By Heather Havrilesky hhavrilesky@gmail.com

Hungry, hungry egos

Oscar night unveils the predatory habits of egocentric monsters gone mad

In the old days, pulling out your gigantic ego in broad daylight was considered distasteful, if not flat-out perverse. An excess of pride, an inability to hide your blind ambition, an urge to gush about all the “wonderful attention” you’ve been receiving – these things weren’t just frowned upon back in the day, they were greeted with outright suspicion. People who stroked their huge egos in public were treated like Aqualung — openly courting the admiration and respect of the general public was seen as the rough equivalent of sending a mash note to a third grader.

Oh, how times have changed! On Oscar night this year, rather than celebrating the imagination and innovation we saw on the big screen in 2010, audiences were assaulted by a non-stop barrage of ravenous, clumsy egos, from the two bumbling hosts, whose inflated notions of themselves were at odds with each other (and with entertaining the folks at home) to a few key presenters and recipients.

Most memorably, we witnessed the rather impressive acting range of Melissa Leo, who dragged her Extreme State of Shock face onto the stage and made us all join in her in her bubble of near agonizing delight at winning. The suspension of disbelief the moment demanded was shocking – we were meant to forget that Leo took out a full-page ad urging the Academy to “Consider” her, to forget that she won the Golden Globe (yes, we’re quite familiar with her Extreme State of Shock routine by now), to forget the many times over the past few months that she rambled happily about the dizzying, topsy turvy madness of Oscar season on various talk shows and, best of all, to forget that she claimed, minutes earlier on the red carpet, that she dearly wanted fellow nominee and costar Amy Adams to win. After all of that, Leo expected us to join her in her ecstatic Never Neverland of victory. Yes, it’s true, there were “a lot of nice people who said some pretty nice things to me for several months now” (i.e. Leo had some tiny inkling that she was the favorite, but aw, she just thought people were being charitable!) Gosh, who knew that she’d actually win? (Except for, say, every human being on the planet, particularly the bookies.) (“Bookies, what are those? Golly sakes, there’s people who place bets on this stuff, too?”) Amnesia in the service of the almighty ego: this is what our current cultural moment demands.

Remember when it was sort of fun and exciting to watch actors win awards on television? Those days are long gone. Why? Because actors, the great pretenders of the universe, have never been worse at pretending to be humble. They just aren’t very good at acting like regular mortals. They stink at it, in fact.

Guess what kinds of people know how to act like regular mortals in front of a live audience? Comedians. That’s why comedians are the best hosts for the Oscars. Along with offering some comic relief and a genuine tone of self-effacement, comedians inject the proceedings with a much-needed dose of skepticism. Billy Crystal, Steve Martin, Ellen DeGeneres, Ricky Gervais — any of these hosts could’ve saved us from our misery by gently popping some of the many oversized ego bubbles that threatened to swallow the 83rd Academy Awards whole.

Instead of respite, we were treated to the cringe-inducing faux-swagger of two young actors. Here was Anne Hathaway, aw-shucksing and clapping and golly-geeing her way through the festivities with so much self-conscious dorkery, she made the night feel as sophisticated and fancy as a small-town tween beauty pageant. James Franco, on the other hand, chose to present himself as some terrible flavor of Too Cool For School zombie, refusing to a) chuckle b) speak c) emote or d) glance in Hathaway’s general direction (OK, considering the delirious sorority mixer grin plastered across her face, we can’t quite blame him on that front). And instead of taking out some of the bloviating ego monsters around him, he made fun of… the Sci-Tech recipients? (“Congratulations, nerds.”) If only Alec Baldwin had schooled those two on the basics instead of sucking down a juice-box of Ambien in the only highlight of their middling skit. Rather than focusing on entertaining the audience, Franco and Hathaway appeared consumed by their own misguided notions of how they Should or Should Not come across. Unfortunately, Hathaway’s persona (Down-To-Earth Country Cousin High On Life) and Franco’s persona (Too Sexy [And Wry!] For My Shirt Movie Star High On Unidentified Sedative) were destined to get each other in a choke-hold until both fell to the floor in a crumpled, gasping heap.

