It is as though some giant had grasped the United States by the northern tip of Maine and the horn of Florida, vigorously shaken it out, causing all of the most difficult characters, the most unstable and excitable elements to roll and bounce down into Hollywood, where we constitute a psychiatric critical mass. Every year we explode in a firestorm of narcissism and a mushroom cloud of hype. Oscar time.
It is a narcissism elaborately disclaimed. What winner has ever yielded to his or her honest feelings, to say to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: "I did it -- entirely alone, against the violent unfeeling resistance of everyone here. None of you even wanted me to do it. Get stuffed!"? Even the disdain of George C. Scott and Marlon Brando has a self-serving quality -- it shows, by God, how tough-minded, independent and healthy they are to be able to turn their backs on compliments. iWhy can't they let someone love them?
While we in Hollywood pool about in our navel at Oscar time, the entire country watches. Yet the Oscars are preposterous in the premise, and a damn dull show. Why do we do it, and why do they watch? There is a mystery here.
As a TV show, the Academy Award ceremony is impossible to produce. I recall working on a script for it, in a year when -- among others -- Hal Kantor, an authentically funny man, and Mike Nichols were also trying to do something about it. Trying to drop in the songs like dumplings in a stew (dumplings they were that year, those songs), to work out a strategy to prevent the winners of technical awards from making speeches, to invent film montages long enough to build effects but short enough to leave time for commercials. Laocoon wrestling snakes. Every time we got anything good going in the script, we had to stop to present an award. We speculated on new, fresh awards. "Most Improvement During The Year" was my favorite. "Goddammit," someone finally said, "why can't we get rid of the awards -- we could have a show." Anything for a laugh. I still think the streaker who ran behind David Niven in the year of the streakers was paid by the academy. Or should have been.
Still, we tune in by the millions.
As a measure of artistic work, the Oscars fail -- there is no such measure. Works of clear value and importance pass unmentioned and unnoticed in the academy membership, and silly and shallow junk occasionally sweeps the field.
Why should it be assumed that in any year there are exactly five works worth nominating, of which one is a winner? Some years seven are worth nominating, but none is a winner in the sense of standing up to winners of the years before or after. Some years there are none worth nominating. Why must we have five? This year two pictures stand out in their special way -- for guts, verity, excitement, sentiment. How can you measure the warm heart and carefully scaled realism of "Kramer vs. Kramer" against the cocky, rather nasty theatricality of "All That Jazz"? Why should one be judged better than the other?
Is it all, in the end, just an ego race? In the era of Jack and Jackie and tag football on the White House lawn, I organized a weekly tag game among the movie colony in Malibu. Children, wives, girlfriends, all of us together. The kids were removed for their safety after the first week, and by the second the women were sitting well back in the shade or taking long walks. The cheerful shouts and banter of week one had deteriorated into Neanderthal grunts and primal rage, and aggression stalked the beach. The third week sent three of us to the emergency hospital: a producer with a heart attack, a director with three broken ribs -- he should have had a broken jaw, too -- and a writer with anxiety neurosis. There is plenty of that mindless competitiveness distilled into the Oscars, but it is all so subdued by the dignity of the proceedings -- surely that's not what draws.
What is it good for? It's damned good for the winners, it adds years to careers, and as a talisman it works small miracles. I know writers who, when depression and writer's block nibble at their self-esteem, clasp their Oscars' cool and slightly oily surface and lift, straining, taking joy from its heft, symbolic of theirs. Or John Box, the great designer, who has three, which he once kept in a row on a hall table for his wife and daughters to park their hats on. And Vivien Leigh is said to have used hers as doorstops.
But there's more to watching the Oscar show than finding out who gets the doorstop. It holds a symbolic meaning, I think. As the clips of the year's movies flash by, we catch fleeting glimpses, as in a flawed and cracked mirror, of ourselves as our movies reflect us. Not the reality -- none of us who make movies is wise enough to capture that more than once n a great while. It is what we want to see about ourselves, for the unpopular views have all been buried by Oscar time, in red ink and good reviews from little magazines.
We see our good heart and constant striving in "Kramer vs. Kramer," an angry liberalism in "Apocalypse Now," a nomination that also reminds us how free and unafraid we are to look our worst mistakes in the eye. I could go on, but it is not my point to analyze these movies so much as what we see -- rightly or wrongly -- about ourselves in them. All of the year's nominees have weaknesses, in my views serious ones, but they are not weaknesses of the creator alone, they are weaknesses of all of us. To find these qualities and feelings in the stars, those personalities on whom we project our collective unconscious offers us a kind of shared rite in the Oscar show. The slowed rhythms and air of reverence are religious in tone, just as the writer who draws strength from his talismanic Oscar is performing a religious act so primitive that we might call it superstitious. In another time and place we could have enlivened the show with a sacrifice -- ritually disembowel the winners, or bury them alive in the tombs of ancient studio heads.
We are all star-struck, and the makers of films most of all. Star-struck. I recall a lunch in the executive dining room at Columbia years ago. At our table were some real luminaries of the business, as Variety would call them, Jack Nicholson, Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider, etc. We were not speaking , we were all watching Marlon Brando eat a salad at the next table. "My God, what's he doing now?" said Rafelson. "It's okay, Bob, he's just looking under the lettuce for a piece of tomato," I said, to calm him down. Brando did a helluva job on that salad, an award-caliber performance, and topped it off with a perfect exit. He pretended he didn't know we were watching. He left a 15 percent tip. We checked. Star-struck.
So where was I last night for this dump show? At the house of my friends, the young writer-director couple, who with their friends were not so long ago storming college administration halls vowing to change society. They have. Now they occupy the administration buildings of the studios, and are the new Hollywood establishment. They are star-struck, too. We sat on the floor with our white wine and watched, enthralled, thrilled with ourselves.
Almost a billion Chinese will never even know.