Tuesday, March 1, 2011
No thanks to the Academy
Ever since I was a little girl, the Academy Awards -- Oscar night -- was special at our house -- maybe because, once I got to a certain age, my mother would let me stay up late to watch it with her. My first memories of Oscar night come from the late 1960s, when I was in the early grades at school, & we were living in a small town in northeastern Saskatchewan (where we got just one -- yes, ONE -- TV channel). We went to visit a young couple, friends of my parents, who possessed what was then an object of wonder & envy -- a COLOUR TELEVISION SET -- so that my mother, a huge movie fan (who passed along her love of the movies to me), could watch the Oscars in glorious technicolour.
A year or two later, I think, still based in Saskatchewan, we spent Oscar night at my uncle's farm in southwestern Manitoba, travelling to (or from?) my grandparents in northwestern Minnesota. I have a vague memory of being allowed to stay up long enough to watch a performance of "The Bear Necessities," the Oscar-nominated song (& I think it ultimately won?) from Disney's "The Jungle Book," which we had recently seen at the drive-in theatre.
A year or two after that -- when George C. Scott refused the Oscar for "Patton" -- it was spring break and we were at my grandmother's. We had just been shopping all day in the large town about an hour to the south (still a cross-border shopping mecca), & a friend of my great-uncle's invited us over to watch the Oscars, again on a colour TV (we didn't get one until 1973 -- I think it cost over $600, a small fortune in those days). I'm not sure what thrilled me more, the colour TV, the movie-star glamour, or the pool table in the basement rec room.
About a year later, when I was about 11, again spending time at my grandmother's, I stumbled onto a paperback book at the local drugstore. It was all about the Academy Awards. There were photos from the most recent Oscar ceremonies, where Jane Fonda had won Best Actress for Klute. But then it went through the entire history of the Oscars, with profiles & photos of all the winners and lists of all the nominees. Like many kids of that pre-Internet, pre-reality TV era, I loved lists & stats, and had a well-worn copy of the Guinness Book of World Records. An entire book of lists & stats about movies?? Heaven! I practically memorized the thing. My mother would sometimes throw out a question to try to stump me: e.g., "Who was the best supporting actress of 1943?" And I could tell her. (My memory these days is not quite so sharp -- as we get older, we accumulate more mental clutter...! -- but I could probably still hazard a fairly respectable guess.)
I still have that book, somewhere at my mother's house. It is yellowed & brittle & completely falling apart, held together by a rubber band. I found an updated edition some years later, & have bought many similar books in the years since then. But that one remains special, because it truly introduced me to the magic & myth & memory that is Oscar. There are just two Oscar broadcasts that I have not watched from start to finish over the past 35-40 years or so: the first was in the spring of 1979 (pre-VCRs), when I was in my last year of high school and working part-time at Woolco (which was eventually bought out by Wal-Mart). My shift & the Oscar show overlapped by an hour, & I can remember standing in the aisle of the hardware department, where I worked (!) on tiptoe, straining to see Johnny Carson on the TV sets in the electronics department.
The second was in the late 1980s or early 1990s. My mother was coming to visit (her school spring break visits then often overlapped with the Oscars, & we would watch together), & I got us tickets for the red-hot Toronto production of "Phantom of the Opera" with Colm Wilkinson & Rebecca Caine. To my horror, I eventually realized that the tickets were for Oscar night. Fortunately, VCRs had been invented by then ; ) -- we got home in time to watch the final (most important) categories being presented, & then watched the whole show the next night, eating popcorn and fast-forwarding through the commercials & boring song & interpretive dance numbers. Not a bad way to watch, actually, although lacking some of the "who-will-win" suspense.
I used to watch ALL the awards shows -- not just the Oscars, but the Emmys, the Grammys, the Golden Globes, the Tonys, the Junos, the People's Choice Awards, the American Music Awards... And then, sometime in the last 20 years, I stopped watching most of them. Sometimes I'll tune in for an hour or so, but I rarely watch an entire awards show all the way through these days.
Maybe it's because I was getting older, & didn't recognize half the stars who were nominated anymore. Maybe it's because there just got to be too many damned award shows, & they're all at least three hours long each (and my attention span is not what it used to be)(not to mention my stamina -- most awards shows end at 11 or later, & I have to get up at 5 a.m. for work...!). Maybe it's because, with the advent of multiple channels on cable & satellite, & the huge info-tainment industry, including reality TV and numerous "entertainment" shows like "Entertainment Tonight" & "Inside Edition," and "People" & "Us" magazine & the like -- not to mention the Internet -- we got to see movie stars all the time now -- not just one special night a year, in their tuxes and gowns, but ALL. THE. TIME., in their jeans & sweatshirts & baseball caps -- sometimes in dubious places & situations.
But -- I still watch the Oscars, a big bowl of popcorn at my side a glass of Coke in one hand (the one night of the year, other than when we have company, that I bring pop into the house), and a ballot & pen in the other, marking off the winners as they are announced. There's still that aura of old-fashioned Hollywood glamour, of tradition & history (both Oscar's & mine) that makes it a special night at my house.
