January 14th, 2008

Admit One

...and all the little people...

Well, the Golden Globe winners were announced by press conference this year instead of a gala ceremony full of fun, frolic, and somebody invariably making a fool of themselves at one of the tables. The WGA writer's strike presented a picket line which many celebrities and writers staunchly refused to cross and, well, after receiving many too RSVPs back with neither [ ] Chicken, [ ] Fish nor [ ] Vegetarian checked but "[X] SCREW YOU" scrawled underneath, the Golden Globes gulped and decided to can the whole thing. This was bad for NBC, which had exclusive broadcast rights to the Golden Globes ceremony and suddenly found themselves with four hours' worth of programming to fill, but it was actually a boon for humanity, as it kept the likes of Bruce Vilanch from carefully crafting "spontaneous" one-liners for whoever was supposed to host.

In the face of dead air, NBC gamely tried to provide some kind of entertainment during the press conference, bringing out that bastion of class, Mr. Billy Bush, to provide erudite commentary along with oh I don't even know who she is. We've seen Billy before in the aisles of the Kodak Auditorium during the Academy Awards pre-show, annoying the likes of Jack Nicholson and Julia Roberts as they try to get by him to JUST GET TO THEIR GODDAMN SEAT IS THAT SO MUCH TO ASK, and he's about as welcome at the ceremony as a HUAC namedropper. Billy's always made me feel very, very embarrassed for him whenever he speaks. I don't even need to hear him, I can just read his assessment of Cate Blanchett's win for I'm Not There ("At the end of the day, it's a woman imitating a man") and cringe inwardly and grasp for the nearest liquor bottle. Good job, Billy. Here's a snausage. Now go back to whatever hyperbaric chamber they keep you in until E! calls.

The problem was that NBC was just begging for something, anything to show that they brought in the A-Team there. Why? Because that's how awards shows are. That's what they've become. We have to keep some semblance of normalcy in these, our troubled times. We need the glitz and the glamour and the musical montages. There's even whispers on the wind that should the WGA strike continue as it probably will, the Academy Awards ceremony will be similarly cancelled. And to that I can only say
Let's face it. The Academy Awards ceremony has become a rumbling behemoth of self-eating hype. Oh, sure, it's a spectacle, it's a giant spectacle with lots of money poured into it, but so was Carrie: The Musical. The cinematic achievements of Hollywood do deserve to be recognized and honored, and the Oscar is indeed the perennial pinnacle of peer appreciation, but could it could do with just a little less, well, everything.

It's the juggernaut of awards shows. It's been allowed to expand to humongous proportions, rumba rumba snort rip, and it's really outgrown itself. The hype surrounding the Academy Awards is only topped, I think, by Super Bowl hype and election hype (in whatever order you care to place them.) Entertainment reporters live for this kind of thing. These guys, who you've never heard of, suddenly appear to be important in front of the red carpet (kinda like the guy who "hosts" the pre-show ads at the movie theater and signs off self-importantly with "I'm Kyle Hart" as if that actually means something.) The Oscars justify these guys' existence! It's the big show and there they are! There's the red carpet! There's Joan and Melissa Rivers doing the same thing they've been doing for years! There I am, watching something else and content to read the results the next morning in the paper!

Of course, it wasn't always this way. Take a look at old Academy Awards ceremony footage, back from the 1930s and 40s. It started as an industry ceremony for the industry. Hell, it started as a banquet. Sure, everybody dressed up nice and make little acceptance speeches, but you didn't need anything else. You were there to honor those who deserved it (or who didn't deserve it, if you felt that way.) But this is Hollywood, so the show had to evolve into a see-and-be-seen kind of thing. It moved over to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in LA, and Bob Hope suddenly became the perennial host, then Johnny Carson. Fair enough. But sometime in the 1980s everything exploded. The hosts became the show: David Letterman failed, Billy Crystal nearly wore out his welcome, and Whoopi Goldberg was just plain mystifying. (Steve Martin, however, can do no wrong in my book.) Rob Lowe sang "Proud Mary" with Snow White. The numbers went longer, the "Who are you wearing?" question became the norm, and you couldn't say "the winner is" anymore because in these happy days, everybody is a winner. Except for the four people whose name was not just called. This is not Everybody Gets A Trophy Day, people.

It's not as if the Oscars are useless or irrelevant; they're not. The awards themselves do represent achievement, hard work, and expertise in one's craft. And the ceremony has provided us with some indelible pop-culture moments: Marlon Brando's Native American emissary stepping up to refuse Brando's Godfather win, the streaker (and David Niven's lovely quip about the poor man's shortcomings -- which WAS improvised, thank you very much, and not scribbled on a little card by a cadre of writers), Jack Palance's one-armed pushups, Roberto Benigni crawling over seats like a little methmonkey who wanted to kiss the entire audience, Sally Field's famous and oft-parodied acceptance speech, Cuba Gooding, Jr. going crazy, Trey Parker and Matt Stone showing up in drag (wisely realizing that this was going to be their only Oscar shot, so they might as well go for it), and swanBjork. Okay, so perhaps some are more indelible than others.

Yet there are some real moments, real, beautiful moments: Susan Hayward's final public appearance in 1974, where she accepted an invitation to present an award despite being all but decimated by cancer. Given shots of dopamine right before she went on and supported by longtime friend Charlton Heston, her withered left hand covered by a silk drape, she made her appearance with all the grace in the world. Charlie Chaplin made an appearance in 1971 to accept a lifetime award, coming out of European exile and receiving a grand ovation. Some acceptance speeches are truly heartfelt. You can tell. Others have been over-rehearsed. So it goes.

Hollywood tries very hard to create pathos and drama like that, but you can't. You really can't. The event has to be real for the feelings to be true. The over-orchestrated, over-controlled, over-time Oscars event as we know it just has no time to allow that anymore. Take too long in your acceptance speech, no matter how emotional you are, and they'll play you off the stage -- the genteel equivalent of The Hook. The show has become self-parody; even the hosts and presenters joke about the lame dance numbers ahead and the inevitable fact that the show will run long, way too long. One year we even learned words to the "play you off the stage" song. Come on.

I dunno. I think if the ceremony is to be replaced by a press conference this year, maybe it'll be a good thing. Maybe we can start next year truly fresh and new, rejiggering the entire thing. Maybe all the needless pomp can be cut and the focus put back where it belongs -- on the nominees and the eventual winners, and not on the awards show itself. But it won't happen. Too many people are making money off it.