S A LONGTIME observer of fame and celebrity, and one who hasn't missed a TV Oscar show since 1953, I'm gleefully looking forward to Monday night. Not to dope out the winners (who but the nominees really cares?), but to savor that secret pleasure known to every seasoned Oscar watcher: embarrassment.
Everyone can think of their favorite embarrassing moments from the Academy Awards, and I certainly don't mean the great work passed over or not even nominated. That's much too rarefied a complaint; it belongs to the ages and the history books. What I'm talking about are those cringing, crawling embarrassments--which I usually share in the company of chortling friends--that make the whole show worth watching.
Being pleasurably embarrassed when larger-than-life people stumble or even fall on their faces comes from the same tangle of feelings about the celebrated and famous that spawns gossip. The ancient mythographers knew what they were doing when they made Hercules stupid and Zeus a ferocious chaser of every woman in sight, Hera a nag and Aphrodite vindictive. Star worship has an inescapable element of jealousy, especially now, when the star, no matter how glamorous, is supposed to be as human as you and I. Adulation has its complement in revenge. And the most common form of revenge against celebrities in our society is gossip about their private lives.
What a joy then to see Sally Field, twice winner of an Oscar for best actress, blurt out something ("You like me, you like me!") that would cause the rest of us to be thrown out of Therapy 1 for naivete. What a delight to discover that the newest teen-age idol can't even pronounce a straightforward Anglo-Saxon name, let alone something more exotic, without getting his tongue hopelessly tangled in his gleaming teeth. How deliciously it makes me want to crawl under the couch to see how some subversive has paired up the award presenters: tall black man with short blond woman, two people involved in similar sexual scandals in the past year, common inability to speak English, hostile political positions, both ex-lovers of the emcee--or some other quickly obvious subtext. I love the legend of Greer Garson's hourlong 1943 acceptance speech, but I wouldn't want to have heard it. I did see the 1956 Award for Best Motion Picture Story (for "The Brave One") go to "Robert Rich," who later turned out to be the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo.
The pleasures have been many, and here are only a few of the favorites I've collected from friends and acquaintances who, like me, have spent a lot of time on Oscar night hiding behind pillows or running blushing from the room: Jerry Lewis in 1959 frantically trying to fill 20 minutes of air time (the only occasion that the Oscars actually went under schedule); Bette Davis'
nd-I'm-going-to-fin-ish-what-I-have-to-say-even-if-my-mike-gets-turned-off routine of last year; Paddy Chayevsky, after Vanessa Redgrave's "Zionist hoodlums" comments, venting his rage and then forgetting to mention the nominees for best writer in 1978; Frank Sinatra reading a disclaimer in an effort to recover from Bert Schneider's anti-Vietnam War remarks in 1975; Shirley Temple's 1984 tribute to tap-dancer Bill Robinson ("He taught me black was really beautiful"); Goldie Hawn giggling like a helpless fan over George C. Scott; Robert Duvall's uncontainable laughter at the juxtaposition of Shelley Winters and the movie "Fat City"; Shirley MacLaine's "I deserve this" for "Terms of Endearment"; Jane Fonda's secret hand gesture to Cory Aquino; Marlon Brando's 1973 emissary, Sacheen Littlefeather, collecting his award in full American Indian costume; Woody Allen's usual non-appearances, and Edy Williams, Jack Valenti or Zsa Zsa Gabor doing almost anything. In fact, probably the only unembarrassing thing that ever happened on the Oscars was the streaker of 1974, unless, like many, you thought it was all a put-up job and every presenter had a gag line ready just in case it happened while they were on stage.
EMBARRASSMENT has always been a crucial part of Oscar's reign, although the more soberly inclined might call it irony. When Louis B. Mayer, Cecil B. DeMille, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and several of their friends got together to found the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the bottom line was to make Hollywood respectable: "to further the welfare and protect the honor and good repute of the profession," as the charter said.