This time every year the office gossip turns to the Academy Awards. “What’s the Best Picture gonna be this year?” “Who will win Best Actor?” Somebody comes up with a coherent argument for why they hate the Oscars, and everyone rolls their eyes and shrugs. Then they all go home and watch the 3.5-hour ritual play itself out. Around 40 million Americans tune in for the annual celebrity-worship extravaganza.
The 86th Annual Academy Awards airs this Sunday night on ABC. In recent years, the Oscars presentation itself has given TV viewers reason to question the Academy’s judgment, making a mockery of their status as purveyors of quality entertainment. Yet we still sit up all night eating popcorn in our pajamas to find out which performances they have deemed Oscar worthy.
The Academy Awards telecast used to regularly clock-in at less than three hours. But in the mid-seventies the show gradually expanded, seemingly unaffected by the plight of viewers on the East Coast and other sentient beings indifferent to the endless banter, the superfluous musical routines and the bloated egos of actors who think that time limits for acceptance speeches apply to everyone but them.
Lately, the Oscars have been discussed more in terms of who crashed and burned as Master of Ceremonies. While the Academy was once happy to let icons such as Bob Hope (who hosted six awards) and Johnny Carson (five) take the reins year after year, times have changed and ratings have steadily declined. Producers of the show have become more impatient in their pursuit of the perfect host. They have taken a variety of approaches, none of them particularly radical.
In the past decade we have had the edgy comedy of Chris Rock, as well as more family-friendly hosts like Steve Martin and Jon Stewart, plus the old-school pizazz of Hugh Jackman (or as I like to call him: Huge Jackass). And then there is reliable old (and I do mean old) 9-time emcee Billy Crystal. Can we please give him a rest?
2011 saw the Anne Hathaway/James Franco debacle, and last year the Academy surprisingly chose Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane to host the proceedings — another bad call. As Kate Bennert commented on Gawker: “At this point, there’s no question that Seth MacFarlane was a terrible Oscar host. Not only were his jokes unfunny, tired, self-centered and boring, but also incredibly sexist, homophobic and racist.” Needless to say, he will not be invited back anytime soon.
This year thankfully Ellen DeGeneres is hosting the awards for the second time. Producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron are back on board, and “movie heroes” will be the show’s theme this year. How original is that?
But the Oscars are not really a celebration of talent, originality or cultural relevance. Oscar night is Hollywood’s annual showcase of mediocrity. It is a gigantic circle-jerk for the entertainment industry. The major studios effectively determine which films compete for the Oscar.
Celebrity-worship reaches a fever pitch in the run up to the Oscars ceremony. Jamie Tehrani, a noted social anthropologist in the UK, recently speculated that celebrity worship originates in the unique human perception of prestige: a form of social status based on the respect and admiration of other community members.
The social order in most primates is defined by physical dominance. This is true in some human societies as well, but in many others social order is dictated by prestige. We convey prestige to individuals in recognition of their achievements. In our society, the primary indicator of prestige is fame: because celebrities get more attention, they are bestowed with more prestige. Our brains are programmed to associate prestige with adaptive behavior.
Celebrity-worship is a survival strategy targeted at successful role models, rather than specific traits. That is what makes it such a powerful and flexible tool: the attributes that make someone successful can vary significantly in different cultures.
It makes sense to emulate the behavior of those who adapt most successfully to a given environment. Tehrani reckons this evolutionary trait worked quite well when our role models were healers, hunters and tool makers —— celebrities, not so much.
It may have begun as an outgrowth of our natural predisposition for social hierarchy, but celebrity-worship has exploded into a multibillion-dollar national obsession, thanks to ubiquitous celebrity gossip sites and tabloid media. We have reached the point where someone can be famous simply for being famous (i.e., Kim Kardashian).
Our society is becoming increasingly trivialized. There are plenty of gossip magazines to look at in the supermarket checkout, but we cannot even look into the eyes of the cashier behind the counter.
We follow celebrities on Twitter and Facebook, but we know nothing about the world around us. We see gorgeous bodies and beautiful faces on the Red Carpet, but we cannot seem to appreciate people for anything more than that.