Saturday, February 18, 2012

My Third Annual Promise to Not Watch the Oscars!

Ennio Morricone and Clint Eastwood: My Favorite Oscar Memory

This February 26, instead of watching the Oscar telecast on ABC, do something different.

Watch a movie instead!

You’ll be glad you did! I sure am!


I restarted my not-watching-the-Oscars habit on February 25, 2007, after composer Ennio Morricone strolled offstage to his well-earned standing ovation, toting that gold-plated hat stand. I took a minute to smugly feast and gloat on how a tone-deaf world at last had caught up with me.

Then I switched to a PBS Nature documentary on the Andes, no Morricone music, just sets and lighting by God.

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


The Year: 1974 (David Niven and the male streaker “parading his shortcomings”).

The place: a theatre party in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

I watch with amazed anguish as The Sting, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, takes home nine statuettes.

What, my tender soul swoons, was that about? An ex-movie reviewer and high-minded young actor, I’d been patient for years as the Academy passed over much better films by Sam Peckinpah, Stanley Kubrick, and others. What is this Sting, this well-upholstered, but forgettable lark, doing floating away in glory as though it were Ben Hur (which, even fifty years later, still rolls and storms with genuine oomph and artistry?)

For sixteen years thereafter, I avert my delicate eyes on Oscar night. I watch Ingmar Bergman films and weep at the cold, cruel world.


CUT TO: Late 1980s: I start a major push into the screenwriting profession, aware that whatever profession I choose, I must educate myself about it, explore its most arcane corners.

So, I start watching the Oscar telecast again. Every single year. But not out of pleasure.

I also subscribe to Daily Variety, Premiere and screenwriter-related publications. I become a screenwriting pedant, spinning the tale of the screenwriter who claimed to direct the final scene of Casablanca while pontificating on how the world would someday recognize the screenplay as a form of epic poetry. (And where’s m' damned Pulitzer anyway?)

I attend screenwriting conferences from Hollywood to Austin, Texas, where I pitch and grovel to agents and producers. When I get home, friends greet me with a long cool stare:

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

I probably never display such intense neediness and greed as I do in those years; nor will I ever encounter again such fruitless encouragement. (Most of the people I met were nice and meant well.).

And 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 be acknowledged as a functioning life form. (“People over forty?” a Hollywood saying goes. “Aren’t those the ones with hair in their ears?” Yeah, I made that up, but pass it on, anyway.)

I’m already souring on the biz anyway. 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:

“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 keep watching the Oscars ev-ery, sing-le year until 2007. And, right now, I’d share with you some fond memories . . . um . . . let’s see: old lion Jack Palance comparing his bodily extrusions to host Billy Crystal, 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 . . . .

Actually, I have more fun calling up those nightmares where I’m standing naked in a White House reception line.


The Oscars were, once upon a time about Things Going Wrong: Sacheen Littlefeather, Mr. Niven, or Clint gamely covering for a traffic-delayed Charlton Heston. Now, the Academy has fixed it so accidents and miscues hardly ever happen. Nothing messy, nothing entertaining. The schadenfreude has gone out of it.

During my last era of Oscar-watching, I would shrug as other mouths foamed about the Crime against Humanity that awarded Silence of the Lambs (1990) Best Picture instead of JFK. In those days, I never felt particularly partisan about the Oscars. I’ve always been more likely to shout: “You’ve got to see this movie!” then “This movie has to win an Oscar . . .or . . . else!”

Remember: Citizen Kane: no Oscars; Hitchcock: never won an Oscar. Even with the new voting rules expanding the number of Best Picture nominees, a film like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2012) only squeezes through the door in other categories, while a farrago like Inception (2011) gets a Best Picture nod. The raft of excellent to great movies that never won any awards at all is nearly endless and will remain so; as will the list of mediocre (Oliver, 1968) and good but not great movies (Driving Miss Daisy, 1989) that do win awards and then dissolve to mist.

I’m not mad about any of this. I believe that all awards are contingent; there are so many factors in the zeitgeist—for instance, Harvey Weinstein and Scott Rudin--leading to these outcomes, that longer-lasting considerations, like Art, never will have much of a chance.

A conversation about the Oscars isn’t necessarily a conversation about what’s a good movie.

After I quit screenwriting in the early 2000s, I came to recognize I had no dog in the hunt. My boredom deepened. I kept watching, simply out of habit. I would tune away from those horrible Best Song productions, then forget to tune back. The only sequence I liked was the “In Memoriam” portion, but Turner Classics now does a much better presentation.


For a moment, let’s pretend that I’m not writing about Hollywood, but about the American Association of Widget Makers (AAWM). Every year, the AAWM holds it annual convention in ohhhhhh . . . Turlock, California. Widget executives from all over attend. They show off last year’s widget models. After waves of drunken hoo-hahing, there’s an awards ceremony: Best Widget for a Navien Tankless Water Heater, Best Widget Used on the Titanic, and so on.

Sure, there are major differences between the AAWM and the Academy and their parties, but allow me to mention two major similarities and one major difference:

First, a similarity: Both the AAWM and the Oscars 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 machines. We can’t even get in the door.

The other major similarity: Both the AAWM and the Academy really don’t give a tinker’s damn what we think.

Nor should they. At all.

In fact, if Hollywood really wanted, they could dial the Wayback Machine to 1928, when the first Oscar ceremony took place behind closed doors. They could cut the red carpet up for cat scratching posts and lock the doors as they flip us all the bird: “We’ll give Best Picture to The Human Centipede: Full Sequence if we want to, you stinking proles. Deal with it!”

Whether you’re Roger Ebert or Ain’t It Cool News, your opinion doesn’t count. You’re attending a boring party where you’re not really all that welcome.

Of course, nowadays there’s too much hype and money involved for the Academy to dial the public back to private, even while audiences dwindle. The Oscars are now an arm of the studio marketing departments, who appear to be the ones running the show. The telecast is now too fused with Worldwide Cultural Consciousness for the Academy to follow best practices of the AAWM.

After all, what if we stopped going to the movies?


Or, what if you stopped going to the movies, eh? Because, I still love the movies and I don’t need no stinking award show to keep me watching them. To me, the movies are the appetizer, main course, dessert, and after-dinner single malt. 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 boring articles about how boring the Oscar telecast is, like one of those boring Michelangelo Antonioni movies about how boring life is (or even this article). I only give 'em a glance to see if James Franco and Anne Hathaway returned for a rousing encore; or if George Clooney gave a full-throated endorsement for Rick Santorum; or if Barack Obama popped in to tell the crowd he likes “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music. Then I watch the clip on YouTube. If I feel like it.

So, on Oscar night, instead of expending your finer feelings—and you do have them--on pressing your nose to a tinsel window, try watching a movie instead, at home or elsewhere.

I’ll be watching another episode of Luck (which is starting to quicken my heart at last). There’s plenty on the DVR to watch too, including Olivier’s Othello. I think that won an Oscar . . . but honestly, I’m not sure.

And I don't care, really. Just so long as it's good.

(Re-edited 2/20/12; 2/23/12).

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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