The Awards That Offer Humiliation as Their Ultimate Prize

I had my rant against Hollywood and the Academy Awards last year so I am not going to indulge myself again.   Suffice to say the Hollywood extravaganza known as the Oscars breeds a contempt in me that invariably  mingles with fascination. Understanding this dichotomy has involved me in a 27-year-long process of self-analysis.

Perhaps it is because you cannot live in this town without being affected by the movies. They are everywhere, screaming at you from billboards, bellowing at you from bus sidings, beseeching you from newsstands and leering at you from every construction hoarding. Sometimes it feels as if the entire place is one big movie set and every one living within it mere extras.

We received a poignant reminder of this on March 4 when we opened our morning paper.  There was Johnny Depp, as the Mad Hatter (in Tim Burton’s soon to be released Alice in Wonderland) in florid color dominating 3/4s of the front page. It was if the Los Angeles Times had been eviscerated of all other news, leaving just the Calendar section as the remaining source of information about local, national and international news.

Doubts were soon put to rest. We were  to learn that this was actually a faux front page and the real front page remained buried within. But it was a turning point. The venerable Times had seemed to have sold itself, eclipsing any remaining reputation it may have had for seriousness and giving itself over wholly to the movie industry upon whom it greatly relies for much of its revenue.

I suppose this sets the context for our annual religious rite paying obeisance to actors and actresses, directors and all those associated with making of their films. I had always felt that the Awards had been set up as kind of club where we were given the annual opportunity to poke our heads into Olympus and observe the Gods at work and at  play.

This year, that impression grew stronger than ever. Now they really did look like Gods. Best director winner Kathryn Bigelow, beheeled and towering over every other living creature on the stage, began to resemble one of the Na’vi  in the film that her own production, The Hurt Locker had just beaten out for best picture. Best actor winner Jeff Bridges, mumbling blandishments as if he had stumbled in from the set of The Big Lebowksi, bestrode the stage like Neptune, complete with flowing mane and bewhiskered chin. He was only missing the trident. Meanwhile George Clooney’s face, which filled more camera frames than any other on the night, revealed a stoniness that made me think of a clean shaven, mirthless Apollo, deciding when and if he would loose an arrow at the stage.

It is set up this way of course. We are manipulated into seeing these individuals as occupying a higher plane of existence.  But there was a certain point that I began to feel that I was no longer a welcome guest but a peeping tom. The cloying personal anecdotes by actors and directors to the nominees made me squirm because it seemed that these private addresses did not belong on stage nor in public. These people weren’t being honored because they were good guys –humanitarians and philanthropists or good mothers and fathers – but because they are actors. Why did I need to hear Oprah Winfrey expostulate about Precious star’s Gabourey Sidibe’s extraordinary compassion or Michelle Pffeifer’s reflection on Jeff Bridges as a great family man who played with his daughters on the set?

But then again, the more you watch the Academy Awards the more you understand that everyone involved with it is acting. The hosts are acting, the presenters are all acting (often woodenly so)  and even the nominees themselves, who must force smiles to their faces even in defeat, are required to play a role.

In fact the whole show is a performance with little left to spontaneity. Occasionally we hear a few unprompted comments, such as Geoffery Fletcher’s (winner of the best adapted screenplay award) who spoke movingly about following his dream.

But too often the speeches seem canned, the words of acceptance bottled into a few seconds before the music interrupts and forces the awardee from the stage. In such a circumstance, the awardee becomes a commodity and just as quickly as she or he has been feted, is shunted aside. What greater humiliation could there be than having your own words of acceptance and gratitude made to seem irrelevant because there is no time to deliver them?

No one knows what most Oscar winners feel on the morning after receiving their awards. But one thing is certain.  The media frenzy that swirls around them immediately isolates them – from friends, family and their colleagues. As an Oscar winner they become public property and as such they are subject to all the exposure, scrutiny and humiliation that this involves. Then, just as suddenly as it begins, it ends.  Euphoria under these circumstances, as many Oscar winners have attested, can often give way to despair.

This is, of course, the price of being a star. Its just too bad that so few are prepared for the crushing reality that their star will only burn brightly for a very short period before it slowly dims, the luster fading and then ultimately passing away.…..sometimes forever.  Hollywood history is littered with the tales of  stars who won an award one year and then more or less disappeared.  The enduring fame of  the George Clooneys and Jack Nicholsons of that world is an exception to the rule and not the rule itself. 

Many an Oscar winning director will also tell you that the Oscar was the kiss of death for their career and not the expected breath of life.  After it, many failed to make a film that came anywhere near the popular acclaim of the feature for which they won.

Can there be anything more humiliating then, than to be quickly elevated and admired for your skills and talents and then just as suddenly find yourself a nobody again? 

Humiliation is therefore one of the special prizes that Hollywood reserves for its stars.   Maybe we should think about that next time we envy our Hollywwood glitterati their special gifts, public acclaim and faboulous lives.

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