Thursday, March 26, 2009

Oscars Anonymous: From Alternate Oscar Insanity To The Katie-Bar-The-Door Awards

For many movie fans, second-guessing the Academy Awards is not just a once-a-year Monday morning conversation, it's a national pastime. Before the awards ceremony, we discuss the nominees, handicap the races, enter contests, place bets; after the ceremony we argue about the results. Judging by the flame wars on various message boards, people take this stuff pretty seriously.

As much fun as all this betting and arguing is, though, eventually it dawns on you—almost as a rite of passage—that while the awards given do sometimes correspond to greatness, more often than not, they are disappointing, odd and, on occasion, downright bizarre. That's because, as I explained in my previous post, the Oscars exist to sell tickets and slap a veneer of artistic respectability onto what is, for the studios that make the movies at least, as noble an exercise as stuffing ground-up animal scraps into sausage casings.

Yes, sometimes the Academy gets it right, but when they do, it's by accident, not by design.

If you're lucky, you eventually realize the Oscars are meaningless, at least when it comes to guiding your movie-watching choices, and if you're smart, when it comes to the Academy's annual screw-ups, you learn to let it go.

That's if you're smart.

If you're me, on the other hand, the Oscars become an obsession, and you spend years trying to figure out who should have won what when, and before you realize you have a problem, you've filled dozens of shelves with books, DVDs and videotapes in pursuit of an answer you're never going to find.

I've been keeping a list of my alternate Oscar picks since I read a book in 1992 called Alternate Oscars by Danny Peary. Peary wrote essays about the movies and performers he thought should have won for best picture, actor and actress for every year since the Academy started handing out those awards in 1928.

Some of Peary's choices were no doubt as nutty as the ones the Academy settled on, but some were brilliant and all of them were interesting. The book has been out of print for years, but if you can find a copy, I highly recommend it. Peary inspired me and, for me, a list of alternate Oscars became, in the beginning anyway, a way to organize my movie-watching habits and point me in directions I otherwise might not have considered. The list got me outside of my comfort zone and both broadened and deepened my enjoyment of movies.

But then the list took over and when I say I've been picking alternate Oscars, I don't just mean that, like Peary, I have been picking the awards for picture, actor and actress, I mean I have been picking all of them—costumes, cinematography, the 1936 Oscar for dance direction, you name it.

You know how many movies you have to see to have an opinion about every award given for every year since they started handing out Oscars? About four thousand, I think. 4650 if my vote total on the Internet Movie Database is any indicator. And I have this nagging suspicion I need to see a couple of thousand more, you know, just to really make sure.

That's not just a labor of love, that's some sort of neurological disorder.

Then I woke up in February, the day after this year's Oscar telecast, and realized that not only did I not know who should have won the award for best achievement in sound editing, I didn't care. And what's more, when I was honest with myself, something I rarely try to be, I had never cared. Or, outside of a couple of movies, even really had an opinion.

At this point, a sane person would throw in the towel, admit his addiction and check himself into a clinic. But it turns out there is no cure for an Oscar addiction, only ways to manage it, like trading a heroin habit for a methadone habit.

In lieu of a cure, it was time to start a new list, something simpler, something I could manage, something my friends and family could tolerate without shame and disgust.

For one thing, I had to divorce myself from the Oscars themselves. The rules change every year, are applied unevenly and lead to inconsistent and confusing results. I mean, why, for example, should Francois Truffaut's Day For Night have won the Oscar for best foreign picture of 1973 but then have been nominated for best director, screenplay and supporting actress of 1974?

For another, I had to limit myself to the categories I really care about, and by that, I mean the categories I know I care about every single year—for best picture, best direction, screenplay and the four acting categories.

Finally, I had to come up with a new name. I mean, "Oscar"—what is that? Oscar Madison? Oscar Meyer? On a good day, I'd like to think it has something to do with Oscar Robertson, one of the greatest basketball players of all time. But in reality, it's either named for some forgotten secretary's uncle, Bette Davis's ex-husband or the men's room attendant at the Brown Derby. That won't do.

But you have to call them something. And since this is my exercise in futility, I'm naming my awards after the only thing I love more than the movies. I'm naming my annual film awards after the person who saw nearly all of those four thousand movies with me, enjoyed them, offered opinions and never once suggested I see a doctor.

Thus are born the Katie-Bar-The-Door Awards.

And like Danny Peary, I figure to write a series of essays explaining each of my Katie-Bar-The-Door Award picks.

In chronological order.

That is, I intend to begin with the films of the silent era, and sometime around the turn of the next century, arrive at my picks for the best movies and performances of the year just past, 2008.

Start with your weakest material, drive off any potential audience and build toward complete anonymity, I always say. That's the course I've followed throughout my writing career. No reason to mess with that formula now.

So, on to it, the Katie-Bar-The-Door Awards. This is going to take a while.

Warning: there is no cure.


Anonymous said...

Oh goody. Am pleased as punch about the Katie-Bar-the-Door awards (and a big kudos goes out to Katie herself). Doubt I'll be able to offer much in terms of comment until the mid-30s at the earliest -- though expect I'll be inspired to see some as-yet unseen films in the process. (Or at least think, "I should really see that film.) Will have to get some popcorn . . .

Anonymous said...

Yeah, right about now you're kicking yourself, thinking "How did I get roped into reading this?"

I promise this gets exciting around 1933 or so.

That's 1933 entries, by the way. Only 1929 to go ...