Praise Be to the Oscars
by John A. Klein
From Veterans Day to Valentine’s, Oscar prognostication is a bustling cottage industry indulging our primal need to gush, fawn, snipe, snub, and ultimately choke on droves of Oscar-related drool and drivel in a season longer than the NBA and loftier than a Kobe buzzer-beater. We buy into the hype because, as we know all too well, Hollywood is high school and we are so not in the cool clique. Either that or, as I like to think, the Oscars are a window into a deeper spiritual realm, a profound connection to something bigger than our dreary little to-do-list lives.
Hence, the holiest night of the year in my mixed marriage, between a somewhat Jewish male screenwriter and a hardly Christian female magazine editor, is Oscar night. We preen, we party, and most of all, we pray. We pray the camera will find a familiar face among the anointed — somebody’s ex, perhaps. We pray somebody we’ve actually worked with, or for, or in spite of, is somehow referred to. We pray for the impossible: that our names be mentioned from the podium, preferably followed by “without whom I never would have even been born.” It could happen.
Feeling holier than our dinner guests with real jobs, we ask that they show proper respect for the red carpet, that they willingly submit to punitive muzzling during acceptance speeches. We pop corks only after the editors and cinematographers are dispensed with. We covet in silence, keeping our murderous thoughts to ourselves (in my case, divining until the feelings pass). When the academy blesses one of our false idols, we rise and confess, unashamedly. “He/she is totally hot!” We do not blurt out, “But I thought best actor came before best director!” or, “How can they call that an original and not an adapted screenplay?” or, “Why isn’t there an Oscar for choreography?” We laugh in unison at every shticky ad-lib. “What a klutz — her shpilkes are shpilling out all over the place!”
We refrain from gambling. It’s distracting. Besides, it would be unfair for the host to always take home the pot. Ever since I worked on a film that, believe it or not, swept the Oscars, I have been able to call best picture as early as December. In ’81, for instance, I noticed a lot of jogging going on, especially on the beach, and I had an epiphany that Chariots of Fire would win the night. In ’82, during all those crazy diet crazes, juice fasts, and fiber cleanses (I, myself, was loading up on carbs), a vision popped into my head of Ben Kingsley in Gandhi — svelte, bald, and gold-plated. And that sweep One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest enjoyed in ’76 (if the truth be known, I was in charge of the extras, the designated loony wrangler) was clearly due to the fact that it opened just as a group therapy vogue was hitting West L.A. — fold-up chairs, touchy-feely exercises, the whole bit. I was hooked on tough love and eventually signed up for laughter therapy. It saved my sanity.
Picking best picture, like knowing the unknowable, involves an intuitive grasp of what’s hot and what’s not: on the ground, in the trenches, belly up at the Westside soy bars, and laid back at the Eastside chai houses. An invisible wave of personal styles and issues somehow seeps into the smoggy fabric of Los Angeles and, subliminally, causes votes to be cast.
The mistake people make when touting such attributes as “consummate craft” and “contemporary relevance” is the assumption that John Q. Academy Voter is a rational being, that he doesn’t take six-irons to windshield or spew racial slurs at happy hour. Actually he’s human just like you and me, and he can’t really tell you why he votes one way or the other. My best guess is that what we all crave from our movie-makers is something brand new under the sun — that same something we are on the lookout for every time we jog on the beach in our designer sweats, or try that new colonic cleanse while wearing a simple homespun loincloth.
All kibitzing aside, I’m feeling Babel in ’07. Brad and Cate sport a nouveau look for the in-crowd — the all-night-on-a-third-world-bus look — and they way transcend prom king and queen status with their method pillow-talking over a steamy bedpan through a haze of grade-A opium (muy caliente, muy kinkiente). I confess I may be somewhat skewed by my Cinema Society pass. I bumped into Señor Iñárritu (Babel’s director) at his Santa Barbara Q&A, fresh from his triumph at Cannes. We chatted and unzipped at adjacent urinals. I asked him why Mexico had the best actors, writers, and directors on the planet. He claimed all of Latin America was artistically on fire (it’s hard not to be humble in the john).
But Babel’s potent emotional strains and pan-global images are wafting directly across the border. I’m seeing “international” stuff everywhere. In fact, if you aren’t toting another country around like an accessory, you’re missing all the fun (luv those Irish soccer hoodies). And Spanish is clearly the new Yiddish, the new show-biz lingo. Oy vay has morphed into oye como va. Not to gush, but Babel’s genuine respect for other cultures includes generous doses of the mysterious, the private, the sacred, and the unlearnable.
Entonces, if you ask me, Mexican cinema has the hot hand and the Academy should lob them a pass over the fence. A big win for Mexico’s artistic genius will trigger a gasp, and a great exhale in the auditorium (and in my living room): “Yes! Yes! ¡Claro que sí! Gracias, Alejandro. Muchas gracias, mi close personal amigo. Now let us all pray: Blessed be, O Golden One, guardian of the great mystery of cinematic success. Accept our burnt offering of noodle kugel, but spare us, we implore you, the buzz-killing coverage of the after-parties.”
Writer/producer John A. Klein received a Writers Guild nomination for Taking Off.