How Celebrity Culture Killed the Oscars

Here is the show’s equivalent of global warming: The Oscars rely on our fascination with celebrity, all too easily satisfied elsewhere.

Oscar Day, and this year’s curiously flat mood shows no signs of lifting, despite the redoubled – or desperate – promise by Academy President Sid Ganis that things will be different this time.


After last year’s lowest-rated Oscars broadcast ever, with 32 million viewers, we’ve been hearing about all-new twists: Presenters have not been announced in advance, to build suspense, and the 24 awards will be given out in some heretofore unimagined fashion.


Snippets of the musical numbers will be combined into one big production. Judd Apatow is making a short film just for the event.


And there’s a host, Hugh Jackman, capable of some showbiz razzle-dazzle rather than the usual Oscars night medium-wattage stand-up comedy schtick.

Still, the smart money says the show will be bad, and the ratings will be too.


The most obvious reason is that the nominated films are of the small, intricately wrought variety, which means fewer viewers will tune in to see the movies they loved compete. This is nobody’s fault. Hollywood periodically contracts itself in order to do penance for its mindless bloat and greed, paying homage to more modest, “meaningful” movies like “Frost/Nixon” and “Slumdog Millionaire.” We must accept this as we accept that April comes after March.

But ultimately, for Hollywood to be Hollywood, the Academy must reward the “Titanic,” the “Schindlers List.”

And so the Oscars achieve their true potential only when they’re dominated by movies huge in scale but that boil down to comic-book simplicity: A big boat sinks. A good guy tries to stop a bad guy.


This year, of course, we had a good guy trying to stop a bad guy – “Dark Knight” – and it didn’t make the Best Picture cut. Instead the best bet is a kitchen-sink Bollywood charmer. “Slumdog” may have an uplifting romance on its side, but the TV-watching public will not be fooled. Its DNA is depresso-British, not gleaming Hollywood monumentalism.

And then we have the more serious predicament facing the Oscars, the show’s equivalent of global warming: The Oscars show has come to rely on our fascination with celebrity to power its engine, and that is a fast-diminishing resource.

Big Movie years will come again, but never again will the Oscars provide a thrilling, once-a-year-only unmediated peek into the lives of Hollywood royalty.


Back when the likes of Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway reigned over the event, the Oscars were the pinnacle of celebrity culture – not that such a concept had even been invented yet.


Now we have armies of prying, sanctimonious celebrity magazine editors who revel in exposing stars’ foibles and creating insta-narratives out of their everyday ups and downs.


We have thuggish teams of paparazzi to provide the anywhere-any-time photographic goods. We have obsessive, lightning-fast bloggers who live to express their instantly formed opinions on celebrities’ choices in fashion and romance. When don’t we see Hollywood unmediated?

It just may be that the “celebrities without makeup” movement killed the Oscars. That unglorious historical march was begun by Bonnie Fuller, when she turned Us Weekly from an earnest Hollywood-publicist-approved profile magazine into the latest word on which Oscar-winning actress has cellulite, which up-and-comer holds a Starbucks with one hand while pushing a stroller with the other.


It was a short hop from there to the dark art that is TMZ, with its nonstop celebrity rap sheets and videos of stars cursing, driving recklessly, and fighting with their significant others.

The Oscars have suffered from terrible timing, as well. The show is now the final stop on the “awards show circuit,” its electricity stolen by such pathetically lesser entities as the Golden Globes, and even Saturday’s Independent Spirit Awards, which happen to fall earlier.


The circuit itself is, of course, far less a celebration of cinematic achievement than it is another cog in the celebrity-industrial complex; its central players are the stylists, not anyone who’s an actual part of working Hollywood.

In order to honor the people who toil to keep us entertained, we put them through a ceaseless, joyless round of red carpets and “wallpaper” photo backdrops and borrowed designer dresses.


They must be groomed to within an inch of their lives, and then they must describe their outfits and name-check the designers into microphones held by gushing E! Channel interviewers. Then we admire their look or, more likely, criticize it. The next day, we never discuss the winners, we just do more red-carpet review.

Once, in some dimly remembered past, a serious actress might be photographed in a fancy gown and major jewelry just once or twice a year. On Oscars night, something magic was possible. The stars were simultaneously at the height of their glamour and at their most accessible. Here they were, outside the scripted bubble at last. We heard their real voices, and it made you crane toward the TV. There was a shiver of excitement, a feeling of privileged knowledge, like running into your high school teacher somewhere far from school and having a genuine conversation.

Now we’ve exploited them so thoroughly, sucked them so dry, that thrills seem a remote possibility on Oscars night. If we tune in, it’s because we want to see their dresses. A few knock-out outfits are about all we dare hope for.

Even the Grammys – always the nadir of awards shows  — have started to climb into relevance, and had a respectable 20 million viewers this time around.


Why can’t the Oscars come up with a way to become an authentic TV event, suited to the present moment, tapping into our love of movies but going beyond it too — as the Super Bowl does with football? Whether you like football or not, recent Super Bowls have been soaring examples of packaged mass entertainment. This year’s had an appropriately sky-high 95.4 million viewers.

It’s true that, as A.O. Scott put it in the New York Times, the Oscars “have taken on a cultural and economic importance that they can’t possibly sustain and were never meant to have in the first place.” Expectations about what an Oscar means, and what the event at which they’re handed out can accomplish, need to be dialed way, way back.

But it would be one small step for mankind if the Academy could just figure out how to wrest the Oscars out of the jaws of celebrity culture. That’s a reasonable goal, and a worthy one. The Oscars are the Super Bowl of awards shows, and it feels right to believe they can be super again one day.



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