I know this will sound creepy, but I first fell in love when I was 12. Don’t worry, it was totally unrequited then, and, for the most part, still is now. And yet I still carry a torch for the one who has taken me to the highest of highs and lowest of lows over the past 30 years. He has given me more heartbreak than I care to remember, but, in the end, all I can remember are the good times. And so, like any hopeless romantic, I keep coming back for more.
My love for Oscar started in 1982. As you may remember from my essay “The Movie That Changed My Life,” I fell in love with the movies when I was 12, starting with Tootsie and Jessica Lange. So, when Tootsie was nominated for 10 Oscars in 1983 (including one for Jessica), it was as if somebody had stuck a needle in my vein because, from that moment on, I was hooked. I made it a point to seek out everything I could about the Oscars that year. My resources were limited (I was living in Germany pre-Internet), but I did find a magazine called “Academy Awards” that was dedicated to the Oscars, specifically to the nominees of that year. I’m telling you, I inhaled every word in that magazine, pored over it a million times, and, to this day, can immediately rattle off all the nominees in the major categories of that year from memory. The funny thing is that I couldn’t even see most of the movies because I was too young, but that didn’t stop me from being obsessed with them.
The nominees from 1982 (winners in caps):
E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial
BEN KINGSLEY– Gandhi
Jack Lemmon– Missing
Paul Newman– The Verdict
Peter O’Toole– My Favorite Year
MERYL STREEP — Sophie’s Choice
Julie Andrews — Victor/Victoria
Jessica Lange — Frances
Sissy Spacek — Missing
Debra Winger — An Officer and a Gentleman
Best Supporting Actor:
LOUIS GOSSETT, JR. — An Officer and a Gentleman
Charles Durning — The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
John Lithgow — The World According to Garp
James Mason — The Verdict
Robert Preston — Victor/Victoria
Best Supporting Actress:
JESSICA LANGE — Tootsie
Glenn Close — The World According to Garp
Teri Garr — Tootsie
Kim Stanley — Frances
Lesley Ann Warren — Victor/Victoria
RICHARD ATTENBOROUGH — Gandhi
Sidney Lumet — The Verdict
Wolfgang Petersen — Das Boot
Sydney Pollack — Tootsie
Steven Spielberg — E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial
I mean, come on. Look at the names on this list. The Best Actor nominees alone are enough to make your head spin: Ben Kingsley, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Lemmon, Paul Newman and Peter O’Toole? That’s insane. And, for a kid just starting to achieve movie consciousness, it simply wasn’t fair. This was my first Oscars, really, and so, from that moment on, this is what I expected them to be like every year.
To make matters worse, Jessica Lange actually WON for Best Supporting Actress, which validated the Oscars for me beyond any question. I accepted right then and there that the Oscars were never wrong and would never disappoint. I was ok with Tootsie not winning because it lost to, well, Gandhi. Even a 12-year old knew nothing was going to beat Gandhi that year. So all was well and the love affair had begun.
Too bad it didn’t last long.
What I hadn’t realized in all the hoopla was that, even though Jessica had won for Best Supporting Actress, she hadn’t won for Best Actress, which she was also nominated for. I guess I didn’t think much of it at the time because, well, the Oscars were always right and I figured she hadn’t deserved it. I hadn’t seen Frances yet, the movie she was nominated for, so I just trusted that Oscar had done the right thing.
Oh, how young I was.
As the years went on and my admiration for Jessica Lange deepened, my love for Oscar was tested. Best Actress nominations piled up, year after year, with no win. Every performance was deserving, in my mind, so why weren’t they rewarding her? Country, Sweet Dreams, Music Box, all incredible performances—what was Oscar’s problem? Cracks in my devotion started to show.
And then I finally saw Frances. There really aren’t words to capture how blown away I was. Fierce, powerful, layered, haunting and mesmerizing, Jessica Lange’s performance was beyond anything I’d ever seen. Forget how fervently I believed that she had deserved to win for Country, Sweet Dreams and Music Box. The fact that she didn’t win for THIS performance—certainly the performance of her career—sent me over the edge. I was forced to accept the truth: Oscar could be wrong.
And so the rollercoaster began.
In the years since, as my love for movies grew deeper and my understanding of Oscar’s vagaries increased, I moved further and further away from that idealized, romantic vision of the Academy Awards that existed when I was young and I am able to see them now for the politicized, phony, self-serving and myopic money machine that they have become. I know now, after 30 years, that what is the “Best” according to Oscar is rarely chosen by content or quality but, rather, by some vague reasoning that varies from year to year. It is, in the end, a giant popularity/sentimentality contest, where who spends the most wins. Anyone who takes the Oscars as seriously as I did when I was 12 is both a fool and a sucker.
