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Why we're still hooked on Oscar


Posted 7:44am on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012

My hopelessly silly, admittedly unhealthy obsession with the Academy Awards was cemented almost exactly 20 years ago, on the night of March 30, 1992.

For a decade before that, I had been watching the annual telecast, struggling to keep my eyes open long past my bedtime, waiting to find out if E.T. would triumph over Gandhi, or Prizzi's Honor might upset Out of Africa. By the spring of 1991, though, I was a senior in high school, with a rapidly expanding interest in film. And competing for seven Oscars that night was the film I regarded as the greatest I had ever seen: The Silence of the Lambs.

Some people, including Roger Ebert, were predicting a strong Lambs showing. But the conventional wisdom said that a horror movie, even one as deeply humane and unexpectedly moving as this, couldn't possibly win any of the top prizes. Jodie Foster was supposed to get edged out by either Thelma (Geena Davis) or Louise (Susan Sarandon). Anthony Hopkins might have created an instantly iconic villain in Hannibal Lecter, but Best Actor was expected to go to Nick Nolte for The Prince of Tides instead.

The front-runner for Best Picture and Director, meanwhile, was the gangster drama Bugsy, starring Warren Beatty, which entered the evening with the most nominations.

Instead, The Silence of the Lambs pulled off an across-the-board sweep, winning the final five awards of the night, beginning with Best Adapted Screenplay, and then Best Actor, Actress and Director. By the time the movie was named Best Picture, I was clapping and hooting so loudly you would have thought I had a financial stake in the film's VHS sales.

And from that point on, resistance against the Oscars -- at least for me -- has been futile. Over the years, I've dressed up as a gladiator, hoping to put a kibosh on the Best Picture chances for Gladiator (that campaign wasn't exactly a success), and I've spent hours leading up to the ceremony on the phone with a friend in Los Angeles, consulting with her on the Best Picture-themed desserts she would serve at her annual party. (Her battlefield cake inspired by Letters from Iwo Jima, complete with gushing lava, remains her most memorable feat.) My Oscar-night bets with my friend Andrew, who this year I convinced to give me 2-to-1 odds on a Gary Oldman upset, have become so elaborate that the Tarrant County Sheriff's Office might plausibly issue a warrant for our arrests.

The galling oversights ( Crash over Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture -- really?) have in some ways been just as exciting as the quietly deserved victories. (I still sniffle thinking about Anna Paquin's stunned reaction upon winning the Best Supporting Actress award for The Piano in 1994.) It's all part of my goofy love affair with the glamour and larger-than-life excitement of the movies, which I get to passionately renew once a year.

The scuttle on this year's Academy Awards -- which will be handed out Sunday in Los Angeles, and which the DFW.com team will be watching at our fourth annual Oscar-viewing party at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth -- is that there isn't much to get excited about. The opinion-makers and prognosticators claim that none of the nine films nominated for Best Picture truly resonated with the American public. They complain that, with so many awards handed out in the run-up to the ceremony -- Golden Globes and SAGs and BAFTAs and dozens of critics' group awards -- all of the suspense has been drained out of the proceedings.

On the one hand, I'm prone to agree with all this pessimism. Part of the problem the Oscars face, I think, is that the most primal pleasure it once afforded -- a suspenseful guessing game that was only resolved once the envelope was torn open -- has been replaced on an almost weekly basis, by the reality television likes of American Idol and Dancing With the Stars. Everything is a competition these days, and none of them, not even one featuring Brad Pitt squaring off against George Clooney, feels particularly special.

The bigger issue has been the emergence in the past decade or so of an entire "awards season," in which the same names and faces are featured again and again, preening and pimping for a gold statue in a fashion that quickly turns grotesque. Indeed, if the academy really wanted to restore luster to the Oscar, it would tell its members to stop attending the dozens of awards shows preceding it and treat Oscar night as sacrosanct.

But as tiring as the awards coverage can sometimes get, and even if I didn't love any of the films this year nearly as much as The Silence of the Lambs, I'll still be on the edge of my seat on Oscar night, waiting to find out if it's George or Jean, Meryl or Viola, The Artist or The Descendants. And I think the endless griping about them misses the larger point.

Indeed, take note of three of the films nominated for this year's Best Picture prize. Hugo, The Artist and Midnight in Paris all explore the subject of nostalgia; they quietly pine for an era when things seemed so much simpler and more satisfying. In complaining about how bad the Oscars have become, the naysayers fall into the very trap so cleverly illustrated by Midnight in Paris, which finds Owen Wilson's character so caught up in nostalgia for a bygone era that he has forgotten to appreciate the pleasures right in front of him.

The larger point of that movie is that no matter which era you might be yearning for, there were probably people living back then yearning for "better days," too. In thinking that this year offered no modern classics like The Silence of the Lambs, I may be technically correct -- but I'm falling into the same old-fogey trap. Because for every person like me who thinks the Oscars reached a pinnacle in 1992, there are others who watched that year's ceremony and thought: Things have been all downhill since George C. Scott refused to turn up to accept his Best Actor prize in 1971, or David Niven cleverly reacted to a streaker racing across the stage in 1974.

So maybe this year's Oscars won't bring with them a Lambs-slide, and most likely my favorite of this year's Best Picture nominees ( Hugo, by a nose over The Artist) will have to settle for a few consolation prizes in the technical categories. But there will be glamour, and there will be tension. There will be at least one big surprise (there always is), and one bizarre moment that we all obsess about the next morning at the office.

Above all, there will be the promise that, if not this year, then next, we will stumble upon that universally adored masterpiece, the next Silence of the Lambs or Forrest Gump or Titanic, and its Oscar-night triumph will create indelible memories for a whole new generation.

Truly, what's not to love?

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