And if we live in a republic of entertainment, then tonight’s Oscars Awards Show is akin to the night of the presidential election, when the American People hunker down in front of their television sets to find out which political celebrity won, and then, like the crowds that swelled Grant Park after President Obama’s election, bask in the glory of the freshly-crowned paragon of all that is good, true and beautiful in American life.
Like presidential elections, too, the Oscars are fueled by money, power and parties, and come at the end of an exhausting and ever-lengthening “race” characterized by spin, posturing, name-calling, and all kinds of media silliness. Consider the following reply by New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis to a question posed on the page of the Times’ new Question & Answer feature on the movies:
Q. What do you think accounts for the seismic shift from the total dominance of “The Social Network” on the awards circuit to “The King’s Speech” replacing it as the front-runner over the last few weeks?
— Marina Fang, Pittsburgh
MANOHLA DARGIS The idea that “The Social Network” was ever an authentic front-runner for best picture is a nice idea and a total media fabrication. Every year entertainment journalists, aided and abetted by movie publicists, try to spin some kind of drama out of what has become an interminable “awards season.” The journalists do their part because, especially after the critics’ groups and guilds have doled out their tchotchkes, there isn’t much left to say about movies they’ve already covered ad nauseam. But the machine needs to be fed. Happily for them, the movie companies are furiously working to capture the imagination and, they hope, the support of the only people whose opinions actually matter here: the some 6,000 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Two easy ways to stir up interest and trouble are to locate a villain (as in late 2001, when nasty chatter about “A Beautiful Mind” oozed into the mainstream) or create a media-friendly slugfest, as with last year’s trivializing battle of the exes (Kathryn Bigelow versus James Cameron).
Dargis might as well be talking about a presidential election. But then again, it’s getting harder and harder to distinguish between election season and awards season, or which of the two dramatic entertainments has more of a hold over the public imagination.
In Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose and Practice of the Movie Business, playwright, screenwriter and director David Mamet has the following to say about the Oscars. It comes up as an aside in the midst of some withering remarks about blockbuster films, a good swatch of which is worth quoting:
There is a relationship of mutual exploitation fostered by the creation and marketing of the solely mercantile film. Someone said that the genius of the American tax code was that it turned everyone into a sneak and a criminal. Mass-market exploitation of the audience makes the producer and the viewer complicit in an adoration of wealth—the producer trying to mug the viewer, and the viewer submitting for the cheap thrill of the producer’s notice. In this, the viewer is in the same position as the star at the Oscars: he agrees to fawn and pant in return for a pat on the head. This is, of course, the reason for the Oscars’ success as entertainment: the audience gets to see their oppressors brought low. It is like Boxing Day, when the lords of the manor had to pretend to serve the servants (121-22).
What Mamet has to say about the mutual exploitation involved in the selling of the “solely mercantile film” may well be true. But I think he’s wrong about the media lollapalooza the Oscars has become. For the Oscars’ audience does not tune in to see their so-called oppressors, the filmmakers, “brought low.” No, for the audience of the Oscars, the filmmakers, and especially the stars, are like the winning political celebrity, representative of all that is in human life thought to be good and best—or, more familiarly, cool.
Try a different analogy. The Oscars are like Homecoming Weekend in high school, when the King and Queen are paraded before their fellow students at half-time of the big game. Their coolness may indeed exert an oppressive force over the more socially backward. It may indeed invite jealousy and resentment and ridicule (“Did you see that hideous dress she’s wearing!”). Moreover, that coolness may be rejected by those confident enough, like Mamet, to walk away from the whole scene. But still, there’s a huge audience that can’t take their eyes off the King and Queen, for in all that coolness is the almost irresistible demand: you should be like us.
For all the hype and hilarity of presidential and other campaigns, sometimes a little justice does get done. And so it is with the Oscars. Tonight, in the midst of all the self-congratulation and moral and political grandstanding, there will nonetheless be recognition, to one degree or another, of genuine craftsmanship in the art of filmmaking, and of films that depict what is truly worthy in the human spirit. For that alone, the Oscars deserve a look in.