*** *** ***
So I'm sorry to say, maybe for the first time ever, that Oscar night this year was, overall, a disappointment for me.
I wouldn't say it was the worst Oscar show I'd ever seen (as famous film critic Roger Ebert apparently did), but it wasn't the best either. There were lots of lovely dresses, none that really made me go "huh??" ; ) Everyone was saying the next day how awful Nicole Kidman's was, but I didn't think it was that bad. I even thought her face didn't look quite as Botox-frozen as it sometimes does. ; )
There were some great moments in some of the acceptance speeches (F-bombs included, lol). But the hosts mostly left me cold. I've always liked Anne Hathaway -- she's cute, I loved most of her dresses, & yes, she can sing. ; ) But although I think James Franco is immensely talented in many ways, he seemed oddly disengaged, & she seemed to be trying too hard to make up for it. Neither they nor the presenters were well served by the dialogue writers. Many of the jokes were simply not funny. It seemed like everyone was insulting each other & pretending to be offended (or maybe they weren't pretending??) (Jude Law & Robert Downey Jr., the strange pairing of Helen "We Are Not Amused" Mirren & Russell Brand, Justin Timberlake & Mila Kunis) -- & the audience seemed unsure what to make of it. You could almost feel the relief in the room when Billy Crystal showed up, even briefly -- & then segued to clips of Bob Hope & Johnny Carson, which made the current hosts seem painfully lacking by contrast.
And while I know they are trying to keep things from dragging out too long, I miss the usual barrage of clips from movies & Oscar ceremonies past. And seeing the honorary awards presented to Hollywood legends. They were often the highlights of the evening. Shunting them off to a separate ceremony & then just bringing them out for a brief bow doesn't quite cut it, in my book. Same with having the same presenter(s) hand out two or even three awards in a row. I like to see lots of different stars on Oscar night. : )
*** *** ***
And of course, the transformation of the Oscars into Momapalooza is probably what rankled most of all about the evening with me (you knew there would be an ALI angle to this eventually, right?). Starting with the red carpet pre-show, which featured interview clips with many of the nominees's moms. Outside the theatre, reporters gushed over Natalie Portman's beautifully showcased baby bump (and it WAS a gorgeous dress, & she DID look lovely in it)... then Penelope Cruz, svelte in her gown just one month post-baby... and Sandra Bullock, waving her ringing cellphone, giggling that it was her son Louis calling her. Then there was Warren Beatty (sadly, he is really showing his age these days... I had posters from "Heaven Can Wait" and "Reds" on my dorm room walls, back when he was still considered a Hollywood sex symbol) -- who, when asked about his wife (Annette Bening)'s nomination for Best Actress, gushed about what a wonderful mother she is to their four children.
Inside & on with the show... where one of the first things our young hosts did was to point out Mom & Grandma in the audience. Then, of course, there were the traditional thank-yous to Mom in the acceptance speeches. I'll admit I loved Best Director winner Tom Hooper's story about how his mom was the one who discovered "The King's Speech," almost by accident, & encouraged him to make it his next project. ("Moral of the story: listen to your mother.")
But by the time we got to the lovely Natalie's acceptance speech near the end of the evening, thanking not only her parents but her boyfriend "for giving me my most important role ever," I had had enough. I often find that, when it comes to enduring all things pregnancy and baby and mommy-related -- at baby showers & family events, at work, on TV, in the movies, online, on the magzine covers -- I can take it & take it & take it -- but then, slowly, gradually, the steady, constant, never-ending drip-drip-drip begins to erode my sense of self and security -- the relentless talk, everywhere, about babies and pregnancy and children and baby bumps, all reminding me of the reverence (well, the lip service, anyway) paid to motherhood in this culture -- and that I am not a part of it, never WILL be part of it -- & then suddenly, I reach the tipping point, & I've had enough, & I just want to go home, or turn off the TV set and go to bed, and sulk for awhile. And vent about it in my blog. ; )
And I know it wasn't just me, noticing the Mom theme of the evening. It was mentioned in several of the articles I read the next day, as well as on ABC World News Tonight and Entertainment Tonight. "It was a night for mothers," notes New York Times's Motherlode blog. In Salon, Mary Elizabeth Williams pointedly asked, "Is motherhood Natalie Portman's 'greatest role?'" (Her conclusion: no.) A lot of the commenters (I didn't read them all) told the writer to cut Portman some slack. So (more or less) did K.J. Dell'Antonia from Double X at Slate.
I get the point. She's young, it's her first baby, she's excited, etc. etc. And yes, I'm inclined to give her some slack. As the daughter of an infertility doctor, she realizes how lucky she is -- and had the grace to say so.
But once again, it's all about being a mom, and the baby bump. It's inescapable in our current culture, it seems -- even at that ultimate exercise in escapism (that's SUPPOSED to be all about the movies), the Oscars. :(