Best Song because at least it's not "Sussudio."


Oscar's Glitziest Gaffes


Collins won't be the most bizarre Oscar holder ever—not by a long shot. People have copped Academy Awards for all sorts of reasons, among them longevity (Al Pacino) and the fact that they've finally been forgiven for bad behavior that everyone's decided was sort of hot anyway (Ingrid Bergman). The most cuckoo recipient ever was Loretta Young, a big Swedish meatball as the badly accented maid who runs for Congress in '47's The Farmer's Daughter. Thanks to knowing how to work the press like marionettes, the woman miraculously squeaked by Rosalind Russell, who was such a favorite that the presenter started to say her name before realizing Young actually won!

Other weirdo winners have ranged from How Green Was My Valley (not as green as the boogers I was eating from sheer boredom, but in '41, it seemed important enough to beat Citizen Kane for Best Picture) to Liz Taylor for Butterfield 8 (even she said the flick stank, but her emergency tracheotomy clinched it for her. Maybe Jim Carrey should get one).

There are weird losers, too—like various old-Hollywood types Oscar has uncharacteristically crushed just because he wasn't in a sentimental mood at that moment. Virtual locks like Burt Reynolds, Lauren Bacall, and Gloria Stuart all found themselves kicked into the gutter at the last minute, discarded with nothing but a floral centerpiece and a stack of clippings swearing they were going to win. The barbaric nature of this process is sad yet definitely not boring, and this year it'll be especially fascinating to see whether goodwill toward Cruise supersedes even longer-standing sentiment for Caine or vice versa. Either way, a Hollywood legend gets demolished for our viewing pleasure.


A Lifetime of Highlights


But let's rise above and admit that Oscar's memorable moments have come in droves, even if some of them dazzled only because of their compelling near-awfulness. The most mind-searing of all was the '73 sight of Sacheen Littlefeather fielding the Best Actor trophy on behalf of absentee Marlon Brando (The Godfather), claiming she was president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee and explaining that Brando couldn't possibly accept his award because of "the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry." The little phony turned out to be an actress named Maria Cruz and not an Apache at all—talk about the bad treatment of Native Americans!

Similarly, Debby Boone performed that teary '77 Best Song winner, "You Light Up My Life," backed by a chorus of deaf kids who weren't really deaf. ("Their signing [was] mere mumbo jumbo," according to the seminal book Inside Oscar.) Nine years later, we took comfort in Marlee Matlin's more genuine hand gestures, but she could have been faking it, for all I cared. After all, brazen dissembling is integral to the Oscar experience, which is designed as a celebration of people playing extravagant roles. Right?

And Oscar's occasional honest moments are unforgettable too, like Goldie Hawn blurting, "Oh my God! The winner is George C. Scott!" when the Patton actor was named victorious in '71, despite having rejected the ceremony because it's "a two-hour meat parade." (These days, thankfully, it's a three-and-a-half-hour meat parade.) A producer had to accept for Scott, I guess because Sacheen Littlefeather was busy tidying up her reservation.

Of course, anyone remotely sensible would sell their firstborn just to be near an Oscar—like '74's surprise streaker, who famously paraded his own phallic statuette across the stage to the delight and horror of millions. Alas, his notoriety was instantly shattered by an even better ad-lib when David Niven quipped, "The only laugh that man will probably ever get is for . . . showing his shortcomings." A great Oscar moment—though I'm counting on returning host Billy Crystal to top it when Tom Cruise reveals his Magnolia hose.


My Nights With Oscar


I've covered the Oscars twice in person—which means sitting in the bleak press tent and fighting over slimy melon slices and the chance to ask the Best Documentary Short Subject winner who they are, while the telecast drones in the background. I loved it! I may be delirious, but I vaguely remember glancing at the monitor and noticing F. Murray Abraham announcing that the Best Actress winner of '85 was "the greatest actress in the English language," only to have half the women in the theater start running toward the stage. (He meant Geraldine Page.)

Two years later, the recipients were more clear-cut, Best Picture going to Bertolucci's The Last Emperor, a florid epic that was so long I missed the second half because the kid in front of me grew up. The movie had the kind of sweep and capital-M Meaning that demand Oscars with an insistence surpassed only by Titanic's eventual sinking to the top. But Oscar typically tempered the significance with some pizzazz when Cher turned up wearing another wowser and proceeded to divaesquely rule the night. The wacky half-breed—for real—forgot to thank Moonstruck's writer or director in her acceptance speech, but hey, she did mention her hairdressers. And an even bigger ditz prize went to Bertolucci, who announced that "Hollywood is the Big Nipple!"—a comment he later explained to me by saying, "Nine nominations is a big suck for me—the milk of gratification!"

What a dizzying, glamorous, idiotic, addicting whirl of oh-my-God-it's-George C. Scott-ness. I'm lactating just thinking about the imminent parade of celebs alternately tripping, glowing, and nursing. Even if Cider House rules, I want to thank you, Oscar (and Mommy, Buddha, and William Morris). I like you!

musto@villagevoice.com


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