By Heather Havrilesky firstname.lastname@example.org
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!