The Oscars, Star-Studies Style

March 8, 2010
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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.


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7 Responses to “ The Oscars, Star-Studies Style ”

  1. Chelsea Bullock on March 8, 2010 at 11:20 AM

    Spot on. I especially agree with your analysis of Sandra Bullock’s performance last night — there was/is something quietly dangerous about her character and her win. Her whole speech about everyone deserving to be loved seemed a natural extension of the character she played in “The Blind Side,” sweetness and denial proving to be a potent and lulling combination. I haven’t seen the film, but they showed so many clips last night I feel like I have.
    Also? Love that you refer to Him as “Edward Pattinson.” Appropriate, especially considering his absence.
    Finally, I’m so with you on the LiveTweeting. It made the entire watching experience way more fun and meaningful than it would have been, with me just groaning at the television alone.

  2. […] Oscars, Star-Studies Style Here’s a push to go check out my new post on the Oscars and stardom over at my other blogging home, […]

  3. Derek Kompare on March 8, 2010 at 11:46 AM

    One of my favorite things about the Oscars is how it works as live (or quasi-live, in our put-the-kids-to-bed household; we didn’t start watching till 9ish) television. Everyone associated with it works so damn hard to put on The Show, and that flop sweat is always in evidence, even in the bits that work. Stars aren’t often stars LIVE to an audience of a billion or so, after all. Accordingly, I think most critics set the bar way too high for this event. Who today is a slam-dunk as a live TV performer? Or even just as a presenter or winner? Nobody. Thus, I watch to be pleasantly diverted by the machinery and politics of it all, to sympathize with the terror embodied by some winners (even old hands), and to hope a decent moment or two comes out of it.

    Here are some decent-enough moments:
    – the whole bit with Tina Fey and Downey; best scripted patter all night
    – the John Hughes tribute (lots to ruminate on stars and memorializing here, as the middle-aged bodies of my Gen X cohort (plus Mac Culkin) trundled on-stage like a surreal high school reunion)
    – the Kanye-like dispute at the podium over Prudence
    – Jeff Bridges soaking it in
    – Kathryn Bigelow blown away
    – Cristoph Waltz’ textbook classy acceptance speech
    – Michael Giacchino’s genuine (if cliched) call for letting kids be creative (overdue award for him; I’m a big fan!)
    – Sandy Powell’s plea for more recognition for low-budget and contemporary costuming
    – the dancing in the score category was refreshingly rough around the edges
    – the lead-up to the actor and actress awards (with colleagues introducing all nominees) worked better this year than last; oh, that saucy Helen Mirren!

    My biggest complaint: doing away with the best original song performances. Yes, they slow the show down. Yes, only a couple of the songs are decent enough any given year. But they’re a nice part of the legacy of live TV, and I missed it this year. Moreover, I’m really surprised ABC/Disney let slip past an opportunity to pimp the Princess and the Frog DVD with a double performance of their nominated songs. No, James Taylor covering the Beatles does not cut it.

  4. Myles McNutt on March 8, 2010 at 12:45 PM

    As always, some great thoughts on the show – it’s interesting to see how the shortened speeches technically give the winners less time, but in some ways it asks them to more directly exude “star quality.” You saw some winners (as Derek points out) skip out on Thank Yous and try to leave their mark on the ceremony (Giacchino, Powell), while you had some others who tried to get one big joke (Foreign Language winner dropping a funny Avatar joke to an unreceptive audience, perhaps because the winner the same year as Return of the King made the same joke in a more landslide-esque situation) or one big statement (Mo’Nique speaking out against the claims that the politics of award campaigning would ruin her oscar chances), trying to use their moment in the spotlight (which, for the non-actors, might never come again) to fit into our perception of what award winners should be. In some cases this was “stars,” in others it was something more subtle and meaningful (like Giacchino’s focus on role modeling). And while The Hurt Locker lacks “major” stars, I thought that all three cast members got their “star” moments, where it’s Renner’s great moment with Bigelow on her way to the stage or Mackie/Geraghty/Renner’s hugely emotional reaction to the Best Picture win and their choice to stand together behind Kathryn and Boal during the acceptance speech looking just so gosh-darned happy about it.

    However, I do have one quibble:

    others (read: Cameron Diaz) can’t even read the teleprompter — or improvise when the teleprompter forgets to change the name of the presenter.

    Diaz didn’t entirely LAND the joke, but I believe the intention was that the opening dialogue of the bit indicated that Diaz and Carell were both intensely beautiful people, which would have made more sense (or sense at all, if you buy into the joke) if Law had been presenting with her. Thus, her confusion was to give the earlier remarks humorous context – it got a bit muddled, but it had more potential than most of the presentation humour.

  5. Colin Tait on March 8, 2010 at 10:29 PM

    Very happy about the Bigelow win – as are many of my would-be female directing students.

    I’m still not sure what the story of Bullock could or will be after this year…like Julia Roberts, she hadn’t had a hit in some time, begging folks to question whether she still had “it” or not (the same is being said of Julia, aside from the flashes we may have seen in Valentine’s Day…) So certainly she’s a modest star this year, but who knows what will come up for her next…

    I’m also not entirely sure if Bullock herself is the source of the “dangerousness” that you attribute to her – I’m actually more offended by her portrayal as a “Canadian” (and a badly rendered Torontonian no less) – than her imitation of a real-life figure, but but perhaps that’s a conversation we could (and should) have another time.

    Though there were not so many surprises in the end, I think that it’s worth recealling that the story of this year’s crop of Best Pictures all seem to be little movies that could or that were underestimated and importantly, not many of them had “stars” in the traditional sense.

    Neither the Blind Side nor Hurt Locker nor Precious were expected to do the business that they did nor were they expected to win the big awards for the year. Crazy Heart wasn’t supposed to go anywhere. Who had even heard of Christoph Waltz? The same was true of Up (critics weren’t sure that the story of a 70-year old man would appeal to anyone) and everyone thought that Crazy Uncle James Cameron would lose his shirt (just like he was supposed to with Titanic)…I guess my point is that it’s hard to remember that all (if not most) of these movies were (and perhaps are still) small.

    A final note on “liveness,” I actually think that Steve Martin had the best line of the night, after Geoffrey Fletcher’s Best adapted screenplay win – he announced “I wrote that speech”.

    • Jonathan Gray on March 8, 2010 at 11:58 PM

      Oscars don’t tend to do great things for a young(ish) actress’ career these days, mind you: just ask Halle Berry and Gwenyth Paltrow, or Charlize Theron or Nicole Kidman, or even Reese Witherspoon. In that respect, let’s give thanks that Carey Mulligan didn’t win 🙂

  6. Anne Helen Petersen on March 9, 2010 at 10:39 AM

    Colin: I don’t think that Sandra Bullock’s image is dangerous — what’s dangerous is the way the image itself facilitates glossing over the problematics of the specific role in Blind Side (and also the specific negotiation of Canadian-ness in The Proposal). Does that make sense? Her star image inoculates against critique.

    And Jonathan, you’re totally correct about the power of the Oscar, especially as concerns young actresses’ careers. Oscars help attract work initially, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it builds a solid career. Oscars don’t make star images; but sometimes — as in the case of both Roberts and Bullock — an established and incredibly likable star image can swing the voting pendulum in your direction.