Likewise, a few actors made valiant attempts to appear mortal before stumbling and falling on their faces. During the red carpet pre-show, Halle Berry, known for her own over-the-top ego antics in 2002, appeared absolutely stricken over Lena Horne’s death – which was touching until you recalled that Horne died back in May of 2010. (I suppose if Leo can conjure two months of utter, mind-shattering shock at all the attention, Berry can comfortably feign nine months of unrelenting grief.) Colin Firth’s comment – “I have a feeling my career’s just peaked” – sounded pretty humble at first, until you consider that winning an Oscar is a pretty remarkable peak for any acting career. (Oops.) Christian Bale was doing fairly well – considering he’s Christian Bale – until he got so caught up in his own moment that he appeared to forget his wife’s name.

Then there was Kirk Douglas, perhaps the most charming gigantic ego in the mix, if only because he embraced his chosen role — I Am A Legend And Have Recovered From A Stroke And Therefore Deserve to Lose The Thread, Even As Millions Wait Forever For Me To Find It Again – with so much unselfconscious gusto that he actually gave the audience at home a tiny bit of fresh air to breathe before Melissa Leo marched onto the stage to bludgeon us to death with her oh-so sincere thanks to the Academy for “selling motion pictures!” (Get it? She’s an artist and a realist!) but more importantly for “respecting The Work.”

Oh, Christ. The Work! Do you know, actors, what happens when you thank the award-givers for rewarding “The Work”? You offer us a rare peak into the realm of extreme solipsism. Imagine believing that when you win an award, it’s because the voters overcame their prejudices, their pettiness, their confusion, their small-mindedness, and saw straight through to The Work! But when others win? Well, then, the voters clearly got distracted by age and race and flashy marketing campaigns and other stuff that should never, ever come into play – but it does, gosh darn it! That stuff stands in the way of The Work so often!

Let’s be realistic. Was it The Work that won Leo an Oscar? Or was it a gigantic blonde hairdo and a great Boston accent and a flashy, gritty, working class role, the likes of which are the modern-day equivalent of pulling back from the brink of “full retard” (to quote Kirk Lazarus in “Tropic Thunder”)? It must be invigorating, to be able to place yourself at the center of the universe so effortlessly.

It was telling that Aaron Sorkin, he of legendarily bloated ego, and Trent Reznor, he of wanting to fuck you like an animal, came across as two of the most polite, least odious humans onstage on Sunday night. Sorkin almost convinced us that David Fincher is “the nicest guy in the world” – only a perfectionist like Sorkin could refer to a fellow perfectionist like Fincher in such glowing terms – while Reznor almost convinced us that he had arrived at the event straight from finishing school.

Meanwhile, Harvard grad and perennial snob Natalie Portman, who was impossibly good in “Black Swan” and impossibly bad in countless other films, pulled off her Oscar moment with the most impressively human-like mix of humility and gratitude. And on a night when young, hip stars Franco and Hathaway referred to youth and hipness more often than the average middle-aged mom lost at a Lady Gaga concert, the slyest humor of the night came from the broadcast’s two oldest participants – 94-year-old Douglas and 73-year-old Best Original Screenplay winner David Seidler (“My father always said to me I would be a late bloomer.”).

These were the only real surprises on this night of narcissistic nights. All of the favorites won, giving us dispiriting proof that it is possible to predict the Academy’s behavior, even as it becomes increasingly difficult to predict the behavior of its honorees.

At least the moral to this story is painfully clear: Never loose an unholy hoard of actors on the world without the aid of a worthy exorcist. Next season, we won’t stand for anyone but Ricky Gervais, the one man merciless enough to rip holes in every self-congratulatory statuette-gripping human in sight. The taint of blind ambition and relentless self-promotion may have fouled up our workplaces, our internets, our social networks and our culture as a whole, but at least one man can keep the Oscars safe from this scourge of self-love. Help us, Ricky Gervais. Lead us out of the dark shadow cast by our own enormous egos!

22 Responses to “Hungry, hungry egos”

  1. Robert Hamer says:

    It should be noted (since pundits like yourself are hilariously rewriting history on this matter) that Melissa Leo’s win was *not* guaranteed. She was slightly favored, yes, but those “Consider…” ads and the stiff competition from Steinfeld and Carter made Best Supporting Actress one of the biggest nail-biters of the ceremony.

    And no, not “all of the favorites won.” Looking at “the bookies” (i.e. Gurus o’ Gold), David Fincher was pegged for Best Director, The King’s Speech for Original Score, Inception for Art Direction, and True Grit pegged for Cinematography.

