The Oscars, Star-Studies Style
On Thursday, I informed my students in Hollywood Stars that their homework for the weekend would focus on the Oscars. After all, The Oscars are a star scholar’s Super Bowl: as much as we like to disdain them as artistically misguided, bloated, or pure distracting fluff, they’re a fascinating text to behold. Like any other form of media spectacle, they’re an artifact of what a culture elevated and denigrated at a particular moment in time — artistically, sartorially, politically, ideologically.
Ever since NBC first broadcast the Oscars in 1953, they have served as a sort of Authenticity Litmus Test. Massive star ‘meet-and-greets,’ whether telethons or awards shows, allow fans to see what appears to be the authentic and unmediated star: oh, look, here’s George Clooney, uncognizant of the camera, just hobnobbing around with buddy Matt Damon! Of course, The Golden Globes presents itself as even less mediated; nevertheless, stunts like the direct address, tears, and blown-kisses of admiration between former co-stars and current nominees at this year’s awards facilitate the believe that the Oscars presents the ‘real’ actors behind the performances for which they are being honored.
But just because a star can act — or can attract attention to his/her personal life — doesn’t mean that she should be trusted with enlivening a 3.5 hour show. Some stars, such as Robert Downey Jr., can spice up the most dour material; others (read: Cameron Diaz) can’t even read the teleprompter — or improvise when the teleprompter forgets to change the name of the presenter.
So when a star gets on stage, reads a prepared speech, either presenting or accepting an award, and fails to say something either poignant or hilarious, a little something dies inside the fan. Unlike a star’s endearing ‘just like us’ moments featured in US Weekly, these banal Oscar flubs and speeches simply make the star appear unworthy. For example: no matter how arduously the writers tried to make fun of Baldwin and his ‘authentic’ feelings of inadequacy…it still didn’t ring true, or even humorously. I could see both Baldwin and Martin trying to squirm out of the bad-writing straightjackets they had been laced into, but I still felt that my belief in Baldwin as intrinsically funny was forever compromised.
And while some stars’ appearances seem to perfectly confirm their dominant images — I’m talking to you, Dude — they don’t necessarily engender elevated feelings of appreciation and devotion. A pitch-perfect speech, on the other hand, can perform such heavy rhetorical lifting. And, to my mind, the only person who did this last night — and did it in spades — was Robert Downey Jr.
Secondly, the stars aren’t dead, despite no small number of eulogies in recent years. Granted, there will certainly be some interesting postmortem concerning what the triumph of The Hurt Locker — the smallest grossing Best Picture in history (and one that killed off its only ‘name’ actor in the first ten minute — says about the future of the industry. As Roger Ebert tweeted to conclude the ceremony, “Shortest Oscar story in history: ( ! > $ )” But while The Hurt Locker‘s win affirms that the Academy itself still values embodied acting, shouldn’t Avatar’s ridiculous financial success indicate that expensive technology, rather than expensive stars, actually bring in the audiences?
Yes and no. First, it’s no mistake that the three STARS of the Avatar — Zoe Saldana, Sam Worthington, and Sigourney Weaver — were all presenters at the awards. Their faces, even if modified and blue, are essential to the heart and soul and success of that film, however ideologically repugnant you might find it. While other directors posed with their actors in last month’s Vanity Fair, James Cameron was photographed with his massive camera. It’s ironic, then, that following Avatar’s virtual shut-out, Cameron’s stars received far more stage time than he did.
Even more importantly, the two main contenders for Best Actress starred in FOUR big hits this year (Bullock in The Proposal and The Blind Side…and we’ll conveniently forget All About Steve; Streep in Julie & Julia and It’s Complicated). Stars aren’t dead, then — they’re just working for less. The $100 million paycheck that characterized Tom Cruise’s halcyon 1990s is gone. But they stars still do draw audiences: see, for example, the behemoth $116 million opening weekend of Alice in Wonderland, a product presold via concept, director, and star.
This year’s Oscars attempted to bring aspects of Old Hollywood glamour back to the show. To my mind — and I’m by no means alone, judging from the Twitter cacophony from last night — it was stilted, poorly edited, and embarrassingly written. There was not a single shining moment, save the glorious win by Kathryn Bigelow. There was no Brangelina; no Pitt Porn; no Julia Roberts or Tom Cruise or even Edward Pattinson.
But when Mo’Nique went backstage after accepting her award, she was asked about her choice of outfit: a blue dress and a gardenia in her hair. Apparently she choose both because they were exactly what Hattie McDaniel had worn, nearly seventy years ago, when she became the first African-American to win an Academy Award. Stars — and our memories of them, their presence and even their appearances on awards shows — matter, and the Academy Awards are a piquant reminder of why.
For a star’s triumph, coupled with residual goodwill affiliated with his or her image, can allow us to forget what she is being awarded for. Was Jeff Bridges being awarded for his performance — or for being Jeff Bridges? And what function did Sandra Bullock’s star image — that of the tremendously nice, likable, girl next door — play in glossing over the parts of her winning performance, and the film in which it finds itself, that are so insidiously and quietly dangerous? I love and am enthralled by stars, but find myself constantly reminding myself, and others, of the maxim at the very heart of star studies: stars embody ideologies, but they also mask their work. The spectacle — of the awards themselves, of a dress — can distract us from the complex labor performed by the star image in propping up dominant understandings of race, sex, sexuality, and what it means to live in America today.
And finally: LiveTweeting the Oscars with a gaggle of media scholars was far more amusing than watching them. Next year: join in! And please share your own thoughts on the show — and the stars — below.