Friday, February 24, 2017

My Kazillionith Annual Promise to NOT Watch the Oscars (and Try and Make Me!)

 Ennio Morricone with Quincy Jones

Last year, 2016, I watched the Oscar telecast. Rather, I watched teeny tiny, eensy weensy bit of the Oscar telecast.

While grazing through an old favorite on TCM ( I recall it was The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn, never won an Oscar), I managed to pull up a Slate article listing the Oscars in the order they would be presented. I popped in and out of the telecast a couple of times, checking against the list, and when it came time . . . 

Well, there he was: Ennio Morricone, more frail now than when he picked up his honorary Oscar from Clint Eastwood in 2007.


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 intestinal 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-tied 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!” than “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. My favorite movie of 2016 is the great horror film, The Witch, a film I believe will be regarded as a genuine classic someday (As I walked out of the screening, I pumped my fist, a gesture I'd not made in years). Only the other day, did I finally take a look at the list of best pictures. It wasn't there.

Now: Do you see steam bursting out my ears? Do you see foam bubbling from my mouth, as I call upon Black Philip? No, you don't. (If you want to see convulsions, try cooing the words "Donald Trump" to me and see what happens.)

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 made for the Oro Dam Spillway, 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 Yoga Hosers 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 Sarah Silverman wins best actress for her turn in the new gender-bending James Bond movie; or if George Clooney gave a full-throated endorsement of Steve Bannon; or if Barack Obama pops in for a duet with Joe Biden of “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.

Well, from now on, I can dead stop. This year, it'll be a movie on TCM, or a DVD from the library and there's that excellent PBS Civil War drama, Mercy Street, which I urge y'all to get to know!

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

(Re-edited 2/20/12; 2/23/12; 2/24/17).

Copyright 2017 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield’s Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up  novel will appear this April 2017. His contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark won the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil and Dracula: Endless Night (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and other retailers. His reviews have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal and The Strand and he recently published a two-part look at the life and career of the great film villain (and spaghetti western star) Lee Van Cleef in Filmfax. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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