    But of course, according to writers who are just as narcissistic as the celebrities they chide, the actual winners were SO OBVIOUSLY preordained! My god, there weren’t any surprises now that the ceremony is over! Hindsight is a hell of a thing sometimes…

  2. Ryan says:

    Is this whole thing supposed to be meta or something? Since when has Hollywood not been a farce, and since when have the Oscars not been a circle-jerk? “You like me! You really really like me!” Everyone thought that it was great at the time, and now it’s a joke.

    When have the Oscars never been a narcissistic night in the past 20 years? Or ever? It’s a bunch of rich people paying tribute to themselves! If a bunch of insurance salesmen got up to have a banquet that costs millions of dollars so that they could hand out “Salesmen of the Year”, wouldn’t you find that to be tacky? But because they are famous (because of media people like you writing about them), they get away with it.

    You have hours of shows dedicated to the dresses that the people are wearing, and everyone mentioning who made the dress. People watch it, they discuss it for days, and magazines write about it. And you’re suddenly shocked by this?

    Their egos are fed and built up because they’re made to feel special by the media attention. It gets old reading columns about actors and actresses having big egos, when they get those egos because they appear in media publications, and the very people who are complaining about them are the ones who feed into that ego. Any attention, is good attention, right? It’s a cycle, but the hypocrisy is evident.

  3. David Poland says:

    I think you have an argument worth making, RH, but as much as we all had to offer opinions about who would win, there was not a single award that was a shock, including to the Gurus. Wally Pfister won… but every Guru I talked to directly about that thought it was possible. Leo vs Steinfeld vs Bonham Carter was stirred mostly by the ads, but no one was shocked when Melissa won.

    The closest thing to a real surprise – and again, many had this thought before the show – was that King’s Speech didn’t drag along any of the craft awards that Best Pictures often do. So no score, editing, cinematography, art direction, costumes, etc. And neither of the Sppt candidates scored an upset.

    But yeah… pretty much a predictable evening. Except for The Lost Thing. That really did surprise me.

  4. Sean Brody says:

    Wonderful bit of writing there.
    Nailed it.

  5. longshanks says:

    If you don’t like unfettered displays of ego and self-congratulation, don’t tune in to the Oscars. It probably speaks well of the author, as a human, that the spectacle of the evening provoked an irrepressible outrage that couldn’t help but permeate all aspects of her discussion. But this piece was doomed to redundancy from its very premise.

  6. yancyskancy says:

    Hey, no one likes to think they’ve peaked at 50, so I think we can allow Firth his little joke (especially considering the “Oscar curse” that some believe in).

    And can we please let this myth die that Christian Bale forgot his wife’s name? Granted, you qualified it with “appeared to,” but that’s the thing — if he didn’t REALLY forget it, then he doesn’t belong among your examples of ego run amok. It’s pretty clear to anyone who was paying attention that he got choked up the second he referred to her, and that’s why he stammered a bit. I suppose you could argue that he should’ve said her name anyway, since it might be nice for her to hear. But he didn’t forget the name of his wife of 10 years and the mother of his child — I’m not sure such a thing is even possible except in lame comedies about overly nervous types.

  7. TEK says:

    I don’t much care what her opinions are, reading Heather is always fun. Would that I could command such delightfully incisive language as well.

  8. Jeremy says:

    This was my favorite Oscar coverage of the year. Well done.

  9. Adam says:

    Amazing how nobody noticed Melissa Leo, a previous nominee, didn’t know how this whole Oscar thing worked. Thank you for calling this doily-wearing twit on her shit.

  10. Carol says:

    Thank you so much for writing this.

    I couldn’t agree more.

    “Help us, Ricky Gervais. Lead us out of the dark shadow cast by our own enormous egos!”

    AMEN!

  11. waterbucket says:

    This is all so true. I didn’t listen to one speech because they all reeked of phoniness. Why can’t someone just go up there and keep it simple with “Thanks to the Academy, the director, cast and crew of my movie and the audience at home for watching it. Have a good night”. 10 seconds and covered everybody including the fans too. How come nobody ever thanked the fans who lined their pockets?

  12. Sam says:

    LOUIS CK would be a great choice. The Globes have Ricky Gervais. So the Oscar’s should get America’s best stand-up comic.

  13. yancyskancy says:

    Louis CK is indeed the best stand-up in America, but the very thing that makes him great ensures that the Academy will never hire him.

    waterbucket: How you can tell a speech reeks of phoniness without listening to it? Neat trick. At any rate, I thought Randy Newman, Firth, Bale and a few others managed just fine.

