What Oscar Forgot

Oscar needs a football helmet.

Don’t worry. I’m not predicting yet another Slap Heard ‘Round The Academy. Not unless Jimmy Kimmel sets up a gag, anyway. But now that the nominees have been announced and the countdown is under way, the Academy Awards really should have the proper gear.  

After all, they’re getting more and more indistinguishable from the Super Bowl.

Yeah, I said it. Hollywood’s golden night and football’s biggest stage are separated by about four weeks, some turf and not much else. Take a look from 1,500 feet – the typical altitude of the Goodyear Blimp – and think of what we have here.

There’s weeks of hype from every conceivable angle and a few inconceivable ones. A huge splash on the day itself. A main event that goes on and on and on. (And on.)

And more often than not, regardless of who wins or loses, it’s the weirdness that steals the headlines.

To be fair, the NFL at least plans for it. It’s practically a cliché that nine times out of 10, the Big Game is less interesting than the Big Commercials. (Or occasionally the Big Power Outage or the Big Wardrobe Malfunction, but that’s another story.) But when Oscar takes the stage, the possibilities are as endless as the running time. Will the wrong winner be announced? Will angry celebrities storm the stage? It’s a night that’s seen more on-stage nightmares than a Halloween special:  garbled names, awkward kisses, and even an on-camera streaker to liven up the evening.

Granted, some of that is the risk of a live performance. I get that. Things happen. But when year after year, the flubs, cringes and oddities are more interesting than the show itself, there just might be a problem.

We’ve known this for years. Heck, we’ve known it for decades. And the surface reason isn’t a secret: the show runs too dang long. Last year’s Oscars dragged out for nearly four and a half hours. The longer it goes, the more tedious it gets and the more time you have for something to go wrong.

But it goes deeper than that. If it was all about running time, people wouldn’t binge entire seasons of TV. Oscar audiences have fallen like a rock, but an “Avatar” sequel that’s more than three hours long is burning up the box office.

No, it’s something more fundamental. Something so simple, it’s Performance 101: a show isn’t about the performer. It’s about the audience.

If they don’t buy your story, you have no show.

That’s true for blockbusters. It’s true for art films. It’s true for any performing venue, from the smallest stage to the biggest stadium. The audience has to care. It can’t just be about you.

And for an awards show – a night designed for self-congratulation – there’s no easier trap to fall into.

That’s an important lesson to remember. And not just for Hollywood. Most of us will never get a multi-million dollar movie contract. (Mine just got lost in the mail, right?) But we all have the same chance to be aware of the people around us and hear what matters to them. To understand why they care and where they hurt. To connect their story with ours.

When we can do that, we can make a difference.  

I hope Oscar eventually learns that. I know we can. And on a smaller budget, to boot.

Listen. Care. Come together.

And if you come together at a Super Bowl party, let me know how the commercials went, OK?

Behind the Spotlight

Only in Hollywood can someone be set on fire, charge through a major explosion, and fall 50 feet – and be completely invisible.

It’s Oscar season again. Which means that once again, we’re starting to hear folks make the case for the great missing piece of the Academy Awards. And I don’t mean the absent Best Director award for “Little Women,” or the lack of attention to “Rocketman,” or the alarm clock to wake up the audience after five and a half hours when it’s finally time to announce Best Picture.

No, this is an area where the film industry has long been stunted. Literally.

Hollywood has a complicated relationship with its stunt men and women. In an age where action movies of all sorts rule the box office, a good stunt performer is more necessary than ever, even in these days of computer-generated effects. But at the same time, the audience also needs to forget that they’re there. A too-obvious double for the actor is like a boom mic suddenly dropping into the frame – a bit of reality that suddenly takes you out of the story.

And so, the athletes and daredevils of the film world mostly work in obscurity. The only time a studio calls attention to the stunt work is when it wants to underline that an actor or actress “did their own stunts” in order to emphasize how incredible the film is … and even then, it’s likely there was a little quiet help behind the scenes.

No worries, right? After all, the audience also isn’t supposed to think about the cinematographer, the sound editor, or a dozen other specialists and teams who helped build the magical tale before their eyes – except that each of those get called out and honored, however briefly.

Stunt actors appear everywhere. They make the story work. And if you don’t know to look for them, you’d never realize how much they mean.

We all know people like that, don’t we?

This last week, my friends and I at the Longmont Theatre Company lost one of those “vital invisibles.” Mind you, Tracy Cravens wasn’t a stunt woman. In fact, she would have laughed her head off at the mere suggestion of it, likely with a joke about catapulting out of the way of the set-building crew.

But from the background, Tracy made sure that the show would go on.

Tracy, who served on the LTC board, was frequently the producer of our shows. In Hollywood, producers are big deals with bigger headlines. In community theater, producers are usually one line in the program and the smiling person you met for 15 seconds in the lobby. They’re also the hubs that keep the wheels spinning so that there can be a show, the masters of logistics who make sure that everything turns up in the right place at the right time. And that often includes tirelessly promoting the show, so that the audience turns up as well to see the wonders that have been created.

Tracy did that. With humor. With energy. With occasional head-shakes of exasperation. And always, with success.

To its credit, LTC recognized her phenomenal efforts before she left us way too early at the age of 53. A while back, she was given the Brooks Hall Award, the annual honor given to the people who have gone above and beyond for the theatre company. She was clearly startled – and just as clearly honored.

That sort of recognition is important. For all the vital invisibles out there.

Take a moment. Remember your own. Think about the folks who get the work without the glory, and make it all happen. The ones who hold everything together. The ones who suddenly get missed when they’re gone.

Take the time to thank them. And if you ARE them, thank you. You’re the ones who make all of us better.

And that’s a pretty amazing stunt.

