I'd Like to Thank The Academy (Museum)
Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Oscars
I would be lying if I said that I never thought about winning an Academy Award. But walking down this red carpet is more than a little surreal. A production assistant wearing a headset is guiding me through the twisting corridor. She congratulates me on my “Oscar Experience” and touches my arm to direct me onto the podium. Coming out from backstage, the lights are a little blinding. It takes a moment to adjust, and I can barely make out the outlines of the Dolby Theater through the glare.
“When you see your name on the screen, that’s your signal to pick up the statue. You’ll have fifteen seconds. You might want to try it out first.”
I grabbed the little gold man in my right hand and tried lifting it. Marlon Brando was right—it is heavier than you’d imagine. Rather like hoisting a gallon jug of water and shaking it in the air. It’s not nothing, as we say back East. I put the award back on the stand and wait for my cue…
The first time that I watched the Oscar telecast, I had some skin in the game. I was 13 years old and had just started going to the movies on my own. My folks would drop me off at the Cort Theater for a matinee and pick me up a few hours later. I’d seen several flicks that way but one towered over all the rest—and its star was nominated for best performance by an actor. I was so impressed that I’d memorized some of his dialogue and attempted a gravely-voiced impersonation. It didn’t hurt that his memorable pre-credits speech was immortalized on the soundtrack album.
I stayed up late, on a school night, to see if my new favorite actor would win his well-deserved award. Patton swept the 1970 Academy Awards, notching best picture, director, writing (adapted), art direction, sound, editing and cinematography. (I was sorry that the music didn’t win its nomination, since I was very familiar with that album by now.) But when they opened the envelope for actor, George C. Scott was a no-show. In fact his producer accepted on his behalf and then returned it the next day. George didn’t want to be in competition with other actors.
Wow, that was weird. I was completely caught up in the glamour and excitement of the show, and I was just a kid in suburban New Jersey. How could you work in movies and not want to receive its highest award?
That’s what’s special about the Oscars to this day—it feels bigger than Hollywood. For 95 years, this industry event of highly debatable accuracy has captured the public’s imagination. When folks think about receiving an award, most think in terms of an envelope being opened to great surprise and fanfare, and the winner stumbling to the stage breathless and teary-eyed to accept the honor. Millions of people (though probably not the billion once claimed) have seen this spectacle and absorbed it into their cultural consciousness.
And I bought into it for 50 years. Especially since I have been making movies for all that time, beginning with my first spy parody entitled Strange Dr. NoLove. That 20-minute Super-8 opus pre-dated Airplane! in its joke-a-minute structure, with callbacks to Casablanca, 2001, Shaft and, yes, Patton. I made at least one film every year through high school and college, often showing them to audiences in classrooms and assemblies, winning a few awards along the way. Emboldened by that early success, I decided: California, here I come!
As I’ve written before, becoming the father of twins at the age of 20 put a crimp in my plans, to say the least. But I clung to my film school education, reading countless magazine and newspaper articles about filmmaking and watching every Oscarcast that I could manage. (That was tough for a few years when I was working nights—I even tried sneaking a portable TV into the data-processing room.)
Later, I convinced myself that working as a graphic designer for magazines (and later, soundtrack CDs) was somehow inching me closer to a career in filmmaking. After all, I was telling stories with photography and art direction. When I finally got the chance to visit every major movie studio (in the name of photo research for my clients), I felt even more Hollywood-adjacent.
Over time the Oscars became my Superbowl, the big annual event that celebrated my chosen “sport.” I never related to athletics, nor did I understand the appeal of cheering for whomever was playing for the local team. I wanted to believe it was different with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which was making distinctions on the basis of individual artistic achievement. Never mind that filmmaking is an incredibly collaborative art form, and the business was complicated by commercial requirements and the impulses of the creatives involved. But I mostly ignored the politics and trends and simply rooted for my favorites.
About a decade ago, I started making films again, with the objective of becoming a professional, independent producer-director. I immersed myself in the world of Cinema, subscribing to trade magazines, buying new gear, attending screenings, seminars and working on every amateur production I could find. Over a decade I amassed a page worth of credits on IMDb, won some more awards, and showed my films at festivals around the world. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Dolby Theater.
As I enjoyed a little success, my attitude toward film in general, and the Oscars in particular, soured. I was working very hard to raise money, build a network, meet collaborators, and write scripts worthy of all this time and effort. Frankly, I was jealous of those who had the talent and resources to make their movies. Especially the folks at the top of the food chain in Hollywood. It was harder and harder for me to enjoy watching movies and TV shows without being distracted by the pang in my gut. Whether it was envy or frustration, it hurt. And I decided that no one who won an Oscar deserved it. Because they weren’t struggling like me.
After banging my head against that silver screen for ten years, I stopped—and boy did it feel good. For a number of reasons, I gave up on making movies. I’d given it my best shot as a middle-aged guy with no connections working on a shoestring budget during a pandemic. I hit my plateau and retired with grace. I learned a lot, enjoyed (most) of the experience, and have no regrets.
Now I can enjoy the movies again, for the pure pleasure of watching. And the Oscars? I may not agree with all of the choices (I know how the sausage is made!) but last night I cheered as Sarah Polley, Guillermo del Toro, MM Keeraavani, Michele Yeoh, Ruth E. Carter and The Daniels got their due. And even when I wished for a different outcome, I enjoyed seeing everyone have their moment.
Which brings us back to that small room at the Academy Museum in Los Angeles, surrounded by bright lights, a curved screen, and three cameras. The PA tells my “fan” Paulina that she can take pictures from the wings. I get the signal and see my name in lights before me. The tiny projected audience applauds, music plays and I lift Cedric Gibbons’ timeless sculpture in my hands. It’s thrilling, I’ll admit. The pressure to perform on cue doesn’t come easily, and I think about all of the non-actors that we’ve seen stumble like deer in the footlights. But I take a deep breath and suck in my gut. This is my fifteen seconds of fame, to be immortalized by the hidden cameras and delivered to my phone for a nominal fee.
I’ve decided that there’s no point in mouthing an acceptance speech that no one will hear. Instead I choose to pantomime listening to Oscar, who imparts some secret wisdom, or maybe shares a joke. I’ll never repeat what he said, but suffice to say I had a big guffaw. The jokes on you, Academy! Or maybe, I simply get to have the last laugh.
That was the best $15 bucks I’ve spent on a movie in a long time. Maybe in 50 years.
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