Cover Story

Why We Can't Resist the Oscars

Owen Gleiberman discusses the glitz, the glamour, the justice, and his expectations for this year’s Academy Awards

Since none of my movie-buff friends would ever admit it, I guess I'll have to shoulder the burden of confession myself: I love the Oscars. I love predicting them and watching them, and I sort of care about the outcome — at least, I care if a movie or an actor I'm rooting for wins. This, I realize, is terribly declasse. It takes no great insight to see that the Academy Awards are a chintzy exercise in movie-industry vanity, a terminally mediocre affair that continues to celebrate and define the lower-middlebrow aesthetic of mainstream Hollywood.

More than that, a lot of people think the show is boring. Not me. It's certainly tacky, and that's part of the fun. Whereas a program like Late Night With David Letterman has grown numbing in its relentless, nudge-nudge vapidity, it's a thrill — at least, once a year — to tune in to the Oscar telecast and be confronted with production numbers that are genuinely innocent in their awfulness; to see one contrived duo of celebrity presenters after another (Sean Young and Kris Kristofferson!! Ralph Macchio and Kermit the Frog!! Gene Kelly and Miss Shelley Winters!! Come on down!!!) as they fumble their way throughTelePromptered shtick; and to see some of the most beloved actresses in the world try to out-sequin each other for the honor of appearing in the ''worst dressed'' columns of gossip writers everywhere.

The Academy Awards boring? Nonsense! A few stretches may be tailor-made for a beer run (the gosh-we're-so-excited opening musical number, any and all appearances by Jack Valenti), but these are mere interludes within an orgy of kitsch.

I'll also vouch for the good old-fashioned glamour of the show. It's one thing to see movie stars profiled in magazines or relaxing behind their nonprescription specs on late-night TV. At the Oscars, a new element comes into play: vulnerability. These stars may have attained the fame and fortune many of us ostensibly dream about, but make no mistake: They want the damned awards. It shows in their faces. The most naked moments on Oscar night — far more than the teary-breathy acceptance speeches — are those multi-image shots of the five nominees all poised for announcement of the winner. Caught at that dizzying moment of expectation, the stars are never more human, or more dazzling.

But enough gush. You want to hear about the injustices — the movies and talents that were ignored, forgotten, snubbed! They're certainly there. Yet I'd be happier about the media flap over this year's catalog of omissions had there not been such a tidy consensus on who got screwed.

In my opinion, Do the Right Thing, that incendiary, in-your-face block party, would have been an eminently worthy nominee for Best Picture. We all know what happened instead: Spike Lee's jaggedly stylized portrait of urban racial strife inspired a flood of controversy, and that was enough to frighten off the academy, which tossed it a few consolation-prize nominations (Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor) and went with the usual slate of safe, presentable crowd-pleasers.

Is this an injustice? Of sorts. But then, ignoring cutting-edge films always has been the academy's policy — and taste. If we're talking sheer quality of moviemaking here, why haven't the media mavens who raised such a ruckus over the ''snubbing'' of Do the Right Thing so much as mentioned the omission of, say, Drugstore Cowboy, a movie every bit as daring, as accomplished, and as celebrated by the American critical establishment?

Probably because Drugstore Cowboy, a delirious free-fall through the world of early-'70s Oregon dope fiends, doesn't fit some people's mold of what a respectable cutting-edge film is. In essence, the pundits are saying Do the Right Thing should have been nominated because it was a socially conscious movie by a committed black filmmaker. That's just a loftier version of the traditional, play-it-safe Oscar mentality they're complaining about-and besides, it's patronizing to Lee. He's a wizardly director, and he was passed over, the way many other uncompromising wizards are, year after year.

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