But still….the Oscars matter to me. They provoke a passion in me that is energizing and shamefully fun. I love having emotional debates about who should win. I love it when someone you’ve never heard of gets nominated and then you see what an amazing talent they are. I love it when a little film gets Oscar nominations and then people go to see it. I love when they get it absolutely wrong and I scream at the television as if the whole world has ended. And I love it when they get it absolutely right. And yes, I even love my bitter 30-year-old grudge against Meryl Streep, the one who won—stole— the Oscar from Jessica back in 1982. The Oscars are irrational, illogical and completely trivial, but I love them. And if we can’t get emotional about movies, what can we get emotional about?
But mainly, I love the Oscars because I love movies. And the Oscars, for all their flaws and inconsistencies and mistakes, celebrate movies. Without Oscar, there would be only box office numbers to influence audiences and that’s a world I don’t want to live in. The Oscars remind us of film history and celebrate the medium as a craft and an art form. And somewhere out there, there is a 12-year old watching.
Some of the personal highs and lows from my 30-year love affair with Oscar:
Amadeus wins Best Picture. A truly transformational movie-going experience for a 14-year old. Still my favorite drama of all time.
Sally Field (Places in the Heart) wins over Jessica Lange (Country). She’s now 0-for-2 for Best Actress.
Glenn Close is nominated for the third straight year. I’m sure everybody was thinking, “oh, her time will come.” And here, 28 years later, she’s still Oscar-less. And even nominated again this year (and again not likely to win). If Jessica Lange fans are bitter, I can’t imagine how Glenn Close fans feel.
–Out of Africa wins Best Picture over Color Purple and Witness. I hated, hated, hated, hated, hated Out of Africa. And not just because Meryl Streep was in it (although that certainly didn’t help.)
-Geraldine Page (Trip to Bountiful) beats Jessica for Sweet Dreams. 0-for-3.
Platoon wins for Best Picture. This movie was a staggering experience for me the first time I saw it in the theatre—I couldn’t let it go for days.
Paul Newman wins for The Color of Money. The first time I experience the “we owe him” rule. Cynicism begins.
–The Last Emperor beats out Broadcast News for Best Picture. This is the first time I understand what an “Oscar movie” really looks like. Broadcast News may have been brilliant and deserving, but Last Emperor was epic, historical, costumed, and gorgeous. Broadcast News didn’t have a chance.
-Cher wins Best Actress over Holly Hunter and Glenn Close. Not saying Cher isn’t a good actress (loved her in Silkwood and Mask), but this felt like a joke.
–Driving Miss Daisy beats Dead Poets’ Society. Driving Miss Daisy for Best PICTURE? This was the first time I really felt the Academy was wrong. Not just emotionally, but intellectually. (I hadn’t figured out yet that the Academy is old and sentimental.)
-Jessica Tandy (Driving Miss Daisy) beats Jessica Lange for Music Box. 0-for-4.
Most people think one of the worst decisions in Academy history was the Academy honoring Dances with Wolves over Goodfellas for Best Picture. I’ll be honest, in the time since then, I have come to appreciate and love Goodfellas—it has certainly stood the test of time better than Dances. But, also being honest, Dances with Wolves made me weep uncontrollably when I saw it in the theatre—I loved it and it moved me. I understood why it won. Maybe I could be an Oscar voter.
–The Silence of the Lambs winning Best Picture was the first time I saw the Academy show courage.
-The fact that Thelma & Louise wasn’t nominated for Best Picture was hugely disappointing
Marisa Tomei wins Best Supporting Actress over Judy Davis, Joan Plowright, Miranda Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave. The first time Oscar truly shocks me—and it’s exhilarating.
-What a lineup for Best Picture: Schindler’s List, The Fugitive, In the Name of the Father, The Piano, The Remains of the Day. Gave me hope again.
-Holly Hunter (long a favorite since Raising Arizona) finally wins (for The Piano)
-Tommy Lee Jones (The Fugitive) wins over Ralph Fiennes (Schindler’s List) for Best Supporting Actor. Strange and wrong.
Jessica Lange finally wins the Oscar for Best Actress for Blue Sky. All faith is restored.
–Forrest Gump beats Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction for Best Picture. You have got to be joking.
-John Travolta is nominated for Best Actor (Pulp Fiction). The Academy should have been ashamed.
Susan Sarandon finally wins Best Actress (for Dead Man Walking)
Braveheart wins Best Picture. Long before it was cool to hate Mel Gibson, I hated Braveheart.
-Frances McDormand wins Best Actress for one of my all-time favorite performances in Fargo. This is one of those times Oscar wins my heart back.
