Saturday, February 26, 2011

My Annual Promise to Not Watch The Oscars

 Ennio Morricone and Clint Eastwood: After This, the Fun Ended

First, I owe all who read last year’s rant an apology. An apology for breaking my promise.
Yes, I swore—right hand on Katz’s Film Encyclopedia,  left on my heart, blue eyes on a clear heaven--I would not watch last year’s Oscar telecast.

But, I must confess, my pledge was not kept.

But it is only because I was tricked. Deceived, I say! Curse you Tim for your deceptive invitation! Curse you, Aaron and Marcy for your cruel enabling by plying me with fine liquor to keep me from nobly walking out of that cursed Oscar Party, my head held high, my soul unsullied.

. . . but I just had to stay to watch Jeff Bridges get some reward after so many years of fine work . . . .

Again, I apologize.

Now: on February 25, 2007, the Italian composer Ennio Morricone strode onstage at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood to pick up another of the awards that he’s been collecting for over 40 years—one he’d earned dozens of times over—that gold-plate hat stand nicknamed Oscar. With Clint Eastwood gamely translating, he delivered an emotional acceptance speech in Italian, with a special dedication to his wife, Maria (who was seated with Quincy Jones—what an endorsement!).

As Morricone strolled offstage to his well-earned standing ovation, I smugly feasted on my satisfaction that the world had caught up with me. Then I grabbed the remote: PBS was showing a Nature documentary on the Andes, no music by Morricone, but featuring set and lighting design by some fella name of God, who never wins (and maybe that's why the world always seems to be ending).

I—almost--haven’t watched the Oscars since.

FADE IN: The Year, 1974 ((David Niven and the male streaker “parading his shortcomings”). The place: a theatre party in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. I watch in amazement as The Sting, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, takes home nine statuettes.

What, my young mind swoons, was that about? An ex-movie reviewer and sensitive young theater artiste and high-minded—but rather bad--actor, I’d been patient over the years as much better films by Sam Peckinpah, Stanley Kubrick  et al were shut out, ignored. What is this Sting, this ornate, but forgettable romp, doing floating away on clouds of acclaim as though it were Ben Hur, which, even fifty long years later, still rolls and storms with genuine oomph and artistry?

For sixteen years after, I blindfold myself on Oscar night.

CUT TO the late 1980s: I commence a major push into the screenwriting profession. Whatever profession you choose, you educate yourself about it, explore even its most arcane corners. And so, subscriptions to Daily Variety, Premiere and screenwriter-related publications. I become one of those irritating pedants, able to tell the tale of the screenwriter who claimed to direct the final scene of Casablanca, as I pontificate how screenplays themselves might someday be recognized as a form of epic poetry (I’m still waiting for that Nobel.)

I travel to screenwriting conferences from Hollywood to Austin, Texas, where I pitch and grovel to agents and producers, to the point where a friend occasionally asks:

“Don’t you wash your nose once in awhile?”

In the meantime, I start to watch the Oscar telecast again. Every single year.

In the end, I’ve never so consistently embarrassed myself with my neediness and greed; nor will I ever be subjected to such fruitless encouragement (most of the people I met were nice).

But my screenplays did get better and better until--

CUT TO: September 11, 2001. I realize that no one, including me, will be in the mood for my terrorist-plot screenplay. And by the time that cloud has passed, I’ll be too old, by industry
standards, to even be acknowledged as a breathing life form. (“People over forty,” the saying goes in Hollywood. “Don’t their teeth turn brown and fall out?” Yeah, I made that up, but keep reprinting that legend, please.)

Even then, I am already souring on screenwriting. A fellow screenwriter who ripped up her roots to move to Hollywood with her children told me a story of being shown around her son’s new private school and seeing the following sign (quoting from memory):

“Please be aware that many pupils of this school may be parented by employees of the film and television industry, so please use caution in expressing your opinion about any production or program.”

Joseph Stalin would have loved Hollywood.

But even as this latest dream swirls down the sink, I watch the Oscars ev-ery, sing-le year until 2007. And, right now, I’d share with you some dear memories . . . but I don’t have many: 

An irritated Billy Crystal finding himself upstaged by old lion Jack Palance (“I crap bigger than him.”), followed by Jack’s set of one-armed push-ups. Something about Stanley Donen dancing with Oscar. Clint Eastwood getting his statue for Unforgiven. There was Letterman, Oprah, and Uma. A glimpse of Lee Van Cleef’s cruel visage in the tribute to il Maestro.

