Let's be honest now. Except for paid enthusiasts like the Mary Harts of the world, nobody beyond the principals really gives a rat's whisker about this overwrought spectacle. But here's the kicker: For a few hours every annum, most of us pretend to care. We "act" as if we do, and, in the process, deliver a pretty impressive performance.
Even in the multichannel universe, the Oscar fete commands relatively fat ratings. We continue to drop in on this party in big numbers. What explains our so beautifully feigned interest? Lots of murky reasons, I suspect, but leave those to Freud.
These are my three prime suspects.
The first is simple historical habit, a carryover from the days before both movie stars and the shows that feature them became so woefully overexposed. Our watching, then, is a kind of muscle memory of the time when Oscar offered a rare chance to see Liz and Cary and the Duke up close and, if not personal, then at least unshackled from a script, playing no one but their glitzy selves.
The second is schadenfreude, or, if you prefer a politer term, the siren call of controversy. In a sense, the Oscars are the granddaddy of reality TV. Like Survivor and its offspring, the show comes with rehearsed guidelines and (to say the least) a hefty dose of artifice, but it's also shrewd enough to leave a little room for the unexpected.
So there's always the possibility that something odd might happen, preferably something unfortunate, some malfeasance that we can delight in. An oops-I-thought-the-mike-was-off outburst from a frazzled host. A major fashion faux pas, always the traditional favourite. A speech that's squeamishly mawkish, or inanely political, or you-really-love-me insipid. The tiny frisson of wondering whether Elia Kazan will get booed, or Marlon Brando will show up -- bet against either happening tomorrow night.
Yes, every ritual, like the life it condenses, is a battle between predictable routine and spontaneous intensity. In that contest -- the envelope, please -- we're praying like hell for spontaneity, or, failing that, for a whiff of the controversial. And if, in a dull year like this, no actual brouhaha can be found, you can always count on someone to concoct the phony variety. This too is a form of acting -- a faux controversy dressed up as the real deal. And did I mention anything will do? But more about that later.
Our third motive may be the purest. The Oscars are a bombastic contest, but a contest nonetheless, an aesthetic horse race complete with odds, and it's fun to have a rooting interest. Of course, this presupposes that at least one of the movies excites our passion, giving us the chance to applaud or mock the final choice. Again, mocking is preferable, the choice of the cognoscenti. And all of us are cognoscenti.
What makes the Oscars such a wonderfully democratic spectator sport is that actually seeing the movies has never been essential to having a strong opinion. So a good year affords everyone the opportunity to engage in that most satisfying of critical pastimes: Dissing the dim-bulb voters. To that happy end, no year was better than 1947, when Oscar, in his infinite wisdom, concluded that How Green Was My Valley outclassed not only The Maltese Falcon but also a certain third-rater called Citizen Kane.
To up this uppity quotient, it helps to have a sentimental people's choice (a.k.a. box-office king) facing off against a hard-edged artsy contender. Like 1976, when Rocky punched out Taxi Driver. Or 1994, when Forrest Gump took it to Pulp Fiction. Good years, these, a golden occasion to work up a healthy mad.
Alas, in the rooting-interest department, this isn't a good year. Actually, it's among the worst. Of the five nominated pictures, all are competent, yet none is great, not even close. Nor are they especially popular -- for the first time in two decades, not one of the candidates has eclipsed the $100-million mark (adjusted for inflation). This quintet is the movie equivalent of the rebound romance, the kind that sparks no deep passion but makes do with genial gratitude, a pleasant smile, a sincere burst of mild applause. Each is okay, but too flawed to earn our undying love. Let's quickly go through the list.
The Aviator? Despite a few directorial flourishes from Martin Scorsese, the only intimate relationship you'll develop watching this windy opus is the one with your watch. Finding Neverland? Nothing more than a sweet little tearjerker, albeit a well-crafted and nicely acted sweet little tearjerker. Ray? Standard biopic that runs the usual narrative gamut from rags to riches to ruin to redemption. Sideways? An amiable comedy that goes down a treat and is just as easily forgotten. Million Dollar Baby? The most consistently entertaining of the bunch, but that last act is something of a cheap sucker punch.
Competence aplenty, excellence nowhere to be found. The irony is that all of these films touch darkly on the theme of excellence, and, to varying degrees, end up as cautionary tales about the perils of high achievement. Three of the five even offer biographical testimony. Ray Charles: a musical genius, all right, but also a mean-minded junkie. Howard Hughes: an aviation genius, to be sure, but does double time as an obsessive-compulsive hermit. J. M. Barrie: A playwright genius, arguably, but the wee man is as coldly asexual as a stone, save for that suspiciously soft spot for little boys.
Over on the fictional side of the ledger, we meet in Sideways a wannabe literary titan who drowns himself in pinot noir, and, in Million Dollar Baby, an aspiring champion who boxes herself into a paralytic dead end. In all five cases, then, the subtext isn't hard to read: Seek to rise too far above the norm at your own considerable risk.
Well, there's no similar risk here. Taking this subtext to heart, these movies have done what their heroes haven't, and aimed low, content with a direct hit on the bull's eye of average. Consequently, the Oscar judges can't lose this time out: Pick any flick and no one will be offended.
But if Oscar can't lose, we can't win, since taking offence is half the joy of the evening. Remove that delight, and the only motive left is schadenfreude -- oh, please, give me screw-ups, give me controversy, give me the fond (if hardly elevated) hope that someone's costume had damn well better malfunction.
Indeed, if flawed pictures are the order of the year, the Oscars would have done better to go whole hog and nominate controversially flawed pictures. One way or another, you can at least summon some passion for The Passion of the Christ. You can at least work up some heat for Fahrenheit 9/11. Put these two in the hopper and the gleeful result would be a genuinely hot debate.
Instead, flowing into the vacuum of the current ho-hum quintet, the only controversy is the literal-minded kind forged by ardent lobbyists -- pro-lifers carping about the climax in Million Dollar Baby, anti-tipplers whining about the wine consumption in Sideways. Sorry, but compared to the prospect of seeing Mel Gibson bleating on his cross, or Michael Moore ranting on his high horse, there's just not much to say about these mini-tempests -- except, maybe, they should get back in the teapot.
Nevertheless, even with little to root for and only misfortune to hope for, I'll still be watching tomorrow night. Most likely, you will too. Once again, we'll be acting as if there's a reason to care. And acting superbly.
So give us the Oscar we so richly deserve. If nothing else, consider it a lifetime-achievement award.