The Triumph of Oscarness

If you managed to watch more than 45 minutes of tonight’s Oscar broadcast, you’re either far more patient than I or stuck in a studio apartment with a television that won’t turn off and only gets ABC. The appeal of the ceremony is along the same lines as the appeal of American Idol, and while I suppose I can understand it in some abstract way, it’s not something to which I can relate. I love the idea of ranking and judging films, but, as Matt captured so brilliantly, the half-calculated, half-panicked seesawing between self-important Art and anxious populism means that the Oscars aren’t really an indicator of quality anymore, but rather an indicator of Oscarness. Oscarness does, admittedly, overlap with quality (see last year’s awards), but it is not the same thing. Undoubtedly, the biggest triumph for Oscarness this year was Sean Penn’s Best Actor win for his portrayal of Harvey Milk. It’s part political statement, part Hollywood politics, and part bias toward the self-important and showy. I thought Milk was a fine film, especially the first hour, and Penn was striking in the lead role, but he never never feels when he can Emote, never talks when he can Speechify, never acts when he can Act.

That, along with his politics — ostentatiously lefty, but safer (and better looking) than Michael Moore — makes him perfect for Oscar night, especially when the other option is picking a has-been freakshow in a brilliant but little-seen, and frankly sort of odd, comeback role. It’s not just that Mickey Rourke deserved an Oscar tonight, though he did. It’s that the Oscars have already forsaken any opportunity to be about pure artistic merit, and because the gilded self-congratulation of Oscarness, along with the Oscar-gaming it encourages, is producing diminishing returns both at the Nielsens and at the box-office, they badly need another angle.

So rather than recycle the same bloated sentiment into a slightly reformated package, which, with its desperate deployment of amplified star-power (Look! There are five famous actors all together!) has the gimmicky feel of comic-book crossover, the Academy might consider doing something to actually shake things up rather than just stir the same old cocktail of self-consciousness and self-celebration into a different shade of glass — something, say, like going with the genuine weirdo rather than the political activist, like choosing the crackle of uncertainty over a pretty face, like picking the has-been freakshow comeback rather than the Actor — or, more succinctly, like making the whole thing a little less Sean Penn and a bit more Mickey Rourke.