Memo to: The Academy
From: Just another viewer
Re: Advice, as if you wanted more
I cannot remember a time when, in the days after the Academy Awards show, it was not criticized, and even blasted. It’s an American tradition. Everyone enjoys saying it was too long and the acceptance speeches were interminable, or it was too tight and they kept rudely cutting off the acceptance speeches. Everyone has complaints about the political tendentiousness of the speeches, clips and jokes. Everyone makes fun of the vulgarity and air of self congratulation.
And everyone is right.
Which, of course, you know. In the days after Oscar, the one old saying everyone in Hollywood keeps remembering over and over is, “Everyone has two businesses, his own and show business.”
* * *
Viewership this year was down an estimated 9%. Only 39 million people watched. But that’s a lot of people in the great niche nation of 300 million. And the decision to watch it was an actual decision, not a rote “This is what I watch on Sunday night.”
Why do those of us who watch, watch?
I don’t think it’s that we expect it to be a good show. It’s that America loves movies. We’ve been watching them for almost a century. We invented them. They’re our art form. To this day a good movie comes as a gift, an increasingly unexpected gift for which the audience is actually grateful. One of the happiest sentences in America is, “I saw a great movie, you’ve got to see it.”
We like to see a good movie celebrated.
We also like to look at movie stars. So many of them are physically perfect, which is kind of fascinating, or at least startling. Most of us don’t spend our lives surrounded by physical perfection. Once in Los Angeles I met a young actor who was so beautiful I thought, So that’s what God meant. Even if you see such perfection as only freakish, it’s still interesting.
On Oscar night movie stars are trussed and made up and bejeweled to look even more perfect than usual. They wear wonderful gowns and tuxedoes. As individuals, on the red carpet, they are often charming, sometimes modest, sometimes funny. They are also mere humans negotiating in public high-stakes parts of American life—success, fame, wealth—with varying degrees of grace, gratitude and personal destabilization. So even when they’re not interesting they’re . . . interesting.
We all like Jack Nicholson not because he’s classically beautiful—he’s not—but because somehow he signals, in the way he lives his life, in the way he walks into the world, at least as seen through newspapers and magazines, that on some level or to some unusual degree he . . . gets the joke. It is odd to think, as a moviegoer, that you know Jack Nicholson, and yet in a way you do. We watch the young ones coming up. Will Charlize turn into someone who gets the joke, or someone who is the joke?
* * *
But viewership of the Oscars continues to decline, even in the great movie-loving nation. Why? Here’s one practical reason.
What happened to the Oscars is what happened to the Olympics. They became common. They made themselves common. When the Olympics were held every four years, they were a real event. It was something to look forward to and be surprised by: The Olympics are on this year. Four years was enough time for a whole new cast of athletes, what felt like a whole new generation, to come up. Enough time for history to have passed, to have yielded up new geopolitical realities, new reasons to applaud and hope for this nation or that one.
Everyone watched. It was a success. So they decided to get even more success by making the Olympics every two years. It’s not an event now, it’s an expected thing, part of the usual tapestry. It’s more common, less special. Viewership is down.
In the same way, the Oscars used to be the big awards show. Then another came by, and another: Golden Globes, People’s Choice, Independent Spirit, Foreign Press.
Movie stars put on their gowns and tuxes all the time now. It must be embarrassing—I mean this seriously—to spend half your year accepting awards on TV, and for what is already highly compensated work.
It’s like what happened a few years ago, when network programmers found that “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” was an overnight sensation. So they put it on four nights a week. And it stopped being a sensation.
Hollywood should stop diminishing its own mystique. It should discourage the proliferation of awards shows. They’re getting embarrassing for everybody.
* * *
But there’s another challenge, an obvious one, and in the long term a bigger one. You don’t have to be a genius to figure out that viewership of the Oscars is down because movie attendance itself is down, and that movie attendance is down because Hollywood isn’t making the kind of movies that compel people to leave their homes and go to the multiplex.
There are those who think Hollywood hates America, and they have reason to think it. Hollywood does, as host Jon Stewart suggested, seem detached from the country it seeks to entertain. It is politically and culturally to the left of America, and it often seems disdainful of or oblivious to its assumptions and traditions.
I don’t think it is true that studio executives and producers hate America. They are too confused, ambivalent and personally anxious to sit around hating their audience. I think they wish they understood America. I think they feel nostalgic for what they remember of it. I think they find it hard to find America, in a way.
I also think that it’s not true that they’re motivated only by money. Would that they were! They’d be more market-oriented if they cared only about money. What they care about a great deal is status, and in their community status is bestowed by the cultural left. This is an old story. But it seems only to get worse, not better.
If a lot of the American audience, certainly the red-state audience, assumes Hollywood hates them, they won’t go as often to the movies as they used to. If you thought Wal-Mart hated you, would you shop there?
* * *
Which gets us to George Clooney, and his work. George Clooney is Hollywood now. He is charming and beautiful and cool, but he is not Orson Welles. I know that’s like saying of an artist that he’s no Rembrandt, but bear with me because I have a point that I think is worth making.
Orson Welles was an artist. George Clooney is a fellow who read an article and now wants to tell us the truth, if we can handle it.
More important, Orson Welles had a canny respect for the audience while maintaining a difficult relationship with studio executives, whom he approached as if they were his intellectual and artistic inferiors. George Clooney has a canny respect for the Hollywood establishment, for its executives and agents, and treats his audience as if it were composed of his intellectual and artistic inferiors. (He is not alone in this. He is only this year’s example.)
And because they are his inferiors, he must teach them. He must teach them about racial tolerance and speaking truth to power, etc. He must teach them to be brave. And so in his acceptance speech for best supporting actor the other night he instructed the audience about Hollywood’s courage in making movies about AIDS, and recognizing the work of Hattie McDaniel with an Oscar.
Was his speech wholly without merit? No. It was a response and not an attack, and it appears to have been impromptu. Mr. Clooney presumably didn’t know Jon Stewart would tease the audience for being out of touch, and he wanted to argue that out of touch isn’t all bad. Fair enough. It is hard to think on your feet in front of 38 million people, and most of his critics will never try it or have to. (This is a problem with modern media: Only the doer understands the degree of difficulty.)
But Mr. Clooney’s remarks were also part of the tinniness of the age, and of modern Hollywood. I don’t think he was being disingenuous in suggesting he was himself somewhat heroic. He doesn’t even know he’s not heroic. He thinks making a movie in 2005 that said McCarthyism was bad is heroic.
How could he think this? Maybe part of the answer is in this: The Clooney generation in Hollywood is not writing and directing movies about life as if they’ve experienced it, with all its mysteries and complexity and variety. In an odd way they haven’t experienced life; they’ve experienced media. Their films seem more an elaboration and meditation on media than an elaboration and meditation on life. This is how he could take such an unnuanced, unsophisticated, unknowing gloss on the 1950s and the McCarthy era. He just absorbed media about it. And that media itself came from certain assumptions and understandings, and myths.
* * *
Most Americans aren’t leading media, they’re leading lives. It would be nice to see a new respect in Hollywood for the lives they live. It would be nice to see them start to understand that rediscovering the work of, say, C.S. Lewis, and making a Narnia film, is not “giving in” to the audience but serving it. It isn’t bad to look for and present good material that is known to have a following. It’s a smart thing to do. It’s why David O. Selznick bought “Gone With the Wind”: People were reading it. It was his decision to make it into a movie from which he would profit that gave Hattie McDaniel her great role. Taboos are broken by markets, not poses.