When I was growing up, I was taken once a year to a restaurant in Los Angeles. It was a nice place, with maitre d's named Gino and wine stewards with chains around their necks and complicated rituals concerning the worship of Caesar salads, but there was nothing complicated about it for me: I always ordered the duck. The reason I always ordered the duck is that the moment I was handed the menu, the words "Order the duck" would fly into my head, apparently left over from my experience in the restaurant the year before. The duck would come. Hundreds of tiny persons would rush to ignite it. I would put the first piece into my mouth. And at that moment, I would remember the words I meant to remember from the year before, which were "Don't order the duck."
I think of this restaurant every time I watch the Academy Awards. It crosses my mind at about the same time someone gets up on stage to present the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, which is not to be confused with the Irving Thalberg Award, although I'm not sure why not. Until that moment, I have usually managed to keep a grip on my annual frenzy of Oscar fever. I know who is dying, and I know who is thought to have deserved an Oscar the last time around but didn't get one and will therefore get one this time though he doesn't deserve it, and I know who is thought not to love Hollywood enough to win. It takes a certain amount of time and energy to crank myself up in this manner, but I owe it to my past: My parents were screenwriters, and I grew up believing that the Academy Awards were more important than election night.
By the time the second Monday in April rolls around, I am very excited. I am up for the Oscars. the master of ceremonies comes on and fires the opening salvo of jokes. I am still up for the Oscars. The people from Price Waterhouse come on waving their envelopes. I'm still up. And then on comes Oliver Newton-john to sing the first song, and slowly my energy starts to drain away. Two hours later, when I am certain that the worst is over, that the technical awards for editing and short subjects and sound and special effects are done with and the good stuff if bound to begin, on comes Jack Valenti to present the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. And I remember the duck.
Why do I never remember about the Oscars? I will tell you. Sometime during the presentation of the Hersholt Ward, I sink into an odd and satisfying stupor and begin to compose my Oscar acceptance speech. There are, of course, two basic Oscar speeches: short form and long form. The short form consists of one searingly witty epiphany. I like to think I'm capable of it, but I'm not. I'm the kind of person who ends up thanking the cat. So I lie on the couch, watching the show out of the corner of my eye, and begin my thanks. I thank my parents, my husband, my child, my agent and my maid. I thank Esther at the Sylvia Grey Dry Cleaners and Mary Beth at Heaven Hair and Herb at the Midtown pharmacy. I tell a short but punchy anecdote about my old journalism teacher Charles Simms. I get in a plug for Famolare Shoes, Oronoke Orchards Pie Crust, Angelo's beef barbecue in Fort Worth, Tex., and the Equal Rights Amendment.
By the time I have gotten this far, the good stuff has finally begun, but it doesn't matter any more, because I feel terrific. I am thrilled at my virture. I am stunned at my eloquence. I am transported by my overwhelming gratitude to so many fine people. I am almost in tears that my mother did not live to see me up on that stage, and I am secretly pleased because I know it would have given her a stomach ache that I won an Oscar and she didn't. I am, in short, happy. I have had a lovely time watching the Oscars. My friends call the next day, and we all agree that it was incredibly boring this year, worse than ever except for Jane fonda, we all liked Jane Fonda, but otherwise interminable. I vow never to watch the Oscars again. But, of course, I will, Because something wonderful happens at the Academy Awards every year. I win.