-William H. Macy, in an equally brilliant performance, loses Best Supporting Actor to Cuba Gooding, Jr. for Jerry Maguire. Say what?
1997 & 1998: THE DARK YEARS
–Titanic beats L.A. Confidential and As Good as it Gets for Best Picture. Spectacle trumps quality.
-Robin Williams wins Best Supporting Actor for Good Will Hunting. An average performance in an average movie. Oscar hits a new low.
–Shakespeare in Love wins Best Picture over Saving Private Ryan. I know this is like beating a dead horse, but this was a terrible choice. Oscar showed it can be bought.
-Roberto Benigni (Life is Beautiful) wins Best Actor over Ian McKellen (Gods and Monsters) and Edward Norton (American History X). Just look at that sentence again. Not all of Oscar’s surprises are good.
-Gwyneth Paltrow (Shakespeare in Love) wins Best Actress over Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth) and Emily Watson (Hilary and Jackie). And all these years later, we are still paying the price.
-Hilary Swank wins for Best Actress (for Boys Don’t Cry). An emotional win in every way for me. One of the times Oscar gets it perfectly right.
-Julia Roberts wins Best Actress for Erin Brockovich. After the Robin Williams win, nothing surprises me .
-Marcia Gay Harden (Pollock) wins Best Supporting Actress over Kate Hudson (Almost Famous). On the Tomei scale of shockers, this one was a 9.
-In the first year of Oscar for Best Animated Feature, Shrek wins over Monsters, Inc. I bet everyone would like that ballot back.
-Charlize Theron wins Best Actress for Monster. This is one of the things I still love about the Oscars. Without Oscar, would anyone have seen this movie?
-Every major award recognizes a different movie. It’s the last time the Oscars really “spread the wealth”
–Crash wins Best Picture over Brokeback Mountain in the single most infuriating Oscar moment of my life. I will never get over it.
–No Country for Old Men wins Best Picture. I’m not as happy for the picture as I am for the Coen brothers to finally win. They have been my favorite filmmakers since Barton Fink. So proud that Oscar honored them.
-Marion Cotillard wins Best Actress for La Vie en Rose in a real upset (over Julie Christie) to again prove that Oscar is best when it surprises. I would hate to think of my movie-going life now without Marion Cotillard. Thank you, Oscar.
-Ditto for Tilda Swinton winning Best Supporting Actress for Michael Clayton. This was the year the worthy were honored and the underappreciated finally were appreciated. Still didn’t make up for Crash, but it was a start.
–WALL-E wins Best Animated Feature. I was absolutely passionate about this movie. If it hadn’t won, I might not ever have watched the Oscars again.
-Heath Ledger wins a posthumous Oscar for his brilliant performance in The Dark Knight. This begins a streak, for me, of the best performances of the year actually getting recognized. Almost makes up for Crash.
–The Hurt Locker, heads and shoulders the best film of the year, actually won. Was that a first?
-Sandra Bullock wins Best Actress for The Blind Side. Yes, it may have been like Robin Williams or Julia Roberts, but this one I was rooting for.
-Christoph Waltz wins Best Supporting Actor for Inglourious Basterds. See Marion Cotillard and Heath Ledger.
-Kathryn Bigelow becomes the first woman to win Best Director for The Hurt Locker. Historic and about time.
-Mo’Nique wins for Best Supporting Actress for Precious. She was grumpy, didn’t play the Oscar game, didn’t campaign and made an all-out effort to show she didn’t care about the Oscar. And she won anyway, because it was the best performance of the year. Good for you, Academy.
-While I love Jeff Bridges and applaud him finally getting the Oscar for Best Actor here for Crazy Heart, Colin Firth turned in the best performance of the year in A Single Man. (But the Academy makes up for it next year.)
-Colin Firth finally wins for Best Actor (The King’s Speech), albeit for a lesser performance than the previous year.
-Christian Bale wins his long-deserved Oscar for The Fighter. Oscar’s streak of honoring the actual best performance of the year continues.
–The King’s Speech wins Best Picture over The Social Network, proving the Oscar voters are old and sentimental. Why am I so depressed when I already knew this?
And now, 2011.
What will make me happy this year? Tree of Life pulling a massive upset and winning Best Picture would shock and satisfy the hell out of me. (won’t happen, though)
What would make me throw a shoe at the television screen on Oscar night? Meryl Streep winning. Come on, you were expecting a different answer?
So let’s see what kind of chapter will be written on February 26, 2012, when the 84th Academy Awards are unveiled. Even though I don’t have high hopes for an exciting telecast, with my beloved Oscars….you never know.