Pass the Popcorn

Uncle Oscar wants so badly to be cool. And that’s exactly how he’s doing it … badly.

Is anyone really surprised?

It’s weird to even be writing about the Oscars in mid-summer, but that’s what happens when the Academy gets desperate. And desperate it is. Ratings for the famed award show have been falling like the villain in a Disney movie. More and more, the Academy is seen as out of touch, reaching a hysterical climax in 2017 when it was even out of touch with its own program. (“And the winner is … La-La Land! Uh, hold that thought …”)

So they’re rolling the dice. Taking their shot. And this audacious, daring, newly revealed one-in-a-million top secret battle plan is … to give popular films their own special Oscar.

Gee, I can hear the audiences streaming back already. Or maybe that’s my migraine again.

OK, they’re looking at a few other changes as well, such as shortening the ceremony (gee, where have we heard THAT before?) and moving it to an earlier date. But it’s the “Popcorn Oscar” that has gotten the attention. After all, it’s hard to beat the power of a bad idea whose time has come.

Don’t get me wrong. The Oscars can be a wee bit snobbish. The Academy didn’t honor its first fantasy Best Picture winner until 2004, and “The Return of the King” remains the only one. “Silence of the Lambs” is still the only horror winner, despite the impact of films like “Jaws” or “The Sixth Sense.” It’s never given the top honor to a science fiction film (even with nominees like “Star Wars,” “E.T.” and “Inception”), or to an animated film (“Beauty and the Beast, “anyone?). So a little broadening is not a bad idea.

But setting aside a separate table for “the popular kids” is – well, cynical and clueless to say the least. Let me count the ways:

1) In an age of smartphones and Twitter, does anyone think that an audience will tune in to an epic-length award show for one category?

2) How do you define “popular?” Ticket sales? Online ballots? Number of illegal downloads? Buzzwords per minute?

3) As several commentators have noted, the superhero film “Black Panther” was a recent critical and commercial darling. Is it just a little tone deaf to announce a “separate but equal” film category for it in the same year?

4) Who says that a film the audience likes can’t actually be … how do I put this … good?

It does happen. Best Picture winners like “Schindler’s List” broke hearts and earned bucks. “Rocky” raised spirits and lifted a little trophy of its own. “The Godfather” made audiences and critics an offer they couldn’t refuse, and “Titanic” proved that every rule has its exception. (Is my snark showing?)

This shouldn’t be surprising. Films are stories, and stories depend on the audience as much as the author. A tale can be moving, vivid, true to the heart – but if no one hears it, it withers and dies forgotten.

I’m not saying that popular acclaim is the only measure of quality, or even a guaranteed one. If that were the case, the Transformers films would be among the great epics of our time. Small stories can be gems, and letting them shine in the spotlight is a worthy act. But that’s not because they’re “high art” or “low art” – it’s because they’re good art, something that any story can aspire to, from the biggest seller to the smallest silhouette.

If the Academy can take big films seriously as Best Picture possibilities, the new category is superfluous. If it can’t, it’s an insulting excuse to shunt “unworthy” films to the side. Either way, it’s time to put this one back in the envelope and just let good stories be good stories.

How cool would that be?

And The Winner Isn’t

It’s Oscar time again. And I can’t help feeling the statue is well-named.

After all, who but a Grouch could manage to use the occasion every year to concentrate on the losers?

“Leonard DiCaprio, passed over for his portrayal of J. Edgar Hoover …”

“… the first time a Pixar film has not been nominated for Best Animated Feature … “

“Albert Brooks, in a tweet to the Academy, said: ‘You don’t like me. You really don’t like me.’ …”

And this year’s not that unusual.

Oh, sure, once the ceremony arrives, 73 percent of all the Academy Awards coverage will focus on some cute winner’s moment, like Roberto Benigni leaping chairs or Adrian Brody lip-locking Halle Barry. (The other 27 percent will basically say “She was wearing THAT?”) But even then, some snubs will become legendary on the scale of Hatfield-McCoy:

It all started, son, when yer Uncle Oscar went up to that Annie Hall tramp instead of that nice young Star Wars feller. (Spit) Now git lost and git Grandpa some more moonshine.”

Glory lasts a moment. Especially compared to the disbelief of seeing Alan Rickman passed over again.

It’s a strange thing, this fascination with the losers’ circle. And yet it’s oddly comforting, too.

The more I think about it, the more it seems to reaffirm our humanity.

Most of us don’t get to know what it’s like to be President of the United States, or to go to the Super Bowl, or to raise a trophy while Hollywood applauds in envy and appreciation. Granted, we have our triumphs – many of them far more meaningful over the long term – but rarely on a scale that would get that level of public adulation.

But we all know what it’s like to fall short. To not quite make it. To be almost good enough for something – but only almost.

And when we see it in another, however great or small, it’s hard to suppress a moment of sympathy.

The football fans among us know this already. What got more attention this last week? That the New England Patriots would be going to another Super Bowl? Or that their opponents had been one step shy of a winning touchdown, one kick shy of a tying field goal?

So close. So far. So familiar.

It’s different when it’s someone you dislike, of course. The Germans specifically invented the word schadenfreude for the not-so-guilty glee when an Oakland Raider or a Jersey Shore cast member stumbles. Free target, have at it.

But most people seem to have more Charlie Brown than Darth Vader in them. Enough to create that empathy. And maybe even a little hope: If they can do so much and still stumble, maybe it’s not so bad when we do the same.

And if they can hope for a second chance, maybe we can, too.

So here’s to the Rickmans and the Sam Rockwells and all the others who could be great without yet reaching the peak. Maybe you’re even a little happier for it, in having something still to strive for. I hope so.

Because let’s face it. You guys were robbed.