Monday, February 28, 2005

MH - The Empty Envelope

Well, another Academy Awards show has come and gone.

There seems to be a consensus among those who analyze this sort of thing that the Oscars just ain't what they used to be, although there's no agreement on the reasons why. Some cite the lack of stars; others that the movies aren't as big (or as good) as they used to be; still others that the content (of both the movies and the Oscarcast) is more offensive, less glamorous, and just too long.

I used to love the Oscars when I was growing up, and it stuck with me until a few years ago. I'm not sure why - I usually hadn't seen most of the movies, didn't know who all of the stars were, and often had to to go bed before the big awards were handed out. And yet I was always there in front of the tube, watching the magic moments, comparing the winners to my predictions - just as I thought of it this year, briefly, in passing - and wondered why it wasn't interesting anymore.

It's true that the whole thing has changed. How many of you remember that once upon a time the broadcast didn't start until 10:30 Eastern time? There was, of course, something particularly glamorous about the red carpet treatment back then, with the white flash of the camera bulbs against the darkness of the late March sky, and the spotlights swinging back and forth outside the Pantages or the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, two of the places where the show used to be held.

It was a shorter program back then, as well. A couple of times back in the '50s, the Academy actually sponsored the show itself, which meant - no commercials! Imagine that today. Therefore, even with the late start, the show didn't end that much later than it does in the bloated four-hour telecast that's become routine.

As for the reasons why the Oscars don't create the buzz they used to - well, I'm just not sure. It's true that a lot of movies are offensive today, but then Midnight Cowboy won a best-picture award back in 1969 while it still carried an X-rating, and movies like Bonnie and Clyde weren't exactly free of violence. True, Chris Rock isn't everyone's idea of an Oscar host, but neither was Richard Pryor the year he was one of the co-hosts (both Rock and Pryor suffered from the same problem, not being able to do the kind of comedy for which they'd become best-known).

Liberal Hollywood? Sure - but any more liberal than when they nominated pictures like Julia and Reds and Coming Home? I was able to sit through it back then, just as I did when Vanessa Redgrave attacked the Zionists and Marlon Brando's Indian proxy decried the treatment of Native Americans. People complain that the biggest movies are often overlooked (The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11 were this year's examples), but retrospect has always been 20/20. (Think Oliver! and Ordinary People). It's true that I haven't yet seen any of this year's nominees (no way to Baby, maybe to The Aviator since I've always been interested in Howard Hughes), but are they any worse than Out of Africa and The Last Emperor?

Some of my favorite movies were Oscar winners - Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, Chinatown, and Patton. I used to go to the old magazine stacks at the library and pour over the TV Guides with the Oscar lineups in them, looking for nominated movies that interested me based on the pictures of the actors and actresses in them, or the descriptions of the films. I ran into some real hidden gems that way - movies such as Tom Jones, This Sporting Life, Seance on a Wet Afternoon, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Darling, and The Mark, which in turn led me to other movies: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and a host of other British kitchen-sink dramas. Recall that the 1981 assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan occurred the same day the Oscars were scheduled (they were postponed a day) - I almost missed the TV coverage, because I'd been thinking of heading to the library to research old nominees. For several years the Oscars were shown at the same time as the NCAA basketball championship game; I usually chose the movies.

But somewhere along the line things changed, and I stopped caring. As I've been writing this, I've tried to put my finger on it, since so many of the things I've cited didn't seem to stop me. I think there are a couple of points to consider. First, the glamor. No question that movie stars aren't as glamorous as they used to be; many of the actors out there aren't glamorous at all, and aren't really movie stars, either. I don't even recognize some of the presenters. And while Billy Crystal and Steve Martin were throwbacks to an earlier era of hosts, what about Chris Rock and Whoopie Goldberg and some of the others they've come up with - no way you can compare them to the elegance of Johnny Carson, let alone Bob Hope.

And maybe that brings me close to what the real problem is. The Academy Awards have become a TV show, pure and simple. Most of the action is staged for TV (except for the dreadful production numbers), and it seems that even the stars have been shrunk in size to fit the smaller screen. The show is more political, and the jokes are cruder and less funny.

But perhaps the biggest change for me came when the broadcast was moved to Sunday a few years ago. It was done, they said, to increase the TV ratings, although it doesn't seem to have done much good (ratings were down again this year, in preliminary reports). It allowed them to move the starting time up even more, so now it's broad daylight when the celebrities arrive. And it's made everything that much less special. The show used to be something you could look forward to during the work day (if you were inclined to do so), a treat to enliven a dull Monday. In other words, it stood out.

Maybe the stars are too familiar nowadays - you've got entire networks devoted to covering them, reams of magazines sharing every intimate detail. Maybe award shows themselves are too familiar - you've got the Golden Globes, the People's Choice, the Screen Actor's Guild, the BAFTAs, and that's just off the top of my head - so that by the time the Oscars roll around they're old news. Maybe we're just so fragmented as a society that there's nothing that can bring disparate interests together to share a few hours watching the same show.

Whatever the reason, it's true that the Oscars just ain't like they used to be. And I'm sorry that's the case.

For the author Thomas Hibbs' take on the winning movie, read this excellent column from today's NRO.

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