Lighten up, Oscar; it’s simply a tapas in a teapot

THE RITUALISTIC PRE-DAWN announcement of Oscar nominees last week to a groggy band of reporters marked the formal opening of Hollywood’s Schizoid Season. During the coming weeks the film community becomes at once promotional and pious; it will exhibit blatant self-aggrandizement under the guise of professional modesty. This is, in short, a crazy time of year.

The reason it’s crazy is that Hollywood views the Academy Award process in sharply contrasting ways. To one camp, Oscar season represents a glitzy, high-stakes contest designed to promote the stars and hustle the goods. An Academy Award can bring the winner a bonus of $ 35 million and up — witness the box office largess bestowed on “Platoon,””Rain Man” or “The Last Emperor.”

To the more conservative element, however, the Oscars are about professional achievements, not commerce. These people approach the process as though they were awarding the Nobel Prize. Consider the stern admonitions sent to voters each year warning about “crude and excessive solicitations” that “embarrass you and demean the significance” of the Oscars. “Register your displeasure” with those colleagues who hustle votes in “an unrestrained and ambitious manner,” the Academy urges.

The tension between these two camps casts a discomfiting pall over the proceedings that is evident all the way up to the awards ceremony itself. While the Golden Globes come across as an exuberant, often outrageous carnival, the Academy Awards tend to be a bit stilted and self-conscious. It’s almost as though someone threw a big party but warned guests not to have any fun.

Given this phenomenon, it’s tempting to toss this question at the Academy: Isn’t it time to lighten up a little? Shouldn’t we all cast off our inhibitions and start enjoying the Oscar for what it is, or could be?

We’re not exactly dealing with traditions steeped in antiquity. There were no awards prior to 1929, and through the following decade the ceremony was more like a club social presided over by Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and his pals. Runner-up awards were granted in the early days and all sorts of other eccentricities figured in the process.

For a while there were split cinematography awards for color and black-and-white. And in 1956 the Academy even added a little wrinkle that anyone who hadn’t renounced the Communist Party or who had declined to testify before a congressional committee could not receive an Oscar (this was dropped two years later).

WHILE THE AWARDS PROCESS was streamlined over the years, one thing remained constant: The event spelled big business. This year is a prime example. Imagine what a TV audience of over a billion viewers in 90 countries could mean to an independently distributed film like “Howards End” or “The Crying Game,” two films that haven’t even grossed $ 20 million as yet. Imagine the career boost for an obscure actor like Stephen Rea.

An Oscar resonates on many other levels. It would mark a career milestone to a young actor like Robert Downey Jr., who has survived some dreadful films. To an old pro like Clint Eastwood, it would represent not so much a milestone as a culmination.

Given what’s at stake, isn’t a little campaigning to be expected and, indeed, endorsed? I realize that I could be accusedof bias in asking this question; Variety and Daily Variety both benefit richly from Oscar advertising. But even before I had anything to do with these publications, I had no recollection of being offended by the Oscar ads or by other bits of self-promotion connected with the Awards. To the contrary, I was always hoping to get more information about certain nominees, especially in such arcane categories as sound or wardrobe.

It was always a little surprising, upon leaving an Oscar screening, to find oneself shaking hands with an artist nominated for the film, but, after all, the Academy is like a small club whose 5,000 members are hardly strangers.

Again, some Academy veterans are offended by these impromptu appearances; I never found them intrusive. Similarly, I had trouble understanding the motivations behind the rather shrill letter sent by Academy official Fay Kanin about last month’s tapas party designed to boost the chances of a foreign-language entry.

Kanin, who heads the foreign-language committee, wrote: “For voting members to attend an event hosted by any entity with an interest in one of the competitors … clearly makes us vulnerable to charges of having been ‘bought.’ ” Come on now, Fay! It’s hard enough to get people to attend foreign-language screenings — maybe a snack would help!

AGAIN, THERE WAS OPPOSITION in some quarters to the mass mailing of videos to members this year by the studios, but I personally found it helpful. I had missed a couple of the important films and was delighted to have an opportunity to catch up in my own living room.

Sure, there have been times when things got out of hand. I don’t remember the overly energetic drive to get John Wayne an award for “The Alamo,” but it proved self-defeating in any event. And who could begrudge Sally Kirkland spending a few bucks to win a nomination for an obscure film called “Anna”? Anyone willing to shake the hand of every single member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. in search of a Golden Globe deserves some sort of payoff.

None of this is intended to demean the artistic importance of an Oscar or to belittle the professionalism of its nominees. Filmmaking as both art and craft has left its mark on pop culture around the world. Hollywood embodies the lone American industry whose product cannot be replicated anywhere by anyone. If there weren’t an Oscar, one would have to be invented.

All I’m arguing is that the time has come to stop being schizoid about the event. The Oscar is about big money. It’s time to kick back and enjoy the process, just like Doug Fairbanks did back in the 1920s when he called his pals together and handed out a few scrolls. Lighten up, everyone. It’s Oscar time!

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