Once again, it was time to pass out 50 gold-plated bookends to people who don't read, and once again, a billion hungry souls devoured every minute of it with a mix of envy, contempt, and — because above all else, the Oscars has no place for us — profound exclusion. That the show continues to mesmerize us in such numbers in the age of YouTube and MySpace is one of life's great ironies.
Not so long ago, only grandstanding members of the Washington press corps got to ask political candidates questions during presidential debates. Now, anyone with a webcam and a talking snowman at their disposal has a pretty good shot at that honor. Snack-chip multinationals ask you to name their products. Pop stars want you to direct their music videos. The Academy Awards will let you fill Jack Nicholson's seat for a minute or two while he takes a dump but only if you promise not to speak to any of the real guests.
The Academy Awards does not care if you think it's a crime that Lindsay Lohan's riveting, multi-layered performance as a stripper and her (imaginary?) twin in I Know Who Killed Me was not recognized with a nomination for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. It will never ask you to vote for your Favorite On-Screen Hook-up. Not one of 2007's top-grossing movies was up for a Best Picture award.
Thanks to the investigative zeal of People, Entertainment Weekly, Entertainment Tonight, E!, The New York Times, and countless other breathless chroniclers of thespian self-loving, we know a great deal about how the Oscars operate. We know, for example, that the Oscar statuette is roughly the same weight as Atonement star Keira Knightley: 8.5 pounds. We know that the Oscars are made of tin, dipped in gold, and hand-sanded for hours, just like red-carpet staple, Joan Rivers. We know that 30 years ago, during the 1978 Oscars telecast, Debbie Boone was accompanied on "You Light Up My Life" by a heart-tugging chorus of deaf children who weren't actually deaf.
We know the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences consists of roughly 6,000 members, the majority of whom are neither artists nor scientists. We know that membership is by invitation-only. Each December, these 6,000 insiders receive nomination ballots in the mail, and about half of them complete them and send them to the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. Once the final nominees are determined, a second vote takes place in February. The proceedings are so top secret sometimes academy members don't even know who they're voting for. (Henry Fonda used to have his wife do his decision-making for him.)
Equally enshrouded in mystery is the event's enduring grip on us. In 1978, there were good reasons to watch the Oscars. Back then, movies were not only the most glamorous branch of pop culture; they were the most important. The Oscars offered a rare opportunity to see stars in a real-world setting. Plus, there wasn't anything else on to watch, except maybe Kojak and Love Boat reruns.
Nowadays, movies are basically the mainframes of pop culture — clunky, expensive, obsolete. The YouTube clip of the linguistically innovative beauty queen from South Carolina giving her verb-free answer in the English-as-a-second-language portion of the Miss Teen USA pageant has been viewed substantially more often than any of this year's nominees for Best Picture. The video game Guitar Hero grossed $820 million in the U.S., more than twice as much as 2007's box-office champ, Spider-man 3. When MySpace exhibitionists post photos of themselves online, they ape poses and facial expressions popularized by porn stars, not movie stars.
And yet when the porn stars hold their annual awards ceremony, the whole world doesn't come to a halt and watch, even though the gowns on display are far more entertaining. And that's because porn stars are a pretty modest bunch. At least compared to movie stars, that is. They rarely express their opinions on human rights abuses in Tibet in public. They almost never go to Iraq on fact-finding missions. If they are advising the United Nations Security Council on Darfur, neither they nor the UN Security Council is publicizing it.
Movie stars do all of those things and then some. They make jokes about their narcissism, but they keep showing up at the endless pageants that honor their wonderfulness. They believe they are the world's brightest, hottest, most compassionate beings, and that's why we can't quite quit them, even if we don't watch many movies anymore. They are the vainest creatures in an era where vanity's the greatest virtue. How can we possibly not stare at their magnificent chest-puffing with anything less than awe and loathing?
Greg Beato writes regularly about pop culture for Las Vegas Weekly and Reason magazine, where he is a contributing editor. His work has appeared in more than 70 publications worldwide.