Oscar Who?

OscarAs I watch nearly everyone in the country simultaneously succumb to the seasonal short bout of red carpet fever, I’m trying to remember the last time I actually watched “The Oscars” — the Academy Awards, Hollywood’s incestuous night of indulgent and opulent self-congratulation.

I’m pretty sure the last time I watched was back in the 1990s. It’s possible it’s even back in the 1980s. For sure, I can’t recall watching them this century. But I can say for sure when is the last time I cared about the Oscars. Because that one is easy. Because that one is: never!

For the record, here’s why…

(Also, FTR, I’m not trying to spoil anyone’s party. This is a taste issue, and you know what they say about taste accounting — it doesn’t exist. If the Oscars are your sort of thing, make the popcorn and enjoy! You’ll just have to live with my eyes glazing over when you talk about it.)

likesIt really boils down to two things: my distaste of popularity awards (especially those that pretend to be merit awards) and my lack of worship for actors. And to be honest, my opinions about those go a little beyond how they taste; I think they’re a bit defining.[1]

If you’ve read my Disclaimer, you’ve seen the bit about Blog Awards. I’ve just never been comfortable with the idea of popularity awards. (I will freely admit some of my distaste may come from never having been.)

One way to explain is to cite the Kardashians and Donald Trump. (Damned if that guy doesn’t work his way into everything. But he really is a symbol and symptom of our times.)

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The Kardashians, along with many other reality television stars, are popular because… they’re popular. Which illustrates just how empty of content is much of our popular culture.

Many pop music stars are famous for similar reason. The star doesn’t write any of the material or design the show. Their contribution is essentially the way they look combined with some ability to sing and dance.

Michael Jackson

Limbs of rubber!

The notable ones (to me) are the ones that are really, really good at the singing and dancing. Michael Jackson is always my goto here. The way that guy could dance was unearthly!

Still, my biggest respect goes to the ones who create their own material. I revere the designers and builders — the makers of new things.

Donald Trump is a clear and present example of what a popularity contest can do. Recently I mentioned another: A popular vote got Batman Begins included on a Best 100 Films list at IMDB.

There is the wisdom of the crowd, but there is also the tyranny of the majority as an opposing force. The former works best when the popular voice pays at least some attention to content and substance rather than voting purely on style and appearance.

The equation is fairly simple. The vote is ultimately based on what voters are thinking about and how they’re thinking about it. (Which is exactly what Leon Wieseltier was talking about on Colbert.)

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I’m also not as interested in actors as most people seem to be.

Part of the reason is that actor popularity is strongly related to personal popularity, which, as I’ve said here, doesn’t rate very high with me. Very few people revere actors for their acting skill rather then their personality.[2]

On one level, acting is easy.

George BurnsI saw George Burns give a great definition of acting on the Johnny Carson show once. He said that, if the doorbell rings, and you go to the door, and you say, “Who’s there?” that’s acting.

Acting has famously been defined as reacting, and that’s really what Burns was getting at. Acting is a lot about reacting to the moment and doing it in a way that is authentic and consistent to the character. Improvisation is an actor’s exercise mainly to teach reacting.

Really good acting is usually subtle. Really good acting often has the property that, because it’s so good, you don’t notice it. The character the actor creates is so real (so authentic and consistent) you don’t see the “seams” of the performance, the effort of acting.

In fact, a big part of learning to act is over-coming performance anxiety and learning to act natural on stage or in front of a camera. The problem is that the natural thing to do in those situations is to act unnatural! Especially in front of a camera, people. move. and. act. slowly. as. if. the. camera. couldn’t. keep. up.

The truth is that acting as if you’re not acting is the trick.[3]

For me, the true measure of an actor’s skill is their range. Many popular actors today pretty much just play themselves. Arnold Schwarzenegger and, more recently, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson are blatant examples of that.

Harrison Ford Branch RickeyI used to use Harrison Ford as an example of a regular actor who always played himself, but his Branch Rickey in 42 changed the dial for me. (He was also pretty cool in What Lies Beneath!)

All of us act out our own lives; we play ourselves in a literal lifetime movie. We all have some degree of skill putting on different faces. Actors learn to do it more deliberately (and on cue). The skillful ones have tools and experience that allows them to wear many faces naturally.

So while I do admire the skillful actors very much, with certain exceptions I view it as more a craft (that just about anyone can learn) more than an artistic talent to create (although there are some naturally talented actors).

And as I said, I revere the makers.

My highest regard is for the writers (of songs and scripts) and directors. Those — along with an army of various art and production departments — are the ones who create whole new worlds.

Groucho MarxI see actors as tools of the writer and director. The former tells them the words to say; the latter tells them where to move and how to feel. The actor brings what their skills allow within that context.

Which can be a considerable contribution, but it bothers me how they get the lion’s share of the attention and adulation. Generally speaking, only cinephiles get much into directors, let alone script writers.

When we think about a film, how often do we think about the other films that director has made or what other scripts the writer has done? How often do we even notice the director, let alone the script writer?

Yet they are really the ones the movie comes from.

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So I have no taste for the pomp or the circumstance. To invoke both Groucho and Goldwyn, this is a club you can include me out of!


[0] The header image references Moving Pictures, a Terry Pratchett Discworld novel. It’s Pratchett’s unique take on the movie business and the Oscars seen through the filter of Discworld. Reading this novel would be a far better use of your time tonight!

[1] In the sense of “describing.” The word “defining” has always intrigued me for having two almost opposing meanings. As here, it can refer to key properties that describe something (the smell that “defines” fresh bread), or it can refer to required properties (bread is defined by flour and water and baking). One needs to be aware of the former, weaker, meaning.

[2] To be honest, unless one has some experience with acting as a craft, it can be hard to know what constitutes truly good — that is to say skillful — acting. It’s a skill more characterized by transparency than not.

[3] Playing an extreme over-the-top character is actually fairly easy (and a lot of fun for an actor). Characters like Heath Ledger’s Joker or Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow are fun all around, but they’re like dressing up in an outlandish outfit. Much of the effect comes from the freakishness.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

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