I used to tape the Academy Awards. An hour or so before the telecast would begin, just as Barbara Walters was moving in for the kill to make John Travolta weep like a schoolgirl, I’d make sure a fresh tape was ready to go. I’d carefully apply the label to the front and, in my very best handwriting that still managed to look like a serial killer’s scrawl, I’d write the date of the event with a fine-tipped blue pen.
By the time the show began, I was ready. The appetizers my mother would buy for me would be within reach, but I didn’t eat them during the commercials. No, during that time, I’d sit hunched near the VCR, ready to press “record” as soon as the Revlon ads ended and the festivities began again. I was proud that my edits were almost seamless, that I could tell by instinct when the commercial block would be over.
My sister used to make fun of me for taping the Oscars. She didn’t sit there and do it all night, but before the show started she would walk by me as I was consulting with my mother about which I wanted first – the pigs n blankets or the chips and dip – and she would say, “Are you taping it?” Her tone made me realize that she thought that my actions were kind of idiotic and that they made me weird, but she’s the one who faithfully watched Days of Our Lives every single day, so I knew that if I had to engage in a verbal sparring session about entertainment in general, I could crush her.
Back then my focus was not on the clothing the nominees and the presenters wore. I mean, obviously I would react to the beaded headdress that Cher would stick on top of her hair – and I’d feel terribly for whomever sat behind that monstrosity – and I do remember kind of tilting my head to the side in puzzlement when Demi Moore showed up in bike shorts one year, but I was more interested in the speeches the winners gave and the brief reaction of disappointment that the non-winners couldn’t completely control for just a fraction of a second. I would go back and rewind to the moment when the winner was announced, and I’d do that five times and I would look closely at each person’s face to see the human emotion that flashed in their eyes or trembled in their lip before the reminder of regaining composure took over.
In a night that celebrated narrative fiction, I was drawn to what was real.
I kept a journal for most of my adolescence, and there were pages where I would make lists instead of tossing out my feelings. One of those lists was Movies I Need To See, and here’s what I wrote when I was fifteen:
· Dog Day Afternoon
· Easy Rider
· Mean Streets
· Harold and Maude
Looking back now – having seen all of those movies several times – I smile at how odd the choices were for a suburban girl who came of age during the eighties underneath a willow tree. The movies I listed are dark and incredibly male-centric and populated by characters with glaring flaws, but they are also brilliant stories that explore characters who are both damaged and damaging and, holy shit, did those movies speak to something deep inside of me then.
The reason I even knew about those movies, most of which had been released before I was born, was because I loved to read interviews and profiles of actors and directors and writers and producers. I liked to hear about the movies that had given them their start and how those projects evolved from the idea to the page to the production to the screen to the reception to the Oscars. I was fascinated that so many of the artists I liked were inspired by the same movies, and I needed to understand what it was that had moved them.
I didn’t like all of the movies that I saw. I found Easy Rider dizzying and I was definitely way too young the first time I saw Mean Streets, but I felt this need to be a part of a cultural conversation that was taking place, and it didn’t much matter to me that the conversation was pretty much happening at a table I hadn’t been invited to join yet. I was more than happy to eavesdrop from afar.
The desire to read not just about Film but about the Film business took hold in those early years, and the passion for doing so has not since abated. I became someone who was as familiar with the name of a President of Production at a studio as I was with a star. I knew the names of agents and I’d recognize them and nod in recognition when they were thanked in an acceptance speech. I remember the years when every single person seemed to thank Mike Ovitz.
The first time that I ever genuinely felt a personal stake in the Academy Awards was the year that E.T. went head to head with Gandhi. I was really young then, and I had seen E.T. twice in the theaters. That movie was pure magic in my eyes and it was maybe the first time that I was somewhat aware of how the combination of sound and light and framing could create both a reaction and a meaning. When E.T. and Elliot and their friends are trying to escape those weapon-wielding authority figures and E.T. uses his powers to lift the group into the sky and across the bright orange sun while the music soars, I got tears in my eyes and tingles up my arm and I knew that I had bourn witness to something really extraordinary.
I show that clip to my students today – and I still find myself wiping the tears from my eyes before I turn the lights in my classroom back on and I’m not sure anymore if I am reacting to the cinematic moment itself or what that moment meant to me as a child, but I also don’t think that understanding my reaction matters sometimes.
“Have you all seen E.T.?” I asked a class recently – and then I almost had to clutch the corner of my desk when about ten of my students shook their heads.
“Did your parents not love you?” I asked, and I think I genuinely meant the question.
But the year that E.T. was nominated, it had some tough competition in the form of an epic and Gandhi took home the top prize. I realize that a child cannot possibly be expected to understand how difficult it was to make Gandhi or how perfect Ben Kingsley was in the title role, but my reaction to E.T.’s loss felt crushing, and I remember railing against the injustice of it all before my mother gently put me to bed.
