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Why do we love naked golden men?

A study of our obsession with the Academy Awards

Published: March 12, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.


An ungodly runtime, hosts with mediocre jokes, long clip montages with no apparent purpose and sometimes dubious winners. Every year, critics and viewers alike lodge these complaints against the annual Academy Awards, yet tens of millions still watch the ceremony every year—and that’s just in the United States alone.

Why?

I asked myself this question as I dressed up in a suit and a pair of Converse shoes on Sunday night in order to attend an Oscar viewing party with some friends. Why bother watching? Anyone who’d bothered to watch the Golden Globes or the SAG Awards knew who was going to win, and choosing not to watch would spare me four hours of being alternately bored and outraged. But still, I got dressed up and enjoyed the night.

Only a select few—the approximately 6,000 members of the Academy and the people they nominate—have an actual stake in the ceremony, and you’re not likely to know any of these people. Carrie Watkins ’12 is one exception. Her grandmother—actress Connie Sawyer, who has appeared in movies as diverse as “When Harry Met Sally” and “Pineapple Express”—is a member of the Academy’s acting branch. Both of my cousins and sister have gone to the Oscars with my grandma,” Watkins said, also noting that “she doesn’t like going to the actual Oscars now, because the seats aren’t so great [for someone her age].”

The Oscars also hold a certain personal significance for the family of Zach Lambert ’12. His parents actually met at an Oscar party, and every year his family watches the Oscars together while eating takeout Chinese—the same kind of food that had been served at that memorable Oscar party 25 years ago.

Of course, most of the Oscar’s viewership—which numbered 40 million viewers this year—lacks this kind of connection to the Oscar telecast; yet they still watch. During and after the ceremony, I asked others about the reasons they watch.

For some, it’s an opportunity to see movie stars in action, with the red carpet-fashion specials that air on E! and ABC being a popular attraction, as they allow viewers a chance to focus on the fashions worn to the Oscars. “I usually love the red carpet special,” said Stacy Handler ’12.“This year was a disappointment, though. Too many poofy and neutral dresses.”

For others, the Oscars are relevant because they are widely considered to be the most important celebration of film in American pop culture.

“People care about the Oscars because it’s the highest award in America that a film can get. Since people love Hollywood and it’s a giant part of our culture, it matters,” said Lambert.

Most of my fellow partygoers admitted that they had yet to see most of the films nominated, but they also pointed out that the Oscars provided them with a variety of gourmet choices for future movie viewing. Many acknowledged that they hoped to soon see Best Picture winner “The Hurt Locker” along with other major nominees like “A Serious Man,” “Precious” and “The Blind Side.”

At the same time, there was also a consensus that the Oscars don’t always select the best films and actors to win. After all, numerous American classics like “Citizen Kane” and “Raging Bull” failed to secure wins for Best Picture, and many other classics like “Pyscho” and “Some Like It Hot” failed to even be nominated.

“Usually, I think the Oscars get it pretty right. I was pleased with ‘The Hurt Locker’ winning. I think politics and celebrity do play a role in this, like in the case of the Sandra Bullock win. And sometimes small films aren’t recognized the way they should be,” said Handler.

The people with whom I watched the Oscars reacted positively to most of the winners this year. This was especially true of the wins for Mo’Nique in “Precious” and Christoph Waltz in “Inglourious Basterds.” Sandra Bullock’s win for Best Actress received the most mixed reaction, with some feeling it to be a win of commerce over art.

As for the ceremony itself, it was largely the same as always, despite ABC’s insistence that the telecast would allow America to see “Oscar as you’ve never seen him before.” Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin served as effective enough hosts, though they were sidelined for much of the proceedings. There was clearly a conscious attempt to attract younger viewers to the show, as Miley Cyrus, Taylor Lautner and Zac Efron all served as presenters. This, in combination with the implementation of ten Best Picture nominees, was clearly an attempt at populism by the Academy.

The telecast also offered up some historic moments, as Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”) became the first woman to win the award for Best Director. Prior to Bigelow, only three other women had been nominated for the award in the entire 82 year history of the Oscars. Geoffrey Fletcher, who won the award for Best Adapted Screenplay for “Precious,” also made history as the first African American to win an Oscar for screenwriting.

Though the telecast as a whole differed little from the way it’s been presented in the past, the people I watched it with seemed to prefer this. Watching the Oscars is tradition, and you don’t mess with tradition.