FOR OSCAR-HATERS like myself, the prospect of watching and writing about Sunday's telecast inspires a certain kind of dread. It's hard enough to find a TV set (lacking one of my own), harder still to waste three and one-half hours of an otherwise pleasant evening. Moreover, the newsstands and airwaves have been spewing Academy Awards ephemera for weeks. What more could anyone possibly want to read—or write—on the subject?
So, pencil and pad in hand, refusing to take note of hair, fashion, or preshow chitchat (and never mind Joan Rivers), why not just treat the whole affair like another movie? Viewed in this way, the interminable, ad-cluttered Oscarthon forms a kind of narrative in its own right—an unscripted movie with an all-star cast, garish lighting, and improvised plot line.
Beginning promptly at 5:30, the lights may not dim, but the credits roll and music swells, signaling the AMPAS' burdensome debt to the past. (Doesn't it feel like you just sat through the prior 72 shows?) The disembodied voices of Bob Hope and others speak to us as if from prehistory like the ancient Greeks (or Friars at least).
Then, before the first act, puckish Steve Martin appears to deliver a self-mocking prologue, warning us of the artifice and enchantment we're about to witness—not tragedy, but some sort of seriocomic m鬡nge of laughter, tears, and music.
Martin's repeated gibes at Julia and Russell serve to introduce our dramatic leads; their reaction shots hint at tensions to follow. Will wide-eyed Roberts pull a Sally Field-style freak-out? Might sullen, volatile Crowe punch someone ࠬa Sean Penn? We sense they're being typecast and know each has four scheming rivals to defeat, yet we expect they'll somehow prevail—just like in the movies.
Character development is sadly lacking. It largely consists of the ability to laugh at Martin's jokes (Crowe repeatedly fails) or to politely applaud the celebs on stage and various film clips. (Here, Crowe again missteps by clapping for his own footage—manners!) Mainly, our two stars gain definition by what they are not: not Spanish, not French, not bald, not old, not unfamiliar nominees requiring a crib sheet to identify.
THE SECOND ACT creates a few more complications. For once, the blithe ingenue doesn't win Supporting Actress! Instead, Marcia Gay Harden gets the nod for her honest work in Pollock. Maybe it's a harbinger of upsets to come! Then, maddeningly, Crouching Tiger and Gladiator split a series of second-tier categories. Clearly we're not going to see another Titanic-style awards sweep. The 5,700-odd members of the Academy are again splitting their votes, reaching for compromise in the new spirit of our post-Cold War, post-ideological age. There's not going to be another Pulp Fiction vs. Forest Gump-type culture war. Instead, in the Academy's inclusive message, everyone can be a winner. The dramatic arc that begins to emerge midshow is that every film can be honored (except comedies, which always get ignored).
In the midst of this please-everyone consensus, unsettling ghosts appear in the excellent annual obituary montage. These specters—Walter Matthau, John Gielgud, Alec Guinness—serve as an implicit rebuke of the callow proceedings of the living, breathing box office world. The deceased form a more impressive roster than the evening's final winners.
Only a few other discordant notes are permitted—Bj�s weirdness, Bob Dylan's indifference and surprise—before the status quo must triumph in the third act. Julia lauds "sisterhood" in her acceptance speech, while Russell claims vindication for the suburbs. Decency, normalcy, and order must be restored!
Hence, perverts like the Marquis de Sade should remain locked in their insane asylums; gay men not played by Tom Hanks will continue their exile. Sexually transgressive women (You Can Count on Me, The Contender) mustn't be rewarded. Drunken painters (Pollock), amphetamine addicts (Requiem for a Dream), and bloodthirsty monsters (Shadow of the Vampire, Gladiator's Commodus) have no place here. Uncontrite, unpunished dope smokers like Michael Douglas' Wonder Boys prof shouldn't even be nominated. (In Traffic, you'll recall, drugs were bad—bad!)
Understood in that light, Gladiator truly is the right choice for the Academy. Splitting skulls to defend an empire, hacking off heads to avenge his family, severing limbs to launch a fragile republic, Maximus is a commercial paladin for our times. Even while battling in a new computer-generated circus, he's still laboring for the same old bread.