I'm not proud of it, but it's the truth: I am an awards show junkie. And these days, I don't have to look very far to find my next fix.
Every time I turn on the television and see celebrities handing out anything that vaguely resembles a trophy, I watch. The Grammys, the People's Choice Awards, the Golden Globes . . . heck, I'll even tune in to the MTV Movie Awards, an event that sounds more like an oxymoron than a ceremony. But of course the Queen Mother of All Awards Shows is still the Oscars, coming to you tonight live from Hollywood. Usually, the day of the Oscar broadcast is one of my favorite days of the year, delivering an intense, pre-show Best-Picture buzz for at least 24 hours straight. But this time, I'm not sure I'm feeling it. As an awards show addict, I'm wondering if I have finally hit bottom.
During the past decade, television networks have devoted more time to covering the entertainment industry's various galas. In addition to old stalwarts like the Oscars, the Grammys and the Emmys, viewers can now watch more obscure ceremonies such as the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards, shown on TNT since 1998, or the aforementioned MTV Movie Awards, which were born in 1992 and have aired every June since. Add all the red carpet coverage of these soirees, which has multiplied even faster than knockoffs of Nicole Kidman's Oscar gowns, and the media glare gets almost blinding. In fact, don't be surprised if someday you show up at your daughter's high school National Honor Society induction to find Star Jones Reynolds outside the auditorium holding a microphone and cooing: "I looo-ved your daughter's work on her science fair project! And that essay she wrote for her AP English class was just sensational! So who are you wearing tonight?"
The excessive and often insipid TV coverage further trivializes these often trivial affairs. During the TV Guide Channel's pre-Grammys red carpet show earlier this month, I actually saw Melissa Rivers interviewing Neal Schon, guitarist for the '80s arena rock band Journey. Neither Schon nor Journey were nominated for a Grammy or acting as presenters. Frankly, I'm not even sure Schon was actually going to the Grammys. He mainly seemed focused on announcing the release date for his next solo effort. After all, that's what recognizing music's greatest achievements is really about: self-promotion, dropping the names of fashion designers, and making sure we all know what's coming next from the people who recorded "Don't Stop Believin'."
The Oscars may suffer the most from this nonsense. Once upon a time, the evening of the Academy Awards was the one night when everyone could see their favorite stars on television. Now it rings too much of the familiar. Within the past five weeks, I've already seen Cate Blanchett glide down a red carpet twice, once at the Globes and again at the SAGs. That's more often than I see some members of my immediate family. Even the speeches are starting to sound like reruns. Jamie Foxx -- widely and justly favored to win an Academy Award tonight for his performance in "Ray" -- already nabbed Best Actor statuettes at the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards and performed at the Grammys. During his acceptance speech at the SAGs, he shared an anecdote about a screening of "Ray" held here in Washington, and I actually thought to myself, "This is the third time I've heard him say this." For a moment, Foxx literally became the lovable, aging uncle who tells the same stories over and over again.
It's easy to say that none of this matters. These are frothy award shows that may affect box office revenues and CD sales but have little impact on anyone's lives. In a small way, though, I think they do matter.
I remember when I got hooked on the allure of the Academy Awards. I was 10 years old and armed with parental permission to stay up after midnight to find out whether "E.T." won Best Picture. I knew in my heartlit heart that the sci-fi tearjerker would triumph. Its biggest competition was "Gandhi," and I figured there was no way that three-hour snoozefest would win. After all, Gandhi never phoned another planet using an umbrella and a Speak & Spell. My man Elliott and his alien buddy had to prevail.
Around 1:30 a.m., after "Gandhi" met its Oscar glory, I finally crawled into bed exhausted, deflated and very angry with the Academy. But I was also enthralled. There was something exciting about the glamorous gowns, the momentous ripping of envelopes and the genuine (or at least seemingly genuine) joy expressed by the victors. The realist part of my preteen brain recognized the shallowness of the whole exercise. But something about it struck a chord in me, perhaps the same chord plucked in wannabe quarterbacks when they first see a Super Bowl. Watching other people achieve something made me want to achieve something, too.
In a society where some high schools name multiple class valedictorians, every parent's bumper touts his child's honor-roll-student status and our culture constantly emphasizes that "everyone's a winner," there aren't many moments that celebrate the significance of achievement, of standing out in a crowd. The ones that do -- the Super Bowl, the Olympics, the Academy Awards -- have been partially spoiled by product placements and commercials that cost millions of dollars per minute, making them seem more like marketing tools for corporate America than sacred events.
Winning isn't everything. But I think competition is an important thing. It teaches us, often when we're young, that trying as hard as you can, until your muscles ache and your brain is ready to sigh from exhaustion, actually can pay off. And even when it doesn't -- even when it means we come in last or don't place at all -- there's a lesson to be learned: how to lose gracefully. There's something almost noble about being able to look disappointment in the face without flinching. (Watch the Oscars tonight and you'll see tons of neglected nominees trying to do just that). Losing, in its own way, is something to be proud of, too. As they say, it's an honor just to be nominated. Cliche? Yes. But true? I'd say yes again.
In "The Incredibles," one of last year's biggest box office hits and a nominee tonight for Best Animated Feature, Bob (a.k.a. Mr. Incredible) complains about going to his son Dash's fourth-grade graduation, which he sees as a senseless ceremony. He'd rather watch his son excel in sports, something his wife forbids because the formerly superheroic family is trying to keep a low profile.
"You wanna do something for Dash?" he tells her during a pivotal scene. "Let him actually compete!" I couldn't agree more.
When it comes to art, including film, it may seem ludicrous to claim that one work or one performance is fundamentally better than another. Still, contradictory though it may be, I think there's value in celebrating "the best," whether it's the Best Actor or the best college basketball team. It gives those young enough to dream a structure around which to build their fantasies.
But being the best loses its meaning when we're celebrating it every 10 seconds on television. The Oscars may seem absurd to some, but even the most cynical have to admit that an Academy Award winner carries more weight than the recipient of a Blockbuster Entertainment Award. Maybe fewer fluffy ceremonies, not to mention more intelligent pre-show coverage, would put the idea of real achievement back into some perspective.
It may be hokey, but I still think there's something special about seeing someone grasp a gleaming golden Oscar statuette and hoist it high for the first time. And that's why -- despite the red-carpet ridiculousness, the pre-show pandemonium and even the "E.T." oversight -- I'll always be watching on Oscar night.
Jen Chaney, the movies editor for washingtonpost.com, is one of the few people on Earth who actually thought that David Letterman made a great Oscar host.