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And the Winner Is…
by Allan Bormel
05 January 2004Oscar

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.

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 trifecta.

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 pretentious.

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.

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