Yes, of course the Oscars still matter

The Academy Awards are not outdated. If anything, they're keeping up with the times

24 February 2019 - 00:04

These days, if you're a Hollywood star who has escaped the sordid dragging of a past misdemeanour through the public eye, you deserve a constellation of gold stars all to yourself. Which is perhaps why the producers of this year's Oscars, The 91st Academy Awards show, are having such a hard time finding a host.
The ceremony's producers, Donna Gigliotti and Glenn Weiss, are, sources say, attempting to offset the lack of a host (comedian Kevin Hart stepped down after his homophobic tweets and jokes resurfaced) by filling the stage with a high wattage of silver screen stars.
Yet, despite the slew of negative press, the production problems, Hollywood's now famous lechery, declining viewership and a consensus that there are more important things to focus on than the pernicious cult of celebrity, the Oscars still fascinate millions of people worldwide.
Humans love stories. We cooperate effectively with strangers because we believe in mutual fables: gods, nations, money and human rights, according to philosopher Yuval Harari. "Yet none of these things exist outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money and no human rights; except in the common imagination of human beings," he says.
Movies and the celebrity industry are the pinnacle of this particularly human characteristic. Says English actor and comedian Stephen Fry: "We humans are naturally disposed to worship gods and heroes, to build our pantheons and Valhallas. I would rather see that impulse directed into the adoration of daft singers, thicko footballers and air-headed screen actors than into the veneration of dogmatic zealots, fanatical preachers, militant politicians and rabid cultural commentators."
It's certainly safer that way, I think. The Academy Awards, at the most basic level, is a yearly tradition that gives us all a chance to gossip harmlessly and connect with those around us.
Borrowing the director's or the camera's eye we get to live other lives, have different experiences and try on different emotions for size. We're psychologically set up to empathise with the lead characters and root for their survival, their happiness, success or whatever the movie's narrative suggests is important.
By extension, because we co-operate as humans by being interested in each other's stories, our fascination with the characters played by actors and actresses extends to their real lives. It only makes sense, then, that we'd want to follow them to the Academy Awards, to see who they're dating, what they're wearing, how they're ageing and what they say.
"There's a huge part of us that never gets out of high school," says psychologist Robert Simmermon, who specialises in media psychology. "Hollywood is the biggest high school in the world. It's about the popular kids, who can go to which party, who's the favourite couple ... We can get sucked into it."
Despite the fact that Hollywood has had a bad run for the past few years - the #OscarsSoWhite campaign about lack of diversity in the Academy and then the "truck named Weinstein" that hit the Hollywood scene in 2017, the award's producers do seem to be keen to tackle issues head-on, serving as a reflection of changing societal norms and standards.
Since we make the story of our society up, and then reflect it in the content we create and consume on screen, it's a refreshing reminder that the story is always open to a rewrite.
Advocate April Reign started #OscarsSoWhite after two straight years of all-white acting nominees, which spurred the Academy to diversify its membership, forcing the industry to consider which people are given the best roles.
According to New York Times columnist Kyle Buchanan, "Other movements, like #MeToo and Time'sUp, reached a cultural tipping point in part because of narratives that arose during award season."
The awards become a microcosm, a tiny, though brightly lit stage driving and then reflecting changes in our social narrative. It's a platform on which actors, because of our focus on them, can be arbiters in the social sphere.
We pay attention to the show (even if it's just in the background) to cringe at the gaffes (a wardrobe malfunction is the next day's click bait), to root for our favourites (usually the actor who we perceive as being the most like us), to shake our heads at the upsets and, perhaps above all, says Simmermon "to look for a rare glimpse of humanity behind the glamour".
"These people are fantasy feeders," Stuart Fischoff, professor emeritus of psychology at California State University and senior editor of the Journal of Media Psychology, says.
I'll be front and centre of the couch again this year to watch, once again, the screaming fans on the bleachers outside the theatre; to see the lightning storm of paparazzi flashbulbs popping, throwing a strobe light on the actors who, as Raymond Chandler writes, "pose like kings and queens, never having the right to look bored".
I'll look forward to the left-wing speeches of Hollywood's grand dames and laugh at the lame jokes and faux flirtations between co-hosts. I'll roll my eyes at the fake sentimentality and the platitudes and the mincing elocution of the glamour queens and I'll perve the Hollywood heartthrobs and play style police for the red carpet segment.
I'll root for my favourites and be disappointed if they're snubbed, and then I'll wish I was at the after party, rubbing shoulders with the magicians of the movie business.

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