Imagine this. You
are born with beauty, brains and talent. You are already ahead of the game.
Most people would be happy to have one of the three. But you have hit the
In your late teens or early twenties you pack up your belongings and move
to New York or Los Angeles. You attempt to make a career for yourself in
show business. You have a passion for performing. You want to be a celebrity
and are willing to work hard to make it happen.
You go to auditions and are quickly walloped by the cold hard sledgehammer
of reality. There are thousands of other beautiful talented people competing
for each job opening. Even to get a small background part in a television
commercial is exceedingly difficult.
But you don’t give up easily. You come from good stock. You have mettle.
You persevere. You take a job as a waiter or waitress or bartender to tide
you over while you pursue singing and acting lessons to sharpen your skills.
You go to endless auditions and endure seemingly endless rejections.
You bide your time. You plug away. And sure enough after five or six years
you catch a break. You get hired to play one of the principal parts in a
television show or a movie. Perhaps even the lead. Your career takes off.
As luck would have it, your show is a hit. Congratulations, you are a star!
Now your life changes in virtually every way. People recognize you on the
street. You don’t wait in line anymore at restaurants. Goodbye Burger King,
hello Spago’s. You can burn your bus pass; you now travel about town in style
via stretch limousine. You have arrived.
People treat you differently now. “What can I do for you,” becomes the most
frequent phrase you hear. But the most dramatic change by far is the money.
Ah, the money. If you are one of the stars of a hit TV show you could make
up to a million dollars a week. If you have a hit record you could make many
millions in a short period of time. Movie stardom could net you up to $30
million per picture. You make more money than a brain surgeon. More than
an airline pilot. More than the President. But you can entertain people and
that is no small achievement.
You are living a lifestyle most people can only fantasize about. You have
homes in Beverly Hills, New York, Hawaii, not to mention the chalet in Aspen.
Your every need is attended to. You can buy whatever you like and will never
again worry about paying the electric bill. Along with your newfound fame
and fortune you are treated with deference, that at first you are uncomfortable
with, but which you quickly grow accustomed to. You are surrounded by family
and friends that bask in the glow of your celebrity. Life is good.
But are you happy? Apparently not! At least not until you get yourself a
little statue. A statuette, more precisely. An award. Something to alleviate
your insecurities and validate your achievements. If you’re a movie actor
it’s an Oscar. For you TV personalities it’s an Emmy. Musicians long for
Grammy. Not to mention the dozens of related and lesser awards including
the American Film Institute Awards, the Golden Globes, the Screen Actor’s
Guild Awards and many more. One could attend an awards show practically every
week of the year if so inclined.
There is nothing wrong with a little professional recognition for a job well
done. All professions have occasional ceremonies to recognize outstanding
achievement within their industry. One would expect entertainment industry
affairs to be a little showy – after all it is “show business.” But entertainment
awards shows are more than a little over the top. They are ostentatious orgies
of excess characterized by shameless ego gratification and over inflated
opinions of self worth. It is jarring to see people who personify the noblest
aspects of the human experience on screen, act so shamelessly shallow off
screen, when facing the prospect of winning an award. It’s all about the
limos, the jewels and the designer clothes. But most of all it’s about winning.
Which wouldn’t be so bad except that acting isn’t, by any stretch of usual
meaning, a competition.
There isn’t anything wrong with competition. The shot put is a competition.
The longest throw wins. The 100-meter dash is a competition. The fastest
runner wins. All glory to the victor.
Artistic expression can be a wonderfully enlightening experience, where through
the telling of a story or the presentation of a musical piece we are entertained
and yet moved at the same time to discover some truth about ourselves or
the world at large. Art can make us think in new ways. It can awaken new
depths of feeling. It can illustrate how people of differing circumstances
share an underlying commonality. On rare occasions it can elevate our core
understanding of the human condition to new levels that become a permanent
part of our consciousness.
Artistic expression is not a competition. There is no best painter. There
is no best singer. There is no best actor. In any given year there may be
any number of performances that transcend mere entertainment and firmly qualify
as artistic achievement. Each artistic endeavor stands on its own merits,
reaches its own audience, achieves its own relative level of success.
Until recently nominees used to say, “It’s an honor just to be nominated.”
That ended a few years ago when a celebrity on one of the talk shows said,
“You know what? It isn’t good enough just to be nominated; dammit, I want
to win!” That seemed to be a clarion call for celebrities all over the world.
The façade of civility came down. The gloves came off. The pretense
of humility disintegrated. Babies cry, “I want my milk!” Celebrities cry,
“I want my statuette!” It is now routine for celebrities to wage military-like
campaigns to win awards. Publicists are hired. Full-page ads are taken out
in trade papers. Winning is everything. General Tommy Franks would be proud.
A few years ago the Motion Picture Academy changed its on air announcement
from “the winner is” to “the award goes to.” This is strictly semantics.
Winners don’t party like “awardees,” they party like winners. And some losers
slip out the back door, hoping to be unnoticed, not like “non-awardees” but
like disappointed losers. When winners are announced the joy expressed seems
totally out of proportion to the actual importance of the event. They squeal.
They fawn. They gush. They cry. They say things like, “I have waited my whole
life for this” or “This is even bigger than I thought it would be.” Nobel
prize winners don’t carry on like this. Settle down please, you didn’t just
cure cancer. You won a short-term popularity contest that bears no relationship
whatsoever to the quality of your work.
In 1999 was Hilary Swank really a better actress than Meryl Streep? She was
according to the Motion Picture Academy. In 2001 was Eric McCormack really
a better comedy actor than John Lithgow? He was according to the Television
Academy. Last year the Motion Picture Academy sunk to a new level of irrelevance
by giving the Best Original Song award to Eminem for “Lose Yourself.” I wish
he would. The next time I hear Eminem described as a “genius” I think I’ll
crawl into a spider hole and cry. It isn’t the award that offends. It’s the
inflated cachet that does.
There is a viscous cycle at work here. We treat celebrities like royalty
and they think they are royalty. We follow them everywhere with cameras and
they think everything they do is newsworthy. We cheer every time one wins
an award, and they think every award is a momentous achievement. For you
stars suffering from a touch of hubris, remember that Cary Grant never won
an acting Oscar and Alfred Hitchcock never won Best Director.
Refreshingly, not all of Hollywood is seduced by the twin demons of idolatry
and frivolity. Tom Hanks, for one, seems able to navigate the swift currents
of celebrity with remarkable integrity. He accepts awards graciously, with
a twinkle in his eye and a sly grin on his face. He is appreciative but not
On the Academy Awards web site it says, “Some spend a lifetime seeking the
treasure of their trade.” But what is that treasure? Is it the satisfaction
of a job well done; or is it the presence of a statuette on the mantle?
Allan Bormel is a retired businessman and a freelance writer.