Monday, March 01, 2004


I had a little oped piece published in the L.A. Times recently, on the politics of gender-specific acting categories for the Academy Awards. I'd only seen it on-line until the Times sent me a tear sheet last week. It turns out that my Oscar piece was published right below another Oscar piece, by Kirk Douglas.

That's as close as I've come to the Oscars. Well, I did have a friend who was nominated once, in the Best Documentary category. It was years ago, when the audience and nominees still sat at tables, like they were just there for dinner. He told me that just before his award category winner was to be announced, his girlfriend at the time leaned over and told him not to kiss her if he wins, because she hadn't told her old boyfriend she was leaving him yet. It turned out not to be a problem, for that was as close as he got to an Oscar.

I have to confess to being a fool for awards shows in the arts, especially the Oscars, which is the only one I've watched in recent years (except the Kennedy Center and AFI Awards which are each a bit different.) I watched a good bit of this year's, even though I saw only a few of the movies nominated. I've watched in the past partly because I had a rooting interest, but except for Bill Murray I didn't much care this year. The last year I can remember being invested in outcomes was quite a good year, when "Shakespeare in Love" and some other good films split the awards.

But I always had two other reasons, and they remain. The one that remains strongest is the one that seems to be getting stronger in the awards' programs themselves: the celebration of the movies, and of the wonder of making them. I've been around moviemakers and moviemaking enough to know that, sure, it is a crazy business full of ego and envy, lies and betrayal, and dominated by arbitrary forces and money, but within that and through that is a wild, joyful and magical process, which also expresses bravery, honesty, integrity and intelligence.

There may be plenty of people to hate, and something in nearly everyone to stay away from, but there is also a lot to like. Technical people are often very smart and they have a lot of fun. Actors can be the greatest people to be around, as long as you can go home by yourself afterwards.

I don't like most movies these days but the ones I do like I really admire, and some I am in awe of. And that's how a lot of those people in the Oscar audience feel---you can see it. They may be self-absorbed stars but they are also in awe of the movies, and they are just as awestruck---maybe more awestruck---as the rest of us, watching Katherine Hepburn and Gregory Peck, two stars who died this past year and who were given tributes. I like to watch them look at each other, and celebrate the work they do.

Which relates to the longest-lasting reason, the vicarious experience. A lot of people put down the vicarious, but I don't. I know only too well that in many areas of life, if I didn't have vicarious experience I'd have no experience at all.

Part of the attraction of movies themselves is the vicarious experience, putting ourselves in the place of those people in those situations on the screen. I feel the same way about the people who make the movies. I vividly remember, so many years ago that it's embarrassing, watching Kirk's boy Michael Douglas, producer of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," with Jack and the cast and director, the first film to win the top 5 awards, saying how long a struggle it had been, how everybody had told them they were crazy, etc. etc. But they did it.

And there I was, looking up at a TV set in a small town bar, wanting desperately for my future to include such a moment. But I got to share the moment anyway, I felt really happy for them. I imagined what it would be like to have that moment---to feel fulfilled, lucky, vindicated and blessed.

I've felt that vicariously many times since, as the years have gone by, as that young upstart producer and his young upstart lead actor have become active elders of the Hollywood elite---as the upstart Francis Ford sweeps the Oscars, becomes vilified and obscured, but makes a life on the big stage, and his daughter becomes the first American woman nominated for Best Director--- while my life spirals in slow inconsequence, from improvisation and reinvention to denial and delusion and back again, and I remain a vicarious participant.

We used to talk about life being a movie. My life has been a movie, that only I have seen.

So when I watched this year, what I saw (for example) was a group of people who shared their lives and work for five or six or seven years on "The Lord of the Rings" project, together probably for the last time, at the end of an incredible adventure that probably has defined their lives. A fantastic gift, and a kind of curse they'll have to deal with for the rest of their lives. One of the producers I think it was who remarked that he had been working on this film for nearly all of his two children's lives. How amazing that is to even contemplate.

I can remember when I was younger actually trying to figure out how long it would take me to get my as-yet unfinished screenplay to the screen, and being in a panic because I couldn't figure out how I could possibly survive that long. So today, as far from Oscar as I've ever been, it's just as amazing to me that I somehow accidentally lived without one than it is to contemplate having one.

Maybe I'll read something different tomorrow, but to me, Bill Murray looked devastated when he didn't win. His first try at a serious part was in a movie I liked a lot, "The Razor's Edge," but which generally bombed. He played comedies forever after, and developed as a comic actor; from within his own personality he developed his unique colors and depths, so that by "Groundhog Day" he was a master---there will be a tribute to him someday as awestruck as the one for Gregory Peck. Then he seemed to fade away. But "Lost in Translation" was a unique part, in which he created a character from his own persona but not identical to it. I'll bet he was convinced he'd never get a better chance at the Oscar than this.

And what was with Diane Keaton, dressed as Annie Hall, the part she won for? Was it to acknowledge that she knew she wouldn't win this year, or was it for luck? Oscar is a strange thing, for everybody, I guess.

I can also remember when I first heard of Oscar parties. I went to one in New York, at somebody's apartment full of hip Village Voice media people, and hated it. People talked all through the show, they dished, they complained. I wanted to bask in it, feel it, do that vicarious thing, be happy for the winners I admired, feel bad for the deserving who lost.

This year I saw an ad for people who design Oscar parties, that's their job. No thank you. Margaret makes the best popcorn in the world. That's all I need.

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