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COLUMN ONE : What the Oscar Hath Wrought : Once there was just one awards show in Hollywood. Now, money, marketing and ego have fueled a plethora of prizes. Some fear overkill.

March 27, 1995|JAMES BATES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Where awards may help is with overlooked films, as well as those about to debut in foreign theaters. The box-office total for "The Shawshank Redemption" was stuck at $17 million when the movie picked up a best-picture nomination in February. The film has since added $7 million. Ironically, "Hoop Dreams" was helped by being snubbed in the Oscar documentary category because so many critics cried foul.

Still, outside of the Oscars, it's hard to find many awards that have a clear-cut economic impact. True, trade publications bulge with congratulatory ads. Stars' careers receive a boost and, in some cases, contracts call for bonuses to be given when something like an Oscar is won.

But, by and large, "what awards are is free publicity for a little bit," said 20th Century Fox Executive Vice President Tom Sherak. "But does it help a movie? I don't think they are a major factor."

Despite the glut of shows, award-snubbing stars such as Marlon Brando and George C. Scott are more the exception than the rule. Most stars show up, partly because there still is an aura of glamour surrounding awards. More important, few image-conscious stars want a reputation as a no-show.

"It's a major snub if you don't go," said leading Hollywood publicist Pat Kingsley, whose PMK agency has clients including Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise and Candice Bergen.

In the case of the People's Choice Awards popularity contest, stars show up after being told in advance that they will win.

With so many prizes, showing up can be physically taxing. Hanks, who has picked up seven awards for his "Forrest Gump" performance and is a favorite tonight for best actor, crisscrossed the country over three days last month to collect a Screen Actors Guild award on Feb. 25, an American Comedy Award on Feb. 26 and a National Board of Review award on Feb. 27 in New York.

The movie itself has averaged about two awards a week.

"By the time the Oscars come around, most of them are worn out," Kingsley said.

"We've gotten to the point where we are getting prizes for showing up. Half of the awards I have in my garage are ones I've gotten just for showing up," said Charlton Heston, whose honors range from a best actor Oscar for "Ben-Hur" to a lifetime achievement award from the Friars Club.

Heston was especially critical of the Screen Actors Guild for introducing its own TV awards show last month. The event was designed mostly as a fund-raiser.

"It's a bad idea. It's a waste. What is it for? The Screen Actors Guild is a union," said Heston, a former SAG president.

SAG President Barry Gordon countered that the awards, which raised an undisclosed amount of money for the union and its charities, was a morale booster for its members. "It was heartening to hear from so many of our members all over the country who were able to really feel part of an awards show for the first time," he said.

Some of the awards, especially those that don't take place under the glare of television lights, are designed as heartfelt tributes or even as camp. Last week, Movieguide presented its annual "Teddy Bear" family entertainment awards named after its Georgia-based publisher, Ted Baehr.

After dining on chicken ricotta, winners received a teddy bear and a plaque. To honor the winning "Forrest Gump," actor Mykelti Williamson, who played "Bubba" in the film, accepted a 400-pound box of chocolates that doubled as dessert for the luncheon.

Each year, Sherman Oaks advertising copywriter John Wilson and his friends in the "The Golden Raspberry Award Foundation" rent a theater and skewer Hollywood by recognizing the year's worst movies and performances.

Wilson begins his program with the opening credits, "Not the Academy Awards, not the Cable ACE Awards, not the American Comedy Awards, not the American Music Awards, not the Golden Globe awards. . . ."

So, why do viewers watch award shows?

Dick Clark's theory is that the typical viewer wants to see the stars goof up, misread the TelePrompTer or say something unexpected.

"First and foremost, you are looking for mistakes," Clark said. "It is a vestige of television gone by. It's live and unpredictable with surprises and a punch line. And, sometimes, a real long shot wins."

Robert J. Thompson, associate professor of television and film at Syracuse University, who cynically predicts that one day there will be a 24-hour-a-day cable channel devoted to award shows, believes that the proliferation stems from the lack of respect that many people have for our popular culture. Thus, award shows fill a need to honor even the trashiest of entertainment, such as soap operas.

"In a culture that publicly disdains its popular culture, somebody has to celebrate this thing and give it awards," Thompson said. "If nobody else will, they might as well do it themselves."

Publicist Michael Levine, who has represented stars including Barbra Streisand and Michael Jackson, says the shows also reflect the insecurities of entertainers.

"My experience in representing hundreds of celebrity clients has brought me to the conclusion that celebrities, even major ones, are kind of awards-obsessed. My bet is that many celebrities, especially hot younger ones, feel some guilt because they believe their fame is disproportionate to their achievements. Awards help validate them," he said.

CBS' Poltrack offers a simpler explanation: "The entertainment industry knows no end to its ability to award itself. We love awarding ourselves."

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