  14. Adam says:

    This video of Melissa Leo on All My Children in 1985 shows that she is the same one-trick pony she always was.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nRkGPwCEs_I&feature=player_embedded

  15. Robert Hamer says:

    And THIS video of Melissa Leo from Frozen River shows that you have no idea what you’re talking about, Adam:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uctbETkvaAE

    Gee, overacting on a soap opera? What a crime! Better take away her Oscar!

  16. Andrew says:

    Good piece of writing. I don’t agree with some of the examples you mention, but Melissa Leo was the true personification of what you’re talking about. “Oh my GOOD there’s people up here too!!” Her eyes looked so fake at that moment, haha.

  17. Mark says:

    I really don’t get your point.
    There was no chemistry between Anne & James? ok, despicable, but it does happen (frankly, I didn’t find THAT much chemistry between Baldwin and Martin last year, too).
    Actors pretend to be humble when actually they’re on that stage feeding their own ego? oh, wow, big surprise, took 83 years of Academy Awards to come to this epiphany?
    All the winners were predictable and so they themselves should have known that? Again, big revelation; still, there’s something to be said about this: when a group of journalists manage to split over a prediction, coming, ay, to the conclusion that either Leo or Steinfeld might win.. hey, the nominees are FIVE, you are picking TWO, that’s 40% chance of getting it right.. Seems a little bit too easy to say, retrospectively (!), that the results were predictable.
    And, mr. Poland, no, no one was predicting Wally Pfister’s win as a possibility, since the consensus was that Deakins was overdue, and that honoring him in the second most nominated film of the year was just the perfect occasion; actually, the alternate winner most commonly picked was Danny Cohen, “in case of a King’s Speech sweep”.

  18. panopticon says:

    I’m sorry, but criticizing the Oscars for enabling false modesty is like criticizing water for being wet.

  19. RoyBatty says:

    Let’s see, if I too were to make broad generalizations based on very little, I might be tempted to look over this whiny and petty collection of paragraphs and come to the conclusion that Heather Havrilesky is yet another bitter person who filters their worldview through their lifelong exclusion from the “popular table” in the cafeteria.

    It was clear that Leo was having a very real, overwhelmed reaction and injected some much needed spontaneity into the evening.

    But thanks for doing us the favor of showing you lack the perception to recognize such moments and saving us the time wasted reading future flawed cultural commentary.

  20. Patryk says:

    You are clearly out of touch. Kirk Douglas was excruciating.

  21. kasper says:

    and a few seasons of homicide: life on the streets to even further show how wrong you are, adam.

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DEADLINE: How does a visualist feel about people watching your films on a phone or VOD?
REFN: It depends on what kind of movie you make. We had great success with Only God Forgives on multiple platforms in the U.S. Young people will decide how they see it, when they want to see it. Don’t try to fight it. Embrace it. That’s a wonderful opportunity. We’re at the most exciting time since the invention of the wheel, in terms of creativity because distribution and accessibility have changed everything. A camera is still a camera whether it’s digital or not; there’s still sound; an actor is an actor. Ninety-nine percent of what you do is going to be seen on a smart phone – I know this is the greatest thing ever made because it allows people to choose, watching what you do on this format or go into a theater and see it on a screen. That means more people than ever will see what I do, which is personally satisfying in terms of vanity. But you have to be able to adapt, to accept things in different order and length than we’re used to. We are in a very, very exciting time.
~ Nic Refn to Jen Yamato

DEADLINE: You mention Tarantino, who with Christopher Nolan and a few other giants, saved film stock from extinction. To him, showing a digital film in a theater is the equivalent of watching TV in public. Make an argument for why digital is a good film making canvas.
REFN: Costwise, it’s a very effective way for young people to start making movies. You can make your movie on an iPhone. It’s wonderful seeing how my own children use technology to enhance creativity. For me it’s a wonderful canvas. Sure, I love grain in film. I love celluloid. But I also like creativity. I like crayons, I like pencils, I like paint. It’s all relative. Technology is more inclusive. A hundred years ago when film was invented, it was an elitist club. Very few people got to make it, very few people controlled it and very few people owned it. A hundred years later, storytelling through images is everyone’s domain. It’s ultimate capitalism. There are no rules, and no barriers and no Hays Code. Where does this go in another hundred years? I don’t know but I would love to see it.
~ Nic Refn To Jen Yamato