Credit: ABC
Credit: ABC
The cult of the red carpet

The Oscars just ain’t what they used to be. When 63-year-old Billy Crystal replaced Eddie Murphy as host of the film industry’s annual pat on the back this Sunday, digital moans spread across the Internet. The A.V. Club called the awards “a tedious mediocrity,” while two-time winner Dustin Hoffman told Maxim magazine the entire ordeal is, in a single word, “boring.” 

Despite the damndest efforts of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Oscars have been sliding into banality for some time. Instead of doing so with dignity, though, they limp along with a muffled sigh. A strained attempt to snag young audiences with host James Franco in 2011 was universally panned, and lead to a notable drop in viewership. Rather than stop caring in a similar manner, why do critics, bloggers and gossip mags continue to care?

A short answer is the red carpet. No matter how flat the actual ceremony has become, 37.6 million people tuned in last year to watch stars strut their admittedly gorgeous stuff. As pop culture writer Jen Chaney points out in her regular blog for The Washington Post, celebrities are “why we watch the Oscars: to see Toms Hanks and Cruise in tuxedos and Angelina Jolie and Halle Berry in striking gowns.”

A longer, more unsettling answer is voyeurism and cultural obsession. In this way, the Oscars aren’t unlike film itself. We sit at a screen and are transported to a glamorous, surreal place where the beautiful and charming reign. The audience for the Oscars is familiar with the conventions of film – expansive sets, back lighting, fantasy as reality – but the spectacle of unscripted interaction holds lasting appeal. It’s how Sacha Baron Cohen created the only real buzz for this year’s show, with a supposed plan to dress as the Castro-esque figure from his new film “The Dictator.” TV viewers demand a show, and the Academy delivers with the same pizzazz as any star-studded box office vehicle. In turn, critics compile best and worst-dressed lists with the furor of film reviews, yet few question the act of indulging an obsession.

I don’t have a particularly deep well of Oscar knowledge (I was born the year “Rain Man” won Best Picture), but I vividly remember staying up late each year to catch the final round of nominees, feeling actual regret when my film-of-choice didn’t get the nod. With the Super Bowl a fading memory and baseball season still two months away, I had to root for something. It became a spectator sport for cinephiles.

I was never one to get drawn into the fashion-show aspect of the awards, but the vast majority of viewers do. In an article analyzing last year’s Franco debacle, New York Daily News TV critic Richard Huff labeled it “the Super Bowl for women,” noting advertising spots sold out weeks in advance for cosmetics, clothing and the like. This isn’t to say women are the only ones guilty of ogling celebs on TV – this year’s pack of Super Bowl ads was ripe with sexualized images of driver Danica Patrick and supermodel Adriana Lima, all targeted at a very particular male demographic.

The emphasis on image at the Oscars – a tribute to the medium that champions image over all else – speaks to a dizzying modern obsession with celebrities as a whole. A 1995 article from Psychology Today, entitled “The Culture of Celebrity,” looks at how image has turned celebrities into figures on par with classical heroes. 

“Celebrity in America has always given us an outlet for our imagination, just as the gods and demigods of ancient Greece and Rome once did,” author Jill Neimark writes. “Celebrities are our myth bearers; carriers of the divine forces of good, evil, lust, and redemption.”

Neimark claims this need for larger-than-life figures is nothing new and, in most instances, an important part of being human. She gives the example of three-time Oscar winner Ingrid Bergman, who became one of the first iconic female film stars after playing the lead in “Casablanca.” Unlike the reality TV stars of today, Bergman was “the perfect celebrity,” with the allure, energy and magnetism to match her carefully crafted image. To deconstruct the dangers of celebrity obsession, Neimark quotes the cultural historian Daniel Boorstin, who spent much of his career looking at the evolution of fame.

“The hero was distinguished by his achievement, the celebrity by his image,” Boorstin wrote. “The celebrity is a person well known for his well-knownness. We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so realistic that we can live in them."

At the end of the article, Neimark gives an outline of our culture’s current relationship with celebrities, claiming it’s made artificially intimate by exposing and critiquing every broken relationship or drug addiction. At more than 15 years old, her conclusion still rings true.

“A certain cynicism has set in among us all, and a rabid fascination not only with the false beauty of the glorified, sterilized celebrity, but also with the dark and seamy underside,” Neimark writes. “If our gods are no longer permanent, if our heroes are murderers, if our political leaders are exposed as compulsive adulterers or tax evaders, then we can no longer fill ourselves up on them in quite the same way.”   

Back to the Oscars: Red carpet affairs entice because they give the illusion of unadulterated reality, without the dark smear of human folly – for a night, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are the beautiful, ideal couple people imagine. The TV audience has a front-row seat to what’s essentially a prom for millionaires.

It barely matters what happens with the ratings for this year’s Oscars. People across the U.S. will watch en masse, and media types will fill page space with analysis and reanalysis. Hopefully Baron Cohen justifies that buzz with a faux mustache and fascist outbursts. How meta would that be? 


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