I have more fun in those nightmares where I'm naked while appearing in Death of a Salesman.

Nothing fun has happened at the Oscars since the days of Sacheen Littlefeather, Mr. Niven, or Clint desperately
covering for a traffic-jammed Charlton Heston. The Academy has put itself in the untenable position of putting an entertaining live show where nothing messy—therefore entertaining--happens.

During my Oscar-watching years, the mouths of friends would extrude with tangy foam as they ranted about how unfair, unjust and a Crime Against Humanity that Silence of the Lambs (1990) won Best Picture instead of JFK. I shrugged, the All-Knowing Sophisticate. As a wannabe screenwriter, my
interest in the awards had turned pragmatic and political: I could be happy for Clint and charmed by Stanley Donen, but the reasons the Academy decided to award their awards became more interesting to me.

As I grew increasingly fidgety (while suffering through those almost-always terrible Best Song productions), I saw my own fascination lay in the fact that I wanted to become one of them. It was an industry in which I wanted to be employed.

And so, to me, its actually mattered little who won. Really,  Silence of the Lambs is no more distinguished than The Sting  . . . or Going My Way (Best Picture, 1945) or Slumdog Millionaire (2009). Not a damn one of those pictures is fit to play in the same multiplex as Citizen Kane

Braveheart (1995) was no Ben Hur, but Mel Gibson won best director because everyone who works in Hollywood knows that 1) making an historical epic even halfway decently is extremely difficult and should be credited; and 2) they all still liked Crazy Mel back then. 

A lot of insider politics with a little of the personal and sentimental, less box office than you would think and not too much ART: That's Entertainment!

For a moment, let’s pretend that I’m not writing about Hollywood, but the American Association of Widget Makers. Every year, the AAWM holds it annual convention in ohhhhhh . . . Turlock, California.

The  widget industry’s brightest stars from all over attend. They show off last year’s widget models. Toward the end, after waves of drunken hoo-hahing, there’s an awards ceremony: Best Widget for a Toyota Gas Pedal, Best Widget Used on the Titanic, etc.

Sure, there are major differences between the AAWM and the Academy and their parties, but I want to point to two major similarities and one major difference that are germane to this discussion.

First, a similarity: Both the AAWM and the Academy parties are private industry affairs, held for the benefit of manufacturers and their employees.

Now, for that single overarching difference: You and I cannot watch the AAWM party on our viewing devices. We can’t even get in the door.

The other major similarity: Both parties don’t give even half a damn what we think.

Nor should they. At all.

In fact, if Hollywood really wanted, they could return to 1928, when the first Oscar ceremony took place behind closed doors, sans media. They could cut that carpet up for cat scratching posts, roll drunkenly out of taxicabs, turn away the Media like Jesus whupping the ass out of the money lenders and lock the doors, all the while jabbing middle fingers in the air like the Koch Brothers: “We’ll award Best Picture to Birdemic: Shock and Terror if we want to, you stinking proles. Deal with it!”

Maybe you are wonderful Roger Ebert or you are Ain’t It Cool News, Whoever we are, our opinion doesn’t count. Me, I don't care. I took my dog out of that hunt.

Of course, there’s too much money involved now for Oscar to close its door to the public, even as audiences dwindle. Hollywood’s desperate glitter has become too infused into Worldwide Pop Culture Web for them to follow the best practices as defined by the AAWM. After all, what if we stopped going to the movies?

Or, what if you stopped going to the movies. Because, Oscar or no Oscar, I still love the movies. To me, the movies are the cake and the icing. The chefs can pat themselves on the back and drink until they pass out, face down in the gravy boat, without me.
Every year reviewers write inherently boring articles about how boring the Oscar telecast is, like one of those boring Michelangelo Antonioni movies about how boring life is. I only glance over them to see if James Franco chewed his arm off, Meryl Streep suffered a bile attack, or Charlie Sheen strangled a puppy while singing “I See the Light.” Then I’ll watch the clip on YouTube.

So, on Sunday night, instead of expending our better emotions on a dreary parade, Elizabeth and I have this DVD to watch, entitled The Secret in Their Eyes. It’s from Brazil. I think was
nominated. Last year? This year? Not sure. Shoot me an e-mail if you know. I’ll look at it Monday morning.

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark will be published this Spring by Ambler House Publishing. Other essays and postings can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.


Anonymous said...

Tom, I liked this post so much I looked for the "Like" button. AL

Thomas Burchfield said...

Thanks, AL! They don't have that "like" button here, tho they do have it on Facebook.