Saturday, February 21, 2009

Justifying The Oscars

Meghan Daum does not like the Oscars. She is also well aware that, in Los Angeles, this is not a popular topic. I can understand how she feels. I'm a big Lakers fan, but I can't stand the Dodgers, for which I am occasionally vilified in this town. However, my belief that the Dodgers are pathetic losers is usually justified when they fail miserably, which is a regular occurrence.

I like Meghan Daum, I even once went to a reading so I could hear her, and I even bought her book for her to autograph.

But I completely disagree with her about the Oscars, because she's totally wrong. She's obviously entitled to her opinion. But I have to disagree.

How many people genuinely care? Sure, they say they care. They enter the pools and watch the pre-event entertainment news shows and claim to have an opinion about one actor's performance versus another's. But do they really care, or do they just think they're supposed to care? Is watching the Oscars the best use of a Sunday evening, or is it an adult version of attending a high school pep rally for a football game, even if you neither fully understand the game nor give a hoot about the final score?
The answer is that they pretend to care because they really want to pretend, and sometimes they really do care. People make decisions, they identify with particular movies, they argue, they invest ego in their choices, and they make bets. Why? Partially because it's fun, but also partially because sometimes these choices do mean something to us. Some people think Steven Spielberg was shafted when Saving Private Ryan lost Best Picture to Shakespeare In Love, and will argue about it to this day. If you're a WWII veteran or are close to one, Saving Private Ryan may have been a deeply meaningful movie, while Shakespeare In Love was a romantic trifle. Lots of people were seriously disappointed that Crash won Best Picture. Some people think it was a crime when Pulp Fiction lost Best Picture to Forrest Gump. I still have no idea why Gosford Park won Best Original Screenplay.

But there's also a very LA-specific reason why people care about the Oscars. And by LA-specific, I mean entertainment-industry specific. Film, like most of the arts in this society, is constantly torn between art and commerce. Different people are involved in this business for different reasons. Some people want to make lots of money; some people believe in themselves as artists. There is an uneasy tension between the two that pervades the industry.

Except on Oscar night. On this night, it's all about art. Movies that made next to nothing compete with movies that made fortunes, and every one has an equal chance. Slumdog Millionaire violates all the rules for mainstream commercial success in Hollywood. It has no stars, the director isn't famous, and it takes place in a country most of us have never been to. And yet it is the front-runner for Best Picture, and it's practically minting money.

The Oscars are also about acceptance and reward of artistic excellence in an industry that has far more rejection than either acceptance or acknowledgement of great artistic ability.

Consider an average actress. Let's say she auditions once a week, and gets 2 gigs a year. That means that she is rejected about 50 times, and accepted twice. And one of those acceptances might be for a theater gig that pays next to nothing or a role in a student film that takes three days and pays nothing. Imagine going to 50 job interviews a year, and doing that for years. The same is true of most other professionals in this business. Writers collect rejection slips; producers work on projects for years that go nowhere. Shakespeare In Love was in development for 10 years. There are currently almost 1,400 movies on the Hollywood Stock Exchange. Many of those won't get made, and, of those that do, a fair amount will go straight to DVD. Of those that get released, a fair number will fail.

So for one night, art trumps commerce, and we all get to dream that maybe, someday, we will feel permanently accepted and acknowledged. It's fantasy, sure, but, then again, isn't escapism one of the reasons why movies exist in the first place?

Next year, Ms. Daum, I'm inviting you to my Oscar party.

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