Why I Hate the Oscars (But Can't Stop Watching)

Am I alone in finding the annual self-indulgent, self-congratulatory spectacle that is the Academy Awards simultaneously repellent and unmissable? When I settle into my wingback chair with a snifter of brandy at around the crack of dawn on Oscar Sunday for the red carpet pre-pre-pre-pre-show, watching F-list Hollywood Pretty People foam at the mouth as they express inhuman delight about dress styles I couldn't tell apart with a pattern book, am I the only one measuring the length of my nose as I look down it upon the idiots who might find this kind of programming edifying?

Can we agree that it takes true, steely-eyed grit to endure Cuba Gooding Jr. leaping about like a hyperactive child after six bowls of Cocoa Puffs or Antonio Banderas practically spraying the audience with emotion while crooning a song from "The Motorcycle Diaries"?

And when, 18 hours later, after the final credit has rolled across the screen, I find myself exhausted, relieved and hoarse from screaming expletives at unfunny teleprompted Hollywood in-jokes delivered by a pallid, puffy Jon Stewart, do you share any of my sense of sadness, my yearning for it not to be over yet? Surely I can't be the only one? But why do we do it? Why do we subject ourselves to an experience we detest, when we could be having edifying conversations with our spouses, playing with our children or, for the love of God, watching something we actually like on television?

Ultimately, we're tuning in not to get a glimpse of actors and artists we truly admire, but to gawk at and mock what George C. Scott once memorably referred to as "a goddamn meat parade." Maybe back in the Golden Age of Hollywood, movie fans gazed adoringly at their favorite matinee idols, wishing they themselves could be one of cinema's gods. But these days, thanks to the tabloids, TMZ and YouTube, we know intimately the various foibles and failings of Brangelina, TomKat and Robert Downey Jr. We don't idolize them; we know they're just like us, only wealthy enough to be better-looking. And as no less an authoritative source than, uh, Newsweek recently noted, we prefer to envy and laugh at the rich, not to loathe them.

Meaning that when we gather in front of our laptops and our flat-screens to trade caustic quips with our friends about Mickey Rourke's face-deforming plastic surgery or Gwyneth's tear-drenched acceptance speech, we're not trying to participate in a glorious celebration of a medium. We're doing it to make ourselves feel better somehow, better about not being famous, about not being there on the small screen, watched by the world and receiving standing ovations from our peers for our contributions to a widely appreciated work of art we were paid millions of dollars to appear in.

And we (or at least I) keep watching because we need that release. The same ubiquitous tabloid print, TV and Web outlets that have made me see celebrities as more human and flawed have also made me constantly aware of all the people richer, better-looking and more widely loved than I am, which makes laughing at those people even more psychologically essential.

But the mockery doesn't make us feel better, is the thing. Writing about the Oscars a decade ago, David Foster Wallace put it like this: "The truth is that there's no more real joy about it all anymore. Worse, there seems to be this enormous unspoken conspiracy where we all pretend that there's still joy."

In an attempt to recover that joy in the awards ceremony, this year, the Academy is harking back to 1969, according to a recent New York Times piece, a year the show's producers see as a high-water mark for its "clean midcentury aesthetic." Producer Bill Condon tried to put his finger on what's been wrong with the awards lately: "At some point we've stopped making this a communal experience. It's been more about pleasing the television."

But wait. Shouldn't the Oscars be about the 40-something million people watching rather than the 3,000-some in attendance? And never mind that Scott made his "meat parade" comment when he was nominated for "Patton" in 1971, a scant two years after this supposed great year—the real issue is that viewers don't want a return to the classy days of yore. The more stilted and awkward and ridiculous the awards ceremony is, the happier we are.

David Rockwell, the production designer for this year's extravaganza, calls the Oscars "community theater on amazing steroids." Here's hoping he puts the weight on the "community theater" part: if the 2009 Academy Awards resemble "Waiting for Guffman," full of stumbles, uncomfortable pauses, amateurish musical numbers and bad line reads, Oscar watchers will be elated.