The Statues Dreams Are Made Of

Oscar night is a snooze. So why do millions of us love it?

The Wall Street Journal, "Commerce & Culture" , February 26, 2011

The Academy Awards show is ridiculous. Guests arrive in broad daylight wearing the most formal of evening gowns. Presenters, including some of the world's most accomplished performers, read their lines with the studied cadence of high-school commencement speakers.

In contrast to the Super Bowl, a beauty pageant or "American Idol," nothing happens on stage that affects the outcome of the competition. The production numbers are just padding. And, of course, the speeches are boring, the show is too long, and comedies never have a chance.

Yet the Oscar ceremony somehow manages to be compelling. In a good year like 2010, its U.S. audience tops 40 million, according to Nielsen Co. In a bad year like 2008, it tops 30 million. By contrast, the recent Grammy ceremony, which offers far better musical numbers, won its week with only 26.7 million viewers.

The Oscar show's appeal can't just be the fun of water-cooler criticism. You can get all the information you need for that from Twitter or the next day's newspaper. You don't need to sit through the awards ceremony.

In fact, as the marketing efforts of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences suggest, the glamour of the Oscars lies not in the movies the show ostensibly celebrates, but in the "Oscar moment." Watching the Oscars gives viewers the chance to imagine being singled out before the whole world as special, beloved and really good at their jobs.

To promote the show, the Academy is giving fans in New York City two different chances to pose holding Oscars, either virtual statues or, at Grand Central Terminal, real ones. There, "the big payoff is that you get to go on stage and have your Oscar moment," says Janet Weiss, the Academy's director of marketing. Some people, she says, even show up in gowns and tuxes.

When science-fiction writer John Scalzi borrowed the screenplay Oscar his friend Pam Wallace won for her work on "Witness," he found that everybody who saw the award had the same reaction. They didn't talk about what a great movie "Witness" was or how it should have won best picture. They imagined winning an Oscar themselves.

"Every single person I handed the Oscar to did the same thing: Placed the Oscar at a tilt—one hand mid-statue, the other cradling the bottom of the base—looked to the middle distance (where the television cameras would be) and said, 'I'd like to thank the academy for this award…,' " Mr. Scalzi has written. "It's positively Pavlovian."

It's a show-business myth that everybody has practiced an Oscar speech in the bathroom mirror. But that myth, like most, contains a truth. The Oscar moment embodies widespread longings, and actors in particular make good stand-ins for the audience. Much of their craft is hidden, and so are their interior lives. We reflexively imagine being in their place.

Hollywood stars still represent what Margaret Thorp, in her 1939 study "America at the Movies," called the audience's "escape personalities." They invite projection.

On Oscar night, that projection means enjoying the fantasy of individual triumph. (The Oscars famously don't recognize ensemble casts.) This is the essential glamour of the Oscar ceremony, and it explains why people complain so much about the speeches.

The audience wants to revel in the fantasy of being recognized as special, but social convention dictates that winners act humble and thank everyone else involved. It's fine to thank your mother, your husband, your high-school drama teacher—to recognize the kinds of relationships everybody has—but thanking your agent, publicist and half the cast and crew breaks the spell. Outside Los Angeles, audiences don't sit through movie credits.

So the cure for boring Oscar speeches isn't to shorten them—Julia Roberts's overtime gushing makes great TV—but to alter their content. Tell winners to celebrate their moment and save the industry thank-yous for ads in Variety.