What's wrong with the Oscars?

The speeches are boring, for starters. Why don't those stars think about me?

By Heather Havrilesky

Published March 22, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

It's Oscar time. Time for another breathtaking tribute to Hollywood's grabby ambition and unabashed masturbatory glee. Time to absorb the latest advances in gravity-resistant clothing design, and to witness the thrilling self-seriousness of overblown egos waiting patiently for their opportunity to spontaneously combust all over the red carpet. Time to see Joan Rivers groping and straining and saying unfathomable things like, "Do you know we go to the same podiatrist?" as her daughter stands by, looking visibly pained. Time to zoom in, to capture those "agony of defeat" shots of disappointed nominees feigning appreciation of the winners' speeches, while their own destinies swerve wildly in the winds of fickle voters who prefer epic, sweeping dramas centering around mentally retarded or unstable characters set to melodramatic, John Williams-style orchestration.

But best of all, it's time to hear those fateful words once again: "There are so many people I want to thank! Oh, God! Who am I forgetting?"

I'll tell you who you're forgetting: me. The viewer at home. The average American, slumped on the couch, inhaling cheese doodles and taking in the spectacle. You're forgetting me, all lumpy in my sweatpants, unimportant in the big scheme of things, but gleefully giddy in my self-righteousness, pointing and jeering and stuffing my face and loudly proclaiming my disdain for all those silly Hollywood monkeys from the throne of my shapeless couch. I'm skeptical of their worth as humans, yes, but I'm also ready to weep piteously at the drop of a hat -- all it takes is one reference to an endlessly encouraging spouse or a beloved, deceased parent. Imagine how I feel, eating up your every word, leaning in to feel your emotions with you, substandard, faceless, unsavory human that I am, leaning in like Aqualung, thirsty for a taste of the glory, my fingertips coated in a fine, iridescent-orange dusting of fake cheese.

Don't forget me again this year. Remember me, and remember when I tell you again, just like I did last year, to skip the long list of names. This is television, folks, not some congressional filibuster. There are millions of people watching all over the globe, and only three or four of them have even the mildest interest in those names you're trying so hard to remember -- your line producer, the marketing team, your agent. Yes, I know tonight is your night to shine, and that you have a duty (if not a contractual obligation) to drag your professional support system into the spotlight with you. So take out an ad, don't pull us all to the edge of unbearable titillation and then roll over and fall asleep on us.

Having thus expunged my hatred of endless name-listing, let me now declare that acceptance speeches are by far the most compelling part of the Academy Award broadcast, and as such should not be limited to a measly 45 seconds.

We don't watch the Oscars to see the usual badly arranged, highly overwrought performance of the latest Disney animated feature's theme song, the bland white family hit of the moment. We don't watch the Oscars to catch some manic gyration from the Solid Gold dancers du jour, emoting excessively and flashing their hyperextended jazz hands in our faces.

And the producers of the Academy Awards broadcast are woefully misled if they think we watch the Oscars for that endless Honorary Award segment, with its 20 minutes of montages followed by the confused ramblings of someone who was just as qualified for the award 15 years ago. How do they choose their Honorary Award nominees -- is the Academy alerted every time a high-profile person checks into the intensive care unit at Cedars Sinai?

We watch the Oscars to see the most famous people in the world prattle on endlessly about themselves, preferably with unguarded self-satisfaction, unguarded sentimentality, unguarded joy. We love to watch them gurgle and swoon and stutter, for once in their lives careless and recklessly giddy.

Because Hollywood's major players are coated in such a flawless protective finish, shined to a high gloss by an army of publicists, stylists and handlers, that it takes a pretty spectacular shock to shatter the artifice and provide us with a peek at the real human behind the commercially viable facade. We watch the Oscars to catch a brief glimpse of these constructed, marketed people behaving like vulnerable, fallible human beings. We don't care if it's just Marisa Tomei, we're thrilled to see a person at the exact pinnacle of her career, at the exact moment he knew that he'd never have to audition for another Sprint PCS commercial, or that she'd never have to take a supporting role in the much-awaited sequel, "Dude, I Mean It, Where The Hell Is My Car Already?"

But 45 seconds is not nearly long enough to tear down the wall. If you cue that awful theme music and send your tuxedoed henchmen to drag the honorees away from the mike, you're snatching the moment not just from their hands, but from ours. You're picking the pockets of your addled but loyal viewers, and treating the winners with the disregard one usually reserves for schizophrenics and garrulous preteens.

Because with just 45 seconds, you can't work yourself into a frenzy the way Cuba Gooding Jr. did. You can't lose your aristocratic aloofness and burst into tears of gratitude like Gwyneth Paltrow did. You can't drop and do a one-handed push-up like Jack Palance, or hint at your own dysfunctional tics and the countless hours of intensive therapy it took to get where you are today like Kim Basinger.

With just 45 seconds, this year's winners will end up like Russell Crowe, who allegedly accosted the director of the British Academy of Film and Television Awards after his recitation of a poem was unceremoniously edited out of his best-actor acceptance speech.

New Academy Awards producer Laura Ziskin has vowed to address some of this stuff. She can hardly do worse than previous producer Gil Cates, who suggested giving a high-definition TV to the Oscar winner with the shortest acceptance speech. Maybe Ziskin will cut the sappy Phil Collins hit du jour and the "Up With People" brigade, and give a TV to anyone who manages an engagingly heartfelt or hilarious speech, preferably with either tears of joy, or peals of crazed laughter. While you're at it, Laura, throw in a TV for anyone who either 1) thanks Heidi Fleiss, 2) lives in New York but fails to mention how much she loves being a New Yorker or 3) points to his fellow nominees and screeches, "Nanny nanny boo boo, stick your head in doo doo!"

We're a country of televised sports watchers, and we're thirsty for that one shining moment. Don't take it away from us. Our fists may be full of cheese doodles, but our hearts are full of sincere desire for some raw human emotion and improvised absurdity. Don't cheat us out of our moment. Sunday night is our night to shine, too. Sort of.

At least that's what we'll tell ourselves as we're nursing our little egos and vacuuming the orange dust off the couch the next morning.

Editor's note: This article has been corrected since it was first published.

Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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