And the Winner Is...

January 17, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

I hate this PC crap. Why does it have to be "And the Oscar goes to..." instead of "And the Winner is..."? Does the wording make the losers feel better? "Hey, I didn't lose. The Oscar just went to someone else." Stupid, stupid, stupid... But that's not what this column is about.

For those who view the Oscars as a competition, 2007 is a depressing year. The nominations haven't been announced and we already know with pretty good certainty who the winners are in most of the major categories. Want a list? Best Actor - Forest Whitaker. Best Actress - Helen Mirren. Best Supporting Actress - Jennifer Hudson. Best Supporting Actor - Eddie Murphy. Best Director - Martin Scorsese. Best Foreign Language Film - Pan's Labyrinth. (Assuming Letters from Iwo Jima isn't eligible - did Japan nominate it?) Notably missing from this list is Best Picture, because it's still a toss-up among Dreamgirls, The Departed, and Babel. (My money's on Dreamgirls, but this one is not sewn up and the tide could shift between now and when the ballots are due.)

So there's no suspense, but there hasn't been much for the past few years. Sure, Crash was a bit of a surprise, but when one underwhelming film overwhelms another, where's the satisfaction? Spontaneity is as absent from the Oscars as surprises are. I'm sure this gratifies those who like things to move like clockwork, but it's not fun for those watching on television. This year, my plan is to use the DVR and watch the whole show in less than 45 minutes. That's more than enough time to catch the few worthwhile crumbs the telecast drops in our path.

Not that long ago, the scandal surrounding the Oscars was that some distributors (Miramax) were "buying" Oscars for their films. This was accomplished through enormous marketing campaigns. Today, winners are pre-determined before the nominations are announced. A certain amount of money needs to be spent to keep Helen Mirren's name in the air, but no one needs to buy her the Oscar. Her performance and the associated hype surrounding it accomplished that feat.

Lots of people watch the Oscars. It's the second most watched TV show behind that other overblown, overhyped event: the Superbowl. (Though I am a sports fan, the only time I watch the Superbowl is on those rare occasions when the Eagles get there.) Ooops, that may be a faux pas. I'm not sure I'm allowed to write "Superbowl." It may be that I'm supposed to call it "The Big Game." But back to the Oscars... If most of the winners are pre-determined, why bother? Because the Academy Awards (like all awards shows) are no longer about winners and losers. They are about the world tuning in to watch Hollywood masturbate on live TV. That's what the Oscars have become - a great big circle jerk.

Who's wearing what? Who's sitting next to whom? Who are the best dressed and the worst dressed? Will Bjork wear another animal? The "Red Carpet" show, once ignored by television, has become a bigger event than the awards part of the evening. We watch not because we care who takes home the Best [Fill in the Blank] trophy or to hear how many lawyers and agents they can thank in 90 seconds (or however long it is) but because we want to see what they're wearing when they're up there. That's the real story of the night.

My wife pointed out that a self-confessed Filipino member of the HFPA wrote a day-after piece about the Golden Globes. What was his commentary about? The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat? The witty remarks made by Brits Bill Nighy and Hugh Laurie? Helen Mirren's two trips up the stairs? No, it was about who was sitting at what tables with whom. Is this bad journalism? Arguably not, because this is what the public wants. It's a symptom of the condition that feeds the paparazzi frenzy. Everyone says how evil these pushy, greedy photographers are, but the magazines that publish their work continue to make killings.

When it comes to the Oscars, any surprises come in the nominations. There are usually a few notable inclusions and exclusions. For example, if Maggie Gyllenhaal is nominated for Sherrybaby (review pending - probably next week), she can smile sweetly and say how pleased she is and how unexpected the nomination is. There's also no pressure to write an acceptance speech because Helen Mirren has this category so locked up that not even an expert safe cracker could steal it from her. If Gyllenhaal is ignored, she can smile sweetly and say she never expected to be nominated and those few film critics who have seen Sherrybaby can dress in sackcloth and bemoan the injustice that was done.

And so it goes when it comes to today's Academy Awards. The only thing that differentiates them from the countless other awards shows are the high production values, the huge TV audience, and the sense of pompous self-importance. Bring on the nominations...