When I became an adult, the Oscars remained a part of my life. I’d try to see as many of the nominated films as possible and I’d read the odds posted about who would win in Entertainment Weekly and The Hollywood Reporter and I would look forward to the night that the show aired, though I began to celebrate it with fewer snacks. I also began to celebrate it with fewer people. I liked watching the Oscars alone – all the chatter people brought with them and all of their vocalized opinions annoyed me.
One year, I decided that it would be fun to have an Oscar party. I went into party-planning hysteria, choosing a menu and finding a red carpet and making gift bags for everyone that became some fun swag stuffed inside of a popcorn tub. I had ballots for my guests to fill out and prizes for the winners and the music I played was a compilation of songs from movies – but the good shit, like the soundtrack of Singles – and I made fifty chocolate Oscars on a stick, which took fucking forever.
But the party was held on the night before the Oscars.
“Wouldn’t it be more fun if we all watched the show together?” asked a friend of mine.
“I don’t want to have to talk to people during the Oscars,” I responded bluntly, “and I certainly don’t want them talking to me.”
The party went off without a hitch. I wore a strapless black lace dress and served champagne and my stepfather – who only stopped by with my mother for about ten minutes but filled out a ballot while he was there – won the contest, guessing every single category perfectly. Seriously: he guessed which film would win Best Animated Short, and you have never seen a man so excited to win a gift card to Best Buy, which was the grand prize.
A few years ago, I began to teach my full-year Film classes about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I wanted them to understand who was able to vote and how one became a member of the Academy and about all of the different branches within the organization. I wanted them to know what a For Your Consideration ad was and I showed them examples, including one a studio took out for Matthew Lillard in an attempt to get him a Best Supporting Actor nomination – for Scooby Fucking Doo. I had my students create their own For Your Consideration ads, and my favorite one was a plea for a nomination for Wilson, the volleyball from Castaway.
I realized that what can motivate students is the same thing that motivates me, and that is usually a snack or a prize of some sort, so I began giving my classes ballots a few weeks before the telecast. Each kid would fill out a ballot choosing who they thought would win – not who they wanted to win – and, should that student get the most correct in the class, I would buy that kid the DVD of his or her choice.
“Remember,” I would tell them as they checked off their choices and wrote the title of the movie they wanted to own should they win on the back of the ballot, “please do not ask me to buy you a movie that will result in your parents leading a School Board march against me. If you are not allowed to watch Requiem For a Dream, please don’t make me buy it for you!”
Last year, I sat on my couch on Oscar night with the ballots from three classes spread out around me, a blue highlighter dangling from my mouth as I rifled through each paper for each category and highlighted the correct responses on each page. And, in one class, there was a three-way tie.
So much for those pricey peep-toe sandals I want, I thought to myself. Now I have to spend that money buying kids shit like a Twilight DVD.
This year, the seniors from my two-year class took pictures of their completed ballots so they can watch from home and see if they are winning. Before we broke for vacation, I wrote the date of the Oscars on the board in my classroom, and it hit me someplace real when some of my students plugged the date into their phones.
With the Academy Awards airing this coming Sunday, I’ve been in catch-up mode, trying to see some of what I’ve missed and I kind of dropped the ball this year. But what has been on my mind lately is not that I haven’t seen Wild or why Gillian Flynn wasn’t nominated for Gone Girl (how could she not be nominated for Gone Girl?), but how odd it feels this year to differentiate one movie as “better” than another movie. How can one weigh the pure naturalism of Boyhood – maybe the film that has stayed with me the most this year – against the frenetic brilliance of Birdman? How can any performance be finer than anything that Edward Norton ever does onscreen – except for maybe Ethan Hawke’s performance, which quietly devastated me? And while he’s not nominated at all this year, how could I ever root against Bill Murray for anything?
Answer: I couldn’t. Bill Murray is my favorite person on the planet – and that includes the people I actually know.
There appear to be awards already locked up this year. I haven’t seen her film, but there seems to be no doubt that Julianne Moore will win Best Actress, and I am more than fine with that because I am still grieving that she didn’t win a trophy for Boogie Nights so maybe I’ll finally sleep well now. There could very well be a split between Best Picture and Best Director, and that’s always kind of interesting. Neil Patrick Harris is hosting the show, and I enjoy anything Doogie Howser does, so that should be fun, though I also saw a commercial for the Oscars the other day that touted that Adam Levine would be appearing, and that just confused the hell out of me.
I tend to find the show quite draggy now, and there’s less of a festivity to it for me than there used to be. But I still enjoy the speeches and I still want to closely gage the genuine reactions of the participants and I still wonder what that moment must be like, when you are called to a stage and handed a trophy and you have about a minute to thank the people dearest to you.
Have I envisioned myself walking the red carpet and practiced my own acceptance speech in the shower? You bet I have, and my Pantene bottle serves nicely as a Best Original Screenplay Oscar. I’ve got my speech down pat and it might surprise a few people who I choose to acknowledge, but whatever the reaction, know this: my Tom Ford dress is